From its first running in 1911, the Indianapolis 500 has been the most prestigious automobile race in the United States. But in the early 1960s, it was falling behind the technological times. Lithe, rear-engine cars lit up Formula One circuits everywhere, while Indy remained tied to heavy front-engine roadsters not fundamentally changed in a decade. It would take an English designer and a Scottish driver, with some help from an all-American racer and a Big Three automaker, to break the mold 50 years ago this month.
Ford’s Early Indianapolis Exploits
Ford Motor Company was no stranger to the Indy 500. Henry Ford attended the first two races, in 1911 and 1912, as a spectator. He nearly entered a car in 1913, but balked at rules requiring him to make it heavier. Ford Motor Company did enter ten cars in 1935 but, despite design by the legendary Harry Miller, these Miller-Ford cars were rushed into competition before the bugs were worked out. Only four of the ten Miller-Fords managed to qualify, and none of those four finished. After that bitter episode, Ford wouldn’t return to the Indianapolis 500 for almost 30 years.
By the early 1960s, though, times had changed. Ford was in the hands of a new generation personified by Henry Ford II and Lee Iacocca. They recognized that young baby boomers craved excitement, and nothing added excitement to a car company like running—and winning—major races. Ford kicked off a “Total Performance” campaign that ultimately yielded wins in sports cars, stock cars, drag racers and rally cars. But the Indianapolis 500 could be the greatest prize of all. Ford executive Don Frey traveled to the 1962 race looking for a way in which the Blue Oval could put its stamp on Indy. On the drive back to Dearborn, he convinced himself that a race engine was the answer.
Gurney, Chapman and ClarkUnknown to Frey, he wasn’t the only one looking for opportunities at that 1962 race. Dan Gurney, a versatile California driver who’d competed in Formula One (F1) since 1959, made his Indianapolis debut in 1962. But even before he turned a wheel at the Brickyard (Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s enduring nickname, for the bricks that paved the track until 1961), he recognized the stagnant state of the cars on the field. Gurney had seen the most advanced race cars in the world in F1, and none impressed him more than those designed by Englishman Colin Chapman for Team Lotus. Chapman’s monocoque, rear-engine chassis, in which the frame and body were structurally integral, were winning Grand Prix events everywhere. Couldn’t they do the same at Indianapolis? How could the traditional front-engine roadsters hope to compete? Gurney bought Chapman an airline ticket and brought him to see the 500. Chapman quickly realized that they were on to something.
Don Frey and Ford Motor Company had an engine, but no chassis. Dan Gurney and Colin Chapman had the chassis, but no engine. As if by fate, Gurney and Chapman showed up on Ford’s doorstep that July. They made their pitch, arguing that a light rear-engine car could take faster turns and, being more fuel-efficient and easier on tires, spend less time in the pits. The pair found a receptive audience. Chapman negotiated a generous deal that had Ford picking up nearly all of the expenses. There was one other important condition: while Gurney would, of course, drive one of the proposed Lotus-Ford cars, Chapman insisted on adding Team Lotus’s own star driver to the project.
Jimmy Clark, a Scottish farm boy with exceptional talents behind the wheel, joined Colin Chapman at Team Lotus in 1960. He won his first Formula One race in 1962 and, a year later, was crowned World Champion. Clark was initially uninterested in Indianapolis, but came to relish the challenge, perhaps in part because of the skeptical way in which the Indy traditionalists viewed him. He was a literal and figurative foreigner at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Easier Said Than Done
By March 1963, Chapman, Gurney and Clark were at Indianapolis with a car ready for testing. Results were encouraging, with Gurney averaging 150 miles per hour around the track. Everything seemed to confirm the three men’s faith in their vision. As it turned out, though, winning an actual race wouldn’t prove so simple
The Lotus-Ford alliance made its first attempt in 1963. Clark qualified at 149.750 miles per hour, enough to put him near the front of the starting grid. (Drivers were assigned race starting positions based on their qualifying times. The faster you qualified, the closer to the front you started.) Gurney made a strong showing in the race, but a pair of tire changes knocked him out of contention. Clark fared better, leading 28 of the 200 laps, but trouble arrived on lap 180 while Clark was in second place. Leading driver Parnelli Jones developed an oil leak and Clark decided that it was wiser to back off than to hit a slick patch and slide into the wall so close to the finish. Jones won, but some fans still nurse a grudge against the Indy officials who could have disqualified Jones’s car out of safety concerns. Clark’s only consolation was receiving the Rookie of the Year award for his Indy debut.
