Clark on Indy '63 “We made the local boys sit up and take notice”

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A note about Jim’s story

I first joined Motor Racing magazine at the end of that first Lotus-Ford Indy year, 1963. My employers there were seasoned racing writers John Blunsden and Alan Brinton. And I recall them reviewing the year they’d just had with the magazine, and how they rated their exclusive story with Jim Clark about his first Indy race the best they had done.

In the 50th anniversary of Jimmy’s death  in a Formula 2 race at Hockenheim, I dug out the bound volume and re-read the story. And this is it. Doug Nye


We all remember Jim Clark’s Indy victory in 1965, but the foundations for his US adventure were laid two years earlier. Here, in a little known account from the time, he recalls how close he and Colin Chapman came to pulling off one of the greatest motor racing upsets of all time

“It certainly seems that my second place in this Indy 500 has shaken up the traditionalists, and yet, looking back, I feel a sense of disappointment. If someone had told me before the start that I was going to be second, frankly I wouldn’t have believed them. But having done the race, and seen what the Lotus-Ford was capable of, I feel that perhaps we could have done even better…

“Had we been aware of certain technicalities in the Indy rules – and by that I don’t mean the use of the black flag to bring someone in, because that doesn’t really interest me as a way of winning a race – I think we could have pulled off first place. A lot of people have asked me whether this race built up more tension than others in which I have driven. As a matter of fact I felt perfectly relaxed. 

“I remember waking up on the morning of Thursday, May 30, and thinking ‘Have we really got to race today?’. You see, we had been so involved in planning and preparing for this one race for such a long time that I could hardly believe it was about to happen…

“It [all] really started with Dan Gurney having seen the Lotus 25’s debut at Zandvoort [last year – 1962] inviting Colin Chapman over to see Indy, to find out whether he thought it would be possible to develop a car along similar lines for the 500. We are all glad that Dan did have the idea, because it certainly sparked off an interesting venture. 

“We had some talks later on with Ford, who arranged to provide the engines. Then after the United States Grand Prix we took Trevor Taylor’s Formula 1 Lotus 25– still with its 1½-litre Coventry Climax V8, of course – along to Indianapolis just to see what it was all about. During that first trip I put in about 100 laps, and the results finally decided Colin Chapman that it would be a good idea to have a go… The car went very well, and I’m pretty certain that it shook a lot of the local experts when we lapped at 143mph with only 1 ½-litres…

“I think the most important thing was that we were getting through the turns at about 142mph. This compared with 138mph by the best Offy-powered Indy special, and the normal average of about 135mph.

“Of course, the Speedway, with its four 90-degree banked corners and four straights, was entirely new to me. Frankly, during that first visit, and using the 1½-litre engine, it struck me as uninteresting. But even then I could imagine that with more power it could pose some pretty big problems, and this was borne out when we went back with the big Ford V8. At higher speeds with the extra power we had to sort out one or two problems on the suspension. All the turns are slightly banked, which means that during a turn you have a g-load downwards and a g-load sideways, and this is greater than on a road circuit. In fact, the whole cornering strain on the car is increased, and we had to sort this out very carefully.

“Anyway, we decided that we could do something. We recalled that Jack Brabham had done pretty well with only a 2.7-litre Climax, and with Ford promising us far more power we thought there were good prospects.

“Colin went away to ponder it all out, and the prototype was built at Cheshunt. This had the standard Lotus suspension, which was set up symmetrically, and we took it first to Snetterton to see that everything turned properly. The engine we had in for that first test didn’t go too well, because the timing was a little out. But though were a trifle disappointed with the power the car was certainly quicker on the straights than anything I had driven before. Even in this state, the prototype comfortably broke my existing 2½-litre lap record by a couple of seconds, and I am sure that if I went back again I could bring it down an awful lot more. 

