In fact, through the 1950s, it wasn’t uncommon for dirt track cars to make the field for the 500. They were iron cars driven by iron men like Bill Vukovich, Jimmy Bryan, and AJ Foyt, to name a few.
That all began to change in 1961, when two-time (and defending) Formula One World Champion Jack Brabham, from Australia, showed up at the speedway with his little rear-engined British-built Cooper with a Coventry Climax engine.
The Indy faithful laughed at his funny-looking little car, especially when they saw how slow it was down the straightaways compared to the brutally fast Offenhauser-powered roadsters.
But it was a case of the tortoise and the hare, because while Brabham’s Cooper was slower in a straight line, its superior handling characteristics allowed it to go faster through the corners than any of the big roadsters, and he drove the car to a respectable 9th place finish, completing all 200 laps. The “British Invasion” was well underway.
In fact, none of the speedway faithful were laughing at all, four years later. A full 27 of the 33 cars that qualified for the race were rear-engined designs, and Scotland’s Jim Clark would go on to lead 190 of the 200 laps on his way to a dominating win in Colin Chapman’s Lotus 38 powered by a Ford engine.
In addition to being the first winner in a rear-engined car, Clark was the first foreign-born winner of the 500 since 1916, and would go on to also win the Formula One World Championship that same year — to this day, the only driver to accomplish that feat.
A front-engined car would never again win the Indy 500, and the last one to even qualify for the race would come in 1968. The rear-engine revolution was swift, dominating, and continues to this day. – AJW
Scotsman fastest for big payoff
Parnelli Jones 2nd, car trouble cuts AJ short
Indianapolis — Jimmy Clark, a shy lad outside a race car, gave Scotland its first Memorial Day 500-mile race winner Monday with a record-cracking run in a hybrid English-American auto.
Only AJ Foyt of Houston, Texas, twice winner of the half-million-dollar grind, gave Clark much competition — and his transmission failed after he had led 10 of the early laps around the 2 1/2 mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Clark’s 150.686 mph average broke Foyt’s year-old record, 147.35.
Foyt was able to stay in front of Clark only one lap while the Scot was on the track and led the other nine when Clark made one of his two quick stops for fuel.
“A bit of determination,” Clark said of his victory, first at Indianapolis for a foreigner since Italian Dario Resta won in 1916 in a French Peugeot.
Clark, a bachelor farmer at Duns, Scotland, outside the racing season, finished second in his first shot at the 500 two years ago and led last year until his left rear wheel collapsed.
He hinted that he might not attempt the Indianapolis grind again. He commented that “we have a lot of racing to do between now and then” and said he would have to think about it.
Clark has made it clear that he prefers road racing, at which he was world champion in 1963 and number 2 last year.
But whether he likes the closed courses or not, he has no superior on the old Speedway. Nobody doubted that after his Monday victory. He did it in style, coming in waving a black-gloved hand above the cockpit of his car, about five miles ahead of 1963 winner Parnelli Jones of Torrance, California, and setting a record of 150.686 miles per hour over the old Speedway oval.
Jones coasted over the finish line out of fuel.
The result reversed the 1963 finish, when Jones edged Clark while the Lotus owner, Colin Chapman of London, was demanding that Jones be disqualified for leaking oil.
Clark’s car was the first foreign chassis to win since Wilbur Shaw’s 1940 victory in an Italian Maserati, but the Scot’s car was powered by a special Ford engine.
Italian-born Mario Andretti, now of Nazareth, Pennsylvania, led a brilliant field of rookies with a third-place finish in an all-American Brawner Ford.
The race was free of serious accidents and injuries — as contrasted to last year’s tragic holocaust which took the lives of drivers Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald. But there was a heavy toll of cars in the race, witnessed by a crowd of more than 220,000.