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Back Home Again in Indiana with the Lotus-Ford

June 1, 2015 Think THF

Dario Franchitti pilots the Lotus-Ford 38/1 around Indianapolis Motor Speedway -- 50 years after Jim Clark drove it to victory.

We’ve already made much about the 50th anniversary of Jim Clark’s win, with his rear-engine Lotus-Ford, at the 1965 Indianapolis 500-Mile Race. But it is a big deal. History generally unfolds in a gradual process, but Clark’s victory was a singular turning point for the race. We were delighted that the folks at Indianapolis Motor Speedway agreed and, with generous assistance from the speedway's Hall of Fame Museum, invited us to take the car down for this year’s event.

We kicked off race weekend on Thursday with a great panel discussion open to the media. I was honored to sit with fellow panelists Clive Chapman, proprietor of Great Britain’s Classic Team Lotus and son of Colin Chapman – designer of our car; Leonard Wood, co-owner of Wood Brothers Racing – the oldest active team in NASCAR – and a member of Jim Clark’s 1965 pit crew; and Dario Franchitti, a three-time Indy 500 winner and four-time IndyCar Series Champion – and a certified Clark-ophile.

Chapman spoke of his father’s profound influence on race car design. Colin Chapman’s philosophy called not for greater horsepower but for lighter weight. Small, rear-engine cars with independent suspensions took turns at higher speeds, and required fewer pit stops because of their comparative fuel efficiency. It was Colin Chapman’s Lotus 25 that inspired driver Dan Gurney to bring the designer to Indianapolis in 1962 – the “big bang” that really kicked off Indianapolis’s rear-engine revolution.

(Left to right) I join Leonard Wood, Dario Franchitti and Clive Chapman for a panel discussion.

Wood recalled with pride that he and his crew fueled and serviced Clark’s car in as few as 17 seconds on race day. He also remembered Colin Chapman’s comical first comment on Wood’s leisurely Virginia drawl: “I hope you pit faster than you talk.” And so he did! The Wood Brothers crew truly were the unsung heroes of the 1965 race.

Franchitti detailed the influence that Jim Clark – a fellow Scotsman – had on his career. Franchitti’s interest in Clark dates to a 1993 commemoration of the 25th anniversary of Clark’s death, hosted by Jackie Stewart. (Yet another Scot who made his mark on Indy – there were a lot of them!) Franchitti considers Clark one of his greatest role models, not only for his skill and versatility behind the wheel but also for his soft-spoken manner and sense of fair play.

For my part, I emphasized the technological significance in Jimmy Clark’s victory with a rear engine. Front-engine cars were the norm at Indy from the start in 1911. By the time Clark arrived in the mid-1960s, the cars themselves had not fundamentally changed in a decade. The speedway was ripe for transformation, and it took a British designer and a Scottish driver to achieve it. The panel discussion also gave us a chance to debut our new film on the Lotus-Ford, produced in recognition of the anniversary.

The car Jimmy Clark drove in his last U.S. race, with the car he drove in his most celebrated U.S. race.

Friday gave us our first opportunity to see the Lotus-Ford on the track this year. Dario Franchitti came by to drive for the shakedown cruise, and afterward we posed the car for photographers, alone and alongside the Vollstedt-Ford driven by Cale Yarborough in the 1967 Indianapolis 500. Why that car? Because, six months after Yarborough, Jimmy Clark drove that same Vollstedt-Ford in the Rex Mays 300 in Riverside, California. It was to be Clark’s last race in the United States before his death in April 1968.

Saturday brought a bit of fun with the annual 500 Festival Parade in downtown Indianapolis. Marching bands, dignitaries, floats and giant balloons, along with the race drivers themselves, make for one of the largest parades in the country. It’s on par with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and the Tournament of Roses Parade. Judging from the spectator reaction, it’s a much-loved race week tradition.

Sunday - race day - brought our big moment. At 10:50 AM, Dario Franchitti drove the Lotus-Ford around the Brickyard oval to cheers from the crowd. I see that car every day on the museum floor but, I have to admit, it was like seeing it for the first time on that race track. I suppose it makes sense. The Lotus-Ford was designed and built exclusively for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It never raced anywhere else. For one brilliant lap that morning, it was back home.

Leonard Wood (left) and Dan Gurney - two men without whom Jim Clark's 1965 win could not have happened.

And speaking of homecomings, it was fitting that among the legendary drivers and team owners at this year’s race was Dan Gurney himself. While rear engines surely would have taken hold at Indianapolis eventually, it was Gurney who, more than anyone else, caused them to come when and how they did. How wonderful that he could be there to celebrate the revolution 50 years later.

And yes, there was a race. This year marked the 99th running of the Indianapolis 500. (While the first race took place in 1911, racing activities paused during the two World Wars, meaning that the race centennial came in 2011, but the 100th running won’t occur until 2016.) As I sat through the pre-race ceremonies, I couldn’t help thinking about the Kentucky Derby. Not only do the derby and the 500 share similar spaces in the public conscious, they also have comparable long-standing traditions. The derby has the bugle call to post and “My Old Kentucky Home,” while the 500 has “start your engines!” and “Back Home Again in Indiana.” And, of course, both events draw huge in-person and television audiences that might not watch another horse or car race the rest of the year. They’re sporting events that have grown into American institutions.

While the weather was about as perfect as could be, this year’s 500 had a devil of a time getting started. An on-car fire and a pair of accidents kept drivers under a yellow flag until lap 13. Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Simon Pagenaud and Will Power quickly made up for the delay, though, with a number of lead changes among them. Tony Kanaan fell victim to a crash on lap 153, but that provided an opening for Juan Pablo Montoya to join the battle. Montoya took the lead with four laps to go and held onto it to the end – taking the checkered flag a tenth of a second ahead of second place finisher Power. The frequent lead swaps and close finish were far removed from Jim Clark’s runaway victory in 1965, but they made for an exciting race.

All in all, they were a great few days in Indianapolis. Maybe it’s not too early for me to buy my ticket for 2040…

Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.

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