Drivers who raced what you wouldn’t expect them to…
Ford Fairlane, American 500,1967 By Ed Heuvink
After winning the Mexican Grand Prix in late October 1967, Jim Clark had some time on his hands before the non-championship Spanish GP. As a tax exile, he had never been in a hurry to fly back to Europe after a long-haul event. On this occasion Clark was already on the American continent, so was finally able to fulfil the long-standing wish of NASCAR impresario Bill France: having a Formula One World Champion participate in a Grand National race. And so, as a Ford-contracted driver, Clark quickly made a deal with Holman & Moody, the Blue Oval’s factory-sanctioned NASCAR team.
France had always looked for opportunities to get additional publicity for NASCAR, which in those days was more of a regional series for drivers who had been born and raised around the dirt tracks of the south. In that period, the big names in American racing drove at the Indianapolis 500 and in other USAC championship races, but the ambitious France desired international acceptance for his racing too.
Clark already had American speedway experience: after two earlier attempts, he’d won the Indianapolis 500 for Lotus in 1965 and also competed there in ’66 and ’67. During the ’65 race, Clark’s pit crew was manned by Glen and Leonard Wood, who ran their very successful Wood Brothers stock car team and had close ties with Holman & Moody and Ford. John Holman and Ralph Moody built race cars not only for themselves but also for several other teams, such as the Wood siblings. “A couple of years earlier my father had built a 7-litre Galaxie for John Willment in the UK and Jim drove it on one or more occasions. So Clark was not new to us,” recalls Holman’s son, Lee. “As soon as Clark accepted the invitation to run, ‘Big Bill’ contacted us, asking for a car. My father and the NASCAR chairman had always had a good relationship, so the deal was done quickly. Also, we always had several spare cars which could be used.”
Clark, who had run all the grands prix in 1967 and had also competed in several Formula Two races, didn’t have much spare time to compete in a NASCAR race. But, with the Spanish GP on November 12, there were two open weekends after the October 22 Mexican race.
George Cunningham, the PR officer of Rockingham’s North Carolina Speedway, came up with the perfect opportunity for the Scot. “George, just like Bill France, knew how to promote a race and getting Jim Clark to run at The Rock’ would definitely attract an extra crowd,” says Tom Higgins, a journalist who attended the race in 1967. Since the opening of the track in ’65, the organisers had found problems in attracting large crowds. Cunningham’s feeling was that a famous driver was needed to raise the spectator figure. “Earlier in 1967 Ford’s biggest NASCAR star Fred Lorenzen had retired, and when Cunningham told us that he had something really special for the American 500 we were all thinking of Fred coming back,” continues Higgins. “Lorenzen did actually come back that weekend, but as team manager for Ford and its drivers: among them Jim Clark and Bobby Allison.”
Clark was not the first European to race in a NASCAR event on an oval: Jo Schlesser had started the 1964 Daytona 500 event, and Innes Ireland ran there in ’67. But an F1 World Champion participating in a stock car race would definitely make headlines in the USA.
The Scot was one of 44 entries for that race, which included American legends Richard Petty, David Pearson, AJ Foyt and Cale Yarborough. The American 500 was a 500-lap race on a 24-deg banked one-mile oval. The track is located in the sand hills of North Carolina, just north of the small town of Rockingham, and the sand blowing over the surface makes it very abrasive. In those days tyres were not changed at every pit stop, making the track even more demanding. With this in mind Clark had brought a relief driver with him: Jochen Rindt would take over in case Clark became too tired.
After practice Clark complained only about the brakes of the heavy 7-litre Ford Fairlane. “I couldn’t find the bloody brake pedal when I went into the turns,” he said. But the combination of Clark’s ability and the power of the Holman & Moody-prepared car resulted in 24th starting spot. Fastest overall was reigning NASCAR champion Pearson, who drove one of the other Holman & Moody Fords to a pole-winning speed of 117.12mph.
To Cunningham’s delight, a new record of more than 53,000 fans came to what was to be an eventful race. After only 17 laps three cars had wrecked themselves, and within another 40 four more cars were sidelined because of accidents. At the front there was a fierce battle going on between several Ford drivers — Allison, Pearson, Foyt and Dick Hutcherson — and all led for some time. Clark took it easy in the beginning, but eventually made some great passes and managed to climb to 12th position.
Unfortunately, all his efforts were in vain when he became the first victim of engine failure. After 144 laps Clark’s NASCAR debut was over, and there would be 12 others who would retire with similar problems that afternoon. And, since Clark had retired early, there had not been any chance for Rindt to drive.
After just over five hours and an amazing 25 lead changes, it was Allison who crossed the line first, one lap up on Pearson. The racing took a heavy toll: only 13 of the 44 cars made it to the end. It was Allison’s first victory in a works Ford, and Holman & Moody’s ninth of the season. Allison collected a healthy $16,300 in prize money, Clark a mere $695. As usual in NASCAR, he had to share this with the car’s owner.
After the race the Scot returned to Europe to compete in the Spanish GP at the new track of Jarama, while the NASCAR regulars ran the Western North Carolina 500 at Asheville-Weaverville Speedway; the final race of the 1967 season. Allison was again victorious for Ford, and this time Clark was too: back in the more familiar territory of a Lotus-Cosworth 49, he defeated team-mate Graham Hill.