In RACER magazine and on RACER.com, we're counting down to the 100th Anniversary Indianapolis 500 with a series of fascinating insights on “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing." This week, we take a look at the lasting legacy of Jim Clark at the Indianapolis 500. The Scot raced just five times at the Brickyard, but his legend persists.
“THAT JIMMY GUY IS ONE HECK OF A DRIVER”
At Indy, respect has to be earned. It isn't just what you do; it's how you do it.
For Jim Clark, the “what” is spectacular enough: In five Indy 500 starts, he took the first win for a rear-engined car in 1965, was second in '63 and '66, earned the pole in '64, and led a total of 298 laps at the Brickyard. But underpinning all of those achievements is the quiet, understated way he went about it.
In an age where gung-ho seemed to come with the turf, the Scot's genuine modesty endeared him to a generation of fans and racers alike. Even now, he's spoken of in reverential tones by generations not yet born when his Ford-powered Lotus 38 led 190 of 200 laps to dominate the 49th Indianapolis 500.
Initially, Clark and Lotus boss Colin Chapman were attracted to Indy for its riches more than the glory. Clark's “day job” was Formula 1, which he and design genius Chapman ruled in the mid-'60s. But winning a grand prix earned more kudos than cash. In contrast, huge purses had always been a part of Indy and, after visiting in '62 as a guest of Dan Gurney, Chapman realized the “500” could be a lucrative side project.
For 1963, with support and backing from Ford, Chapman entered Clark and Gurney in Ford V8-powered Lotus 29s. The chassis was based on the successful Lotus 25 F1 car, but modified for the unique demands of turning left. Clark qualified fifth and finished second, helped by superior fuel mileage and tire wear, but hindered by his team's pit stop inexperience.
A year later, with a new car – the Lotus 34 – Ford's new DOHC V8 and sticky rubber from Dunlop, Clark took the pole at a record 158.828mph average. Come the race, those soft Dunlops were his undoing: leading on lap 47, he felt a severe vibration as the overheated tires began to chunk. As he crossed the start-finish line, the left-rear suspension buckled (LEFT). Day over.
Bigger picture, although A.J. Foyt went on to take the win in his Watson-Offy roadster, Clark's performance destroyed any lingering notions that the front-engined dinosaurs could avoid extinction. The writing had been on the wall since Jack Brabham's tiny, rear-engined Cooper-Climax gave a glimpse of the future in 1961, but Clark's Lotus supplied the final proof.
As he got out of his crippled car, Clark was taken aback by the warmth of the reception he received. Not only were the packed stands appreciating the great effort he'd put in, but “Beatlemania” was in full swing and all things British were hip and cool – including, it seemed, Scottish racecar drivers…
That affection for Clark continued for the rest of his Indy 500 career, and the shy farmer, who loved racing but hated the travel and the fame, became more comfortable and appreciative of his American fans with every subsequent visit.
In '65, those fans got plenty to cheer about when Clark became the first non-American Indy victor in more than a half century and his gorgeous, Len Terry-designed Lotus 38 became the Brickyard's first rear-engined winner.
After the Dunlop problems, Chapman had switched to Firestones for '65. Clark qualified second, edged by Foyt, who'd seen the light and, like most serious entries, ditched his outclassed roadster. Instead, Foyt was at the wheel of a Goodyear-equipped Lotus-Ford and enjoyed a slight advantage in qualifying trim.
In the race, it was a different story as Clark led all but 10 laps. Foyt led the rest, partly because Clark let him lead lap two as he sized him up. A lap later, slowed by Foyt, Clark retook the lead and only gave it up briefly when he pitted on lap 66 for fuel and tires, courtesy of the Wood Brothers NASCAR crew, drafted in by Ford to speed up the pit stops.