Legends: John Cooper

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John Cooper

It seems to me that John Cooper’s place in motor racing has always been underrated. There is an abiding reverence for Colin Chapman, and rightly so, but Cooper put the driver in front of the engine long before Chapman did and, lest we forget, it was he who began the revolution at Indy.

When Cooper withdrew from F1, in 1968, he felt no great regret, for he saw a sport that was changing. The camaraderie, the parties, were on the wane, and that aspect of racing had always been vital for John. Not that he was other than serious about getting the job done, mind you.

The first Cooper grand prix victory came in 1958, the last nine years later; in between, there were two world championships, both won by Jack Brabham. The first, in 1959, was climaxed by the American GP, at Sebring. And it was at the draughty Florida airfield that Cooper’s Indy venture got started. “We met Rodger Ward there,” John remembered. “As this was the first US GP, he wanted to be in it, and had entered with his midget! God knows how it got through scrutineering for an Fl race, but there was much less red tape in those days, and nobody objected. He had won Indy that year, and everyone was pleased to have him in the race.

“Now, I have great admiration for Rodger but I think he believed he was going to blow everyone off. He didn’t know what road racing was all about but after one day of practice he did! What’s more, he was big enough to admit it, and we became great friends. ‘You must,’ he said, ‘take that car to Indy’.

“I’d never even thought about Indy. As far as I was concerned, it was a different world, something very specialised. And we had our hands full trying to win grands prix.”

The following F1 season was one of complete triumph for Cooper, Brabham winning five straight races to take his second world title. Ahead, though, lay leaner times.

“For 1961,” said Cooper, “we had new Fl rules, with a cut in engine size from 2.5 to 1.5 litres, and we hadn’t a hope of being competitive with Ferrari. So I started thinking again about Indy. We had a couple of races in the States late in 1960, and it seemed a good opportunity to have a run at Indianapolis.”

So it was that one day in the Fall a station wagon pulled into the Speedway. On its trailer was this tiny green car with two white stripes down the nose. “Jack world champion or not had to take his Rookie Test. His first flying lap was about 130mph when it should have been 100! Harlan Fengler was the man in charge in those days, and he gave Jack a real bollocking, told him he was mad, and did he realise this was the Indianapolis Motor Speedway? ‘What’s the problem?’ Brabham said. ‘It’s only four left-hand comers’. I’ll never forget the sight of Fengler’s face when he said that.

“Jack got up to about 144mph, and then Ward tried the car. He said, John, that is the Indycar of the future. You must do the race next year — but you’ve got to find more horsepower’.

“Brabham and I decided we didn’t have much to lose, bearing in mind the change in the Fl rules. Bugger it, we said. Let’s do it. Let’s go to Indy and have some fun!”

Through his friend Frank Falkner, Cooper met Jim Kimberly, of the Kleenex family, who agreed to back the project to the tune of $25,000. This was John’s first experience of sponsorship, and he was impressed.

“That allowed us to do it properly. We built a special car, with the offset suspension that everyone had in those days. Dunlop made us some ‘Indy’ tyres, and Climax did an engine for us. I wanted a 4.2-litre engine, like the Offenhausers, but what we got was an Fl motor bored out to 27 litres, running on a mix of Avgas and methanollt gave about 25bhp more, still nowhere near the Offys.”

Cooper remembered with affection the treatment his team received at Indianapolis. Everyone weighed in with help and advice for this curious little foreign outfit, and in qualifying John had particular cause to be grateful.

“Indy couldn’t have been much more inconvenient, because both qualifying weekends clashed with grands prix. Obviously it was preferable to qualify the first weekend, so we worked out a campaign.

On Thursday Jack ran at Monaco, to qualify, and then we left immediately for Indianapolis.”

They arrived to find everyone grief-stricken.