“Almost immediately after Snetterton we rushed off to Ford’s testing ground at Kingman, in Arizona – a beautifully built track about five miles round, with two banked curves, each of about 1¼-miles. Dan Gurney also went to Kingman, and we both made a few preliminary runs. During those tests we ran into a bit of engine trouble… but we learned quite a lot, and car was lapping at about 165mph without using very much of the banking. It was quite a change after the Formula 1 Lotus, and made for exciting driving. The car had a four-speed Colotti box, and I’m glad that we decided to stick to the four ratios.

“Though I had lapped at 146mph I was told I had to do my rookie test again. It did seem to me that this was taking things a bit far…”

“In March we went to Indianapolis for some private testing… The car went very well indeed, and I got up to 146mph laps before having to rush back to England for Snetterton. While I was back in England Dan carried on with the testing, and really lifted everyone’s eyebrows by lapping at more than 150mph. I wish I had been there to see it.

“These fast laps were done on Dunlop D12 tyres. We had to make a tricky decision, because Firestones proved slower by about 2-3mph, but their rate of wear was far less. In the end we decided to plump for the longer-wearing Firestones, and tyre wear became the core of our race strategy, because we planned for only one pit stop for wheel-changing and refueling, compared with the normal three stops made by the bigger and more thirsty Indy specials.

“After the Aintree 200 on April 27, I went back to Indianapolis, leaving on April 29 and, once more I suddenly found myself involved in the Indy rules. Although I had previously passed my ‘learner’s test’—with timed laps at 120, 125, 130 and 135mph – and though I had lapped at 146mph in March I was told I had to start again from scratch and do my rookie tests all over again. It did seem to me that this was taking things a bit far…

“When I discussed this with the organisers I got the impression that they didn’t really mind, but they were worried that some of the drivers might get upset if I didn’t go through the performance all over again. 

“This time the suspension was offset, as it would be for the race. This was done not so much to improve the roadholding as to even out the load through the turns and so give better tyre wear. The tests quickly showed that it succeeded in doing just this, and right from the start the wear rate was extremely promising. It was plain that if everything went according to plan we would be able to get through the race with only one stop. During these tests we had to grapple with carburation problems, and these took quite a time to sort out. Having lifted off for a corner it was difficult to feed the power in again, but eventually we got this sorted. 

“The technique of driving around Indianapolis is not really very different. Once I had the car in top gear it was left there… no changing down. I dabbed the brakes going into each turn, and had to smack them pretty hard when I had a full load of fuel aboard. The difficulties about Indianapolis are the lack of distinguishing features round the circuit, and the fact that there is no apex on the four turns. 

“The next hurdle was qualifying the cars, and since I had to be in Europe for the Monaco Grand Prix on May 26 I had to make sure of a reasonable time during the first qualifying session a week before. On the day that I did my qualifying there was a fair-sized wind blowing. I knew I wouldn’t get another opportunity, and though quite a number of cars had been out and failed to qualify, because of the conditions, I had to make a real effort. 

“It was a tense time, with the wind blowing in 35mph gusts, and the car was very twitchy indeed. Three hours previously I had been going round pretty steadily at about 151.5mph, and Colin timed one lap at 153, but these speeds were not possible when I went out for the official run. Anyway, after a few minutes of gritting my teeth and fighting the wind gusts, I eventually managed to qualify at 149.750mph, which put me in the middle of the second row. 

“Dan had written off his car in private practice when he smacked a wall, but the prototype was built up with bits from his car and he qualified on the fourth row. But he’d also written off two of the wide-rimmed wheels that I was due to use on my car for qualifying. So I did my qualifying with two wide rims on the outside wheels and narrow ones on the inside.

“You know, it’s amazing what a difference the track temperature and air temperature make to lap speeds at Indianapolis. I went out one day and couldn’t do any better than 148mph. Colin was trying to sort out the reason, and though he did everything he knew the car just couldn’t be any quicker. We realised later that the speed was being cut by the heat, and also that all the other drivers had parked their cars away and weren’t troubling to go out at all… Local knowledge does help.

