Just over a year on from his debut in Formula One, a young scotsman astounded Brickyard regulars with his speed. Racecraft and refusal to cry over spilt milk
Jackie Steward is better known for winning than losing, but there’s one glaring omission from his impressive CV. With just eight laps to go, victory in the 1966 Indy 500 slipped from his grasp; the wee Scot would never come so close again.
Jack Brabharn opened the door for the European invaders when he contested the 500 with Cooper in 1961, and two years latedim Clark and Colin Chapman shocked the establishment there. Clark won at his third attempt in 1965, and the following yearr is and Graham Hill were tempted over to join him. “I first went there to try a car out in October of 1965 for John Mecom,” recalls Stewart. “I signed to drive with Graham and Rodger Ward in a three car team in 1966. Of course, I was a rookie, and it was a whole new experience. In reality, I don’t think any of the Europeans who went over there drove an Indycar anything like they drove an F1 car, although they were given a lot of credit for being on the pace. Mainly of course because we knew how rear-engined cars drove, and we could maybe get a bit more out of them.
“But the technology at Indianapolis was totally different. We didn’t know what stagger meant, and of course we were driving offset cars. There were a whole lot of different elements that were new to us. For instance, suddenly seeing the shadow of your own wheel against a concrete wall at high speed was a bit novel! But it was a pretty good car, an Eric Broadley-designed Lola.”
The action kicked off on 4 May, when Stewart successfully passed his rookie test Ten days of practice led up to the high-pressure roulette wheel of Pole Day.
“Qualifying wasn’t bad. Being a rookie, it was quite a daunting experience. But I felt pretty comfortable with it. I wasn’t overly nervous, and I was sure that consistency was going to provide the time — and I didn’t want to put it off the road. It was just a question of being conservative since it was my first Indy. I was on middle of the fourth row of the grid, which was okay.” Jackie spent most of his spare time at the Brickyard in the company of his compatriots: “We spent a lot of time together as a group. It was great fun. Graham and I had adjacent rooms, and it was always a laugh. We always had a good time over there, and everybody was very welcoming to us. We were the odd lot.”
Having secured places in the field, the three Brits skipped the second qualifying weekend to head back to Europe for the Monaco Grand Prix — a race Jackie won for BRM.
“There was quite a contrast between the Hotel de Paris and the Speedway Motel!”
Then they flew back for the 500 itself. Jackie admits he had never seen anything like raceday.
“The big build-up! It’s quite an impressive thing walking out from Gasoline Alley into that immense crowd. I don’t think anybody could not be touched by the experience, the whole shebang. It was a very exciting occasion and I wouldn’t have wanted to miss it.
“The beginning of the race was traumatic, and in fact it was Billy Foster alongside me who turned right and hit the wall and caused the mayhem behind. I was one of the last cars through of any speed, but I never saw him go off, because I was busy looking for where I was going to go.”
Foster’s shunt triggered the most spectacular crash ever seen at the Brickyard, and footage was used in the Paul Newman racing movie Winning, made two years later. “I never saw the crash. It wasn’t until I was halfway down the back straight that I looked in my mirror and saw there was nobody behind me. And I thought, ladtie, you’re driving a helluva race today!’ Then the red flags came out and we stopped. You could see there was a lot of carnage around, and I remember there was a long wait.”
It was actually lhr 24min before the race restarted, with some 11 wrecked cars, including That of A J Foyt, missing from the field. Mario Andretti led the early laps until his engine went off song, and then Clark took a turn in front, before the first of two spectacular spins. Lloyd Ruby also led before hitting engine problems. All the while, Jackie worked his way carefully up the depleted field.
“I had a very good race. I had a great battle with Wally Dallenbach, and there was a lot of passing. I climbed the order with good use of the yellows. I was getting all the information — George Bignotti was the chief mechanic; they were like gold dust over there, and Bignotti was the man. And so he was calling it.”
Gradually Jackie’s number 43 rose to the top of the circuit’s famous illuminated scoreboard.
“I never saw it on the pole, I just saw all the pit signals. I found it mentally tiring, but I didn’t find it physically tiring in those days. In the end, by lap 192,1 was leading by nearly two laps. And then it happened. “There was a scavenge pump that was pumping oil from the bottom of the engine to the top. And it just let go. The engine started to tighten up, and I switched it off. I coasted all the way round to the exit of Turn Four, and then I walked back. The crowd were fantastic. They gave me an amazing reception. As far as I was concerned, I had driven a really good race — and I was totally satisfied.
“I always worked out the business of emotion; I got rid of that early on. So I went down smiling, and they thought that was great But the next morning was a bit of a disappointment. Anyway, I still finished sixth, got Rookie of the Year, and won a supply of meat for the whole year — but I didn’t get it because it was in America!”
The good news was that team-mate Hill won — the first rookie in 39 years to do so — although Chapman was convinced that Clark was in front. But Graham drank the milk, and that was that.
Jackie took the whole thing with good grace, but had he known at the time that he would get only one more chance to win the biggest race in the world, he might have been more upset about that failure in ’66.
“The next year I was lying second and the damn thing broke down with the same oil pump problem at the same part of the circuit — and I stopped in exactly the same place!
“Then in ‘68,1 was scheduled to drive the STP Turbine, but I broke my wrist at Jarama in an F2 race, and I couldn’t do it. Mike Spence took my place and was killed in testing. “I never went back, but I’m glad I did it. It’s the most regretful race that I’ve lost, and I really would have liked to have won it”