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. Was the Wood Brothers' involvement the deciding factor in Clark winning the race? No. It's fair to say that Clark's superiority would have given him the victory even if his own Lotus guys continued to muddle through on the pit stops. However, bringing in the NASCAR-honed skills and safe hands of the Wood Bros. crew not only added an extra margin into that superiority (Clark's first stop was timed at 19.8sec, compared to more than 44sec for Foyt) but also brought additional piece of mind…and an extra storyline for Ford's PR machine to push to the media.
Not that the Woods' crew turned up at the Brickyard completely prepared for their task. In NASCAR racing, pit stops involved dump cans and five-lug wheels, not fuel hoses and a single, knock-off nut on each wheel. But what the Woods brought was an innate understanding of the choreography of pit stops and an ability to learn and adapt quickly.
Legend has it that when the Wood Bros. crew arrived at the Brickyard on the weekend before the Monday, May 31 race, team principals Glen and Leonard Wood sought out one of their occasional drivers, a certain A.J. Foyt, in the garages and quizzed him about Indy car pit stops and the order in which things were done. Foyt chatted amiably about it and told them what he knew, then asked them why they were so interested. When they told him it was because they were pitting Clark on Monday, the atmosphere is said to have turned a little frosty…
Anyway, back to the action… On lap 74, Clark regained the lead and drove away. When Foyt retired on lap 115 with transmission issues, Parnelli Jones' Lotus-Ford became the nearest “competition,” but a 1m59.98sec victory margin and a record 150.633mph average speed only confirmed Clark's superiority (RIGHT).
Clark would appear twice more at the Indy 500. In '66, he qualified second and came close to another win, despite spinning twice during the race and elegantly catching it on each occasion without brushing the wall. Given that his Lotus 38 was now painted in STP orange, instead of Lotus' traditional combination of British Racing Green and yellow, Clark joked that STP stood for “Spinning Takes Practice.”
When the race ended, Clark actually drove to Victory Lane, believing himself to be the winner. There, he found the real winner Graham Hill already celebrating his success. The confusion had arisen because the other STP-painted Lotus, driven by Al Unser, had been erroneously scored as Clark for a lap. But, once it was explained, neither runner-up Clark nor the often incendiary Chapman (ABOVE) seemed unduly upset by the mix up and no protest was filed.
In '67, Clark and the Lotus team suffered a month of trials and tribulations, thanks to the Lotus 38 beginning to show its age and Chapman being more than a little distracted on the design and build of the groundbreaking Ford-Cosworth V8-powered Lotus 49 for F1. Clark qualified a lowly 16th and finished 31st, a burned piston ending his day after just 35 laps. Compared to previous campaigns at the Brickyard, this one was lackluster at best, almost as though Lotus was there by obligation, rather than choice, and certainly not worthy of Clark's reputation and abilities.
His last appearance at the Brickyard was a low-key one, testing Chapman's turbine-powered Lotus 56 on a chilly March day in '68. Clark came away from the test enthusing over the car's potential and convinced that it could deliver him a second Indianapolis 500 victory.
Tragically, he was never able to convert the 56's promise into a winning reality: just days later, on April 7, he died in a minor Formula 2 race at Germany's Hockenheimring.
The Brickyard crowd had lost its Beatle, but they'd never forget the quiet, unassuming Scot who liked to do his talking on the track.
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