“After the Monaco Grand Prix we left our hotel at 4.30 in the morning, and flew via London back to Indianapolis. There we were allowed two hours of what are called carburation trials. Between qualifying and the race itself everything on the cars has to be stripped and crack-tested, including the engine innards and of course the two hours give an opportunity to check whether everything has been screwed back correctly. 

“The race itself came upon me rather as a surprise. All of a sudden we were there with the thousands of spectators packing the grandstands, and all the fantastic promotion that goes to make up this fabulous event. We all paraded round for one lap behind the pace car, which was driven at a very slow pace. I couldn’t get my car to run properly in bottom gear, so if we had used only third and fourth we could have well been in real trouble right at the start. Jim Hurtubise, whose Novi was ahead of me on the front row, got stuck in gear as we crossed the start line, and I suddenly found myself right up his exhaust. I backed off hurriedly and slammed on the brakes. There was a mad rush all around me. Hurtubise got his gear sorted, disappeared into the distance and I found myself right in the thick of the pack.

“Our Lotuses are a lot lower than the Offy cars, and this meant it was extremely difficult to see what was really going on. There was also a great deal of smoke and dust (as well as a heck of a lot of noise) and all this made for confusion. Anyway, all hell was let loose at the start, with 33 cars rushing round in a tight bunch. But after a couple of laps trying to keep out of everyone’s way I found myself sitting right behind Dan, who made a good start. This was something of a help, because since his car was as low as mine I could at least see what was going on ahead, and could keep an eye on the leaders. 

“At this stage there were about a dozen of us going round together in the leading group. This was a good position to be in, because we reckoned on picking up some useful time when the Offy cars stopped for tyres and fuel. Our cars were running on pump fuel, and the Ford engines were giving in the region of 350bhp, and with our lower weight –1150 pounds compared with around 1600 pounds for most of our rivals—this was sufficient to keep us well in the hunt. I found that I could run with the Offy cars up the straights, and being so much smaller and lower I was getting a fantastic tow. But getting through on the corners was an entirely different matter; the Offy cars have one groove for the turns, and there is no chance of beating them within the actual corner, even though our cars could have gone quicker there. So the general programme was to go rushing up the straights and then go relatively quietly—for us, that is—through the corners. 

“Our fuel consumption was an important factor, and though the cars would take 47 gallons, I started the race with only 40 aboard, planning to make my only stop just before half distance. There was too much traffic in the opening laps to give any thought to pit signals, but after things settled down I found it comparatively easy to discover how the race was going. I began to realise that it was not worthwhile fighting to get past the few cars ahead of me, since they would all be stopping well before I did, and that it would be better for me just to maintain my position.

“Throughout the race I was given signals on Parnelli Jones, driving his Watson-Offy, because there is no doubt that he is far quicker than any other driver in these big Indy specials. At one point it was obvious that he was getting away from me, and so I pressed on for a bit to make up the deficiency. I had got past Dan after about 100 miles, and when Parnelli Jones made his first pit stop after 62 laps we moved our Lotus-Fords into first and second place.

“Parnelli Jones made a very quick stop, and began to catch us up again. Both Dan and I knew that he would become a serious threat again when we made our pit stops, and that he would certainly take the lead back from us, at least until he made his second stop. Anyway, I held the lead until I came in after 95 laps, to change three wheels – all except the nearside front – and take on fuel. We found we still had eight gallons in the tank, so we could have started with less. My stop took 33sec, but I must say it felt longer, and I got back into the race again in third place. 

“One of the chaps looking after the wheel-changing was a huge, burly fellow with a long background of Indy experience. He was used to the Offy cars, which have to be pushed by the mechanics to help them chug away from the pits before they get into their stride. This chap forgot that I had a four-speed gearbox, and tried to do the same for me. As I shot back into the race I could see him rolling over – he had gone flat on his face when I put the clutch in – and I thought for a moment that I’d run him over… 

“Dan had come in earlier than scheduled, after 92 laps, because he was a little worried about tyre wear, and his stop was slower than mine – mainly because he wasn’t expected, I think. Our stops put us on an even footing with Parnelli Jones, though we knew that he would have two more stops to come. I managed to get back into second place again, and Dan was then running seventh.