Tony Bettenhausen had gone out in his pal Paul Russo’s roadster in an attempt to sort out its handling, but steering failure put the car over the wall in front of the pits. Bettenhausen, one of Indy’s all-time favourite heroes, was killed instantly. “You never really knew what Jack was feeling, but I think he was a bit nervous — and he was the first man to qualify on the Saturday morning. We’d been up all night to make sure of being first in line because we had to get back to Monaco.”

After warming up, Brabham came off Turn Four to begin his run, but he never got the green and was flagged off. Had he raised his hand, as required? Yes, maintained Jack, but the starter denied having seen the signal. Whatever, the run was lost, and so was the team’s position ‘in line’.

‘That could have been desperate,” smiled John. “With our schedule, we couldn’t afford to go to the back of the queue and wait around all day. It looked as though we would have to go through all the hassle again the following weekend.”

After the aborted run, Bill Cheesbourg did his four laps in the Dean Van Lines Special — and then came Brabham again!

“It was amazing. So many people came up and offered us their place in the line. It was typical of the treatment we received the whole time we were there.” Jack ran 145.144mph, good enough for the fifth row. “Bhp was always the big problem. Jack was going through the turns virtually flat out, quite a bit quicker than the roadsters, but our lap speed was not much better than with the ordinary F1 car on our first visit Still, we were in.”

They then returned to Monaco — a police escort to the airport in Indianapolis, Kimberly’s private aeroplane to Chicago, flight to Nice. On the late Sunday morning drive along the Comiche, Jack struggled into clean overalls.

“He blew up before half-distance,” recalled John, “and I don’t think he was too upset I was pretty shattered, so I can’t imagine how he felt.”

A week later, Brabham was sixth in the Ferrari-dominated Dutch GP, then went off to the Brickyard once more, now for the race. He finished ninth, not dissatisfied, but a little disappointed, for the Cooper had run in the top six for much of the day. “We were getting better fuel mileage, and also had far less tyre wear, than the roadsters, and we reckoned to get through with only two tops, compared with the roadsters’ three or four. But our first stop was very slow. A mechanic put the right-rear wheel nut back on cross-threaded, so after that it had to be hammered all the way on and off. Took for ever.

“In the middle part of the race, Jack took it too easily to conserve his tyres and get by on two stops. In the end he needed three, so the caution was to no purpose — frustrating, but it was our first time there, and we had lessons to learn. We weren’t too unhappy; we got about $9000 for finishing ninth, and at that time you got $3000 for winning a grand prix!”

The 1961 500 was one of the most exciting of all time, distilling to a battle between Eddie Sachs and Foyt, which was resolved in A J’s favour when Sachs dashed in for a tyre change with three laps to go.

“They were terrific to watch, those roadsters, but when it came to changing direction in an emergency, they were bloody dangerous! Our only anxious moment was when one blew up and spun down the main straight, with Jack right behind. He was able to swerve between the car and the wall, but the next four roadsters all piled in. It was like an aircraft accident.” Cooper spoke fondly of his Indy venture, remembering friendships and good times. Two years later, Chapman and Lotus would go there, to encounter a somewhat different reception. “Oh, that was because Chapman was a threat,” said John. “We went simply to have a look, and everyone knew our little car wasn’t going to win. Colin and Jimmy had engines from Ford, special tyres from Firestone and so on. It was a very serious effort.”

Given the limitations of competing with only 250bhp, Cooper’s Indy sortie was an undoubted success. Why, then, did John never go back?

“Well, first of all, Brabham left us at the end of the year. Second, our Fl prospects for 1962 were brighter because we’d got the new V8 Climax, and third, we’d still have had trouble finding a suitable motor for Indy.

“As it is, I look back with pleasure on a great adventure. In 1978,1 went to Silverstone when the Indycars came over, and saw A J Foyt. ‘You don’t remember me, do you?’ I said. ‘Damn right I do,’ he replied. ‘Hey boys, this is the guy who started all the trouble at the Speedway!” A man who’ll be much missed.

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