The iconic American speedway race, the Indianapolis 500, is inexorably linked with Formula One. Forming part of the F1 championship only until 1960, the race nevertheless continues to hold a fascination for F1 teams and drivers.By Graham Duxbury, MD of Duxbury Networking
The concept of F1 racing was defined by the Commission Sportive Internationale (CSI) in 1946. The first race conforming to the new regulations was the Turin Grand Prix of 1947, won by Achille Varzi in an Alfa Romeo. A championship for drivers was not introduced immediately. It was only after the motorcycle world championship was introduced in 1949 that the sport’s governing body – the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) – responded with the first official world drivers’ championship in 1950.
Although most races counting towards the world championship took place in Europe, it was decided that America’s classic race, the Indianapolis 500, would be part of the championship series, cementing F1 global positioning.
Unlike the road courses favoured by F1, Indianapolis is a typical American speedway – a two-and-a half mile, nearly rectangular oval. Initially paved with bricks it was completely resurfaced with asphalt for the 1962 event – with the exception of the now-famous “yard of bricks” at the finish line.
If the F1 fraternity hoped that the Indy 500 would play an immediate role in the F1 world, they were to be disappointed. Indy had little influence on F1 or the outcome of the world championship during the eleven years of its participation (1950 to 1960).
Nevertheless, it was in 1961 that the first serious European participation in the Indy 500 occurred. Jack Brabham, the reigning F1 world champion, took a modified version of his rear-engined, championship-winning Cooper Climax to Indy and stunned the drivers of traditional front-engined “roadsters” with its performance.
The Cooper used a smaller (2,7 litre) engine compared to the 4,4 litre units in the other 32 cars in the race.
Brabham qualified 17th and drove the car to a respectable ninth place finish after running as high as third. Five years later, the rear-engined revolution would take over the Indy 500 with the last roadster in the winners’ circle being that of AJ Foyt in 1964.
By then, Colin Chapman, founder of the Lotus team, had already embraced the Indy 500, seeing it as a lucrative race worth winning. Largely persuaded by Ford and Dan Gurney, an American competing in F1 in Europe, Lotus prepared cars for him and F1 world champion Jim Clark for the 1963 event. Clark finished a controversial second, running behind the roadster of American Parnelli Jones.
It was Clark’s win in Chapman’s F1-inspired Lotus in 1964 that set the stage for a British invasion, with more F1 drivers attempting to beat the Americans at their own game. In 1966 Clark and Gurney were joined by 1962 world champion Graham Hill and Jackie Stewart fresh from his first season in F1. Hill, in a British-built Lola, went on to win from Clark.
In 1967 Denny Hulme (who would clinch the F1 title that year) joined the Indy 500 grid along with F1’s Jochen Rindt, and the Clark/Gurney/Hill/Stewart quartet. Hulme was the most successful, placing fourth.
The 1968 event was a sad affair. Jim Clark was scheduled to drive a new Lotus turbine-powered car, but he was killed in a F2 race. His replacement, F1 regular Mike Spence, was fatally injured exactly when his Lotus turbine crashed in practice for the Indy 500. The race was won by American driver Bobby Unser, driving an Eagle – in effect a Lotus 38 replica – penned by former Lotus designer Len Terry. Gurney’s Eagle was second and Hulme, now reigning F1 champion, was again placed fourth in another Eagle.
Colin Chapman was not the only F1 car constructor with a drive to win at Indianapolis. Bruce McLaren had a burning desire to conquer the race, but he was killed in one of his sports cars before he could turn his dream into reality. Nevertheless, his team continued with his work on the McLaren Indy project.
McLaren cars, run by the American Penske racing team and driven by Johnny Rutherford – ‘Lone Star JR’ – completed in seven Indy 500 races (1973 – 1979) winning in 1974 and again in 1976.
To be continued …