“It wasn’t a case of being robbed – we just didn’t know enough about the way the race is run”

“Jones was pulling away from me a little at this stage, as he began to get down his fuel load, and his lead extended to about 40sec. Unfortunately, the yellow light went on again and he made his second pit stop during that period. His second stop was again carried out very efficiently, and with something like 20sec which he gained on the road during the yellow light period, he came out again still in the lead. For his third and final pit stop, Parnelli Jones did the same, coming in during the yellow light period after an accident, when the rules say that no car must alter its position in the race.

“After that third stop I realised that we had really gained nothing from having only one stop compared with his three, and it was plain that from then on I would have to try to race him to win. The car was running beautifully, and I got right up to him, catching him at the rate of a second a lap. Things seemed to be going well. I got within 4sec of him and then I noticed his car smoking.

“My immediate thought was that he wouldn’t last out to the finish, but he kept going strongly. In the last few laps his car began to throw out oil, and on a couple of laps I went completely sideways on it. I only just managed to collect the Lotus before it got into real trouble, and they were nasty moments.

“On the next lap I was behind Eddie Sachs [who was a lap behind on the road, in fourth place] when he spun at the same point right in front of me. I managed to avoid him, but he was out of the race, and just before the finish the third man spun on another turn and also retired. Before Parnelli Jones’s car started chucking out oil I thought we could win, but when this happened and I had my sideways moments I decided it would be more prudent to finish second. From what I could make out, his car threw out a lot of oil for a short period, and then pretty well stopped doing it as the oil level got to a certain point.

ANYWAY, IT WAS a disappointing finish to the race. I think we made the local boys sit up and take notice, but it would have been pleasant if we could have finished in first place. Local knowledge is terribly important at Indianapolis, and one or two incidents suggested that we might have done better if we had known more. 

“For example, when I was leading during a yellow light period, I had to put in nearly a whole lap before I got the green signal – even though the rule is that the leader should get the green light first. But we did not stick in any protest about anything, and I’m glad we didn’t. I would like to have won the race, but I wouldn’t really have felt happy to have done so by getting Parnelli Jones black-flagged. 

“I will only say this – if there had been no yellow light, I don’t think Parnelli Jones would have been on the same lap as me at the end. There was a tremendous series of rows after the race, and Eddie Sachs had a punch-up with the winner, but Colin and I were satisfied that we had at least shown that the Offy cars can be beaten by a European design. 

“It will be interesting to see what happens next year, and how many of the entries will have lightweight engines in the back of their cars. At the moment there is considerable doubt whether we will be able to have another crack at Indy next year, because it clashes with one of the Grands Prix in Europe. But in any case I suppose that by then our rivals will have profited by some of this year’s lessons, and will prove a tougher nut to crack. 

“If you ask me to sum up, I would say that if we could have had someone in the pits last year, learning all the ins and outs, and all the things that you cannot get merely by reading the regulations until you are blue in the face, then we could have won Indianapolis this year. It wasn’t a case of being robbed – we just didn’t know enough about the way the race is run… but I think Colin Chapman proved that he knows how to make a winning car.”

In 1964 Jimmy led the race in the improved Lotus-Ford 34 until a Dunlop tyre failure took him out. And in 1965, of course, he won – in dominant style – in the Lotus-Ford 38. In 1966 he thought he’d won again in the now STP-liveried 38 – only to be told there’d been a lap-scoring error – and he was second (to Graham Hill’s Lola-Ford). The following year STP-Lotus screwed up completely with failed BRM H16 engines replaced in haste by second-string Ford V8s, and Jimmy’s blew a piston after 35 of the 200 laps. In 1968 he was entranced by the promise of Chapman’s latest wedge-shaped Lotus-Pratt & Whitney 56 4WD gas turbine car, but after a brief test at the Speedway he was taken from us at Hockenheim. But make no mistake, he had been – no doubt – The Best.

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