Ford took its own lessons from the race. The company had adapted its racing engine from the stock 260-cubic inch Fairlane Challenger V-8. Modifications reduced the engine’s weight while increasing compression and horsepower, but it remained a pushrod valve design for 1963. A “pushrod” engine has its camshaft in the engine block, and the camshaft opens and closes the valves by means of separate rods. It makes for a lot of moving parts and added weight—neither particularly good for a race car. After the 1963 race, Ford engineers reconfigured the engine into a double overhead camshaft design. This “quad cam” layout, with separate camshafts for intake and exhaust valves mounted over each of the two cylinder banks, improved the engine’s breathing and performance. Horsepower tripled, going from 164 in the engine’s stock configuration to 495 in its quad cam Indy form.
Other race teams took notice. Demand for quad cam engines exceeded Ford’s ability to supply them—after all, the company’s main concern was building everyday automobiles. Ford farmed out the work to Louis Meyer, a three-time Indianapolis 500 winner retired from driving but actively building and servicing race engines. Even with the engines priced at nearly $23,000 each—an enormous sum in the 1960s—Ford’s steep development costs surely meant that it lost money on every engine sold.
The 1964 race brought fresh hope. Jimmy Clark qualified at a blazing 158.828 miles per hour, enough to give him the coveted pole position at the front of the starting grid. He held the lead for 14 laps and remained competitive until lap 47, when things quite literally fell apart. A section of tread broke away from his left rear tire, and the resulting imbalance caused a chain reaction that destroyed his left rear suspension. Clark avoided disaster, coolly ditching his car in the infield, but his race was over. Gurney, riding on the same tires, slowed down to avoid a similar fate. Chapman pulled him out of the race altogether on the 110th lap. A.J. Foyt took the checkered flag Clark had hoped would be his.
But the big story for 1964 was far more serious than tire problems. Indianapolis rookie Dave MacDonald and veteran Eddie Sachs were both killed in a fiery seven-car crash just two laps into the race. They were the first fatalities at the 500 in six years, and officials responded quickly with new rules. For 1965, all cars would have to carry less fuel, and all cars would be required to make a minimum of two pit stops to refuel during the race.
RevolutionDan Gurney wouldn’t be back in 1965—not for Team Lotus, anyhow. He had just launched his own All American Racers and wanted to go it alone. Jimmy Clark nearly didn’t return either. He had a real shot at the F1 world championship, and the important Monaco Grand Prix conflicted with Indy’s May 31 date. There was also the specter of the 1964 crash, which left Clark’s mother none too eager to have him back at Indianapolis. Colin Chapman had no doubts about his own return, though. Ford wasn’t happy with two years of high expectations and low results, and they renegotiated the original 1962 “blank check” deal. But money mattered less to Chapman than pride. He was determined to prove himself and not disappoint Ford Motor Company again. He and Ford officials convinced Clark to stick around for the ride.
After two years of strong showings—in races he lost through no fault of his own—Jim Clark came to Indianapolis as the odds-on favorite in 1965. Ford wasn’t taking any chances this time. The company countered the new fuel and pit rules with a secret weapon: the Wood Brothers. The Woods had raced Fords in NASCAR for years, and their carefully choreographed, lightning-fast pit stops were the envy of their stock car rivals. The Woods’ skills, it turned out, translated well to Indianapolis.
Returning champion A.J. Foyt was Clark’s biggest threat—even more so because Foyt, who sat behind his motor in 1964, had become a rear-engine believer. In fact, almost everyone now realized the merit in the rear-engine layout—27 of the 33 entries for 1965 had their engines in back. But it was truly Clark’s race to lose. Gearbox problems ended Foyt’s run on the 115th lap. Clark stayed far ahead of the pack, his impressive lead built up in part by 23-second pit stops from the Wood Brothers crew. When he rolled under the checkered flag, Clark was almost two minutes ahead of his nearest competitor.
It was a glorious moment. Jimmy Clark set a new average speed record for the race at 150.686 miles per hour, and he became the first foreigner to win the Indianapolis 500 in half a century. Between car and driver, America’s premier race took on a decidedly European look in 1965. It was the kind of revolution Indianapolis needed to restore its reputation for innovation.
The rear engine triumphed. Formula One design shattered Indianapolis tradition. Ford Motor Company added a crown jewel to its growing list of racing prizes. And Jim Clark’s year kept getting better. Despite missing Monaco, he went on to win the 1965 F1 World Championship in October. It was the peak of a brilliant career that would be cut tragically short. Clark was killed in a racing accident in Germany in 1968. But his legacy remains, in every rear-engine car that’s won Indy since (and every winner since 1965 has been a rear-engine car); and in subsequent generations of drivers like Dario Franchitti, a fellow Scotsman and Clark admirer with three Indianapolis 500 wins of his own. The Henry Ford is proud to preserve important parts of that legacy, with none more significant than the 1965 Lotus-Ford.
Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.
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