Poignant finale

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Twelve-year-old Leigh Dorrington got a rude awakening when his father took him to his first Imdy 500 in 1964. He arrived confident that a rear-engined car would win for the first time. . .

It was May when my father bought tickets for the Indianapolis 500 by way of a birthday present. It would be the First motor race for the both of us. My father was in his mid-60s and we had shared few interests. But this day created a bond between us that lasted his lifetime.

We had recently moved to Indiana and we drove from home, leaving before dawn. I was already a regular reader of Sports Car Graphic and Road & Track, and I talked non-stop about how we were going to see the first rear-engine car to win the 500. Jack Brabham had brought a Cooper-Climax to Indy in 1961; Mickey Thompson had built a rear-engine car in ’62, with a Buick V8, for Dan Gurney; and Gurney had returned in ’63 with Jim Clark and Team Lotus. Clark nearly won that year, finishing second to the Watson roadster of Parnelli Jones, which Colin Chapman vigorously protested should have been black-flagged for dropping oil.

It was only a matter of time, though. And 1964 would be the year. I knew it.

Clark and Gurney were the favourites, with new Ford quad-cam V8s powering their Lotuses. Jack Brabham returned with a Brabham-Offy. Walt Hansgen drove an MG Liquid Suspension Special that used the hydro-elastic suspension from the Mini. Dave MacDonald was entered in one of Mickey Thompson’s ‘roller skate’ cars. And even AJ Watson, doyen of roadster builders, had constructed a rear-engined car for 1959 and ’62 winner Rodger Ward. Yep, this had to be the year.

But as the cars came off the fourth turn to start the second lap, MacDonald’s car hit the inside wall directly across from our grandstand seat and exploded. Eddie Sachs, running another rear-engined job, smashed into MacDonald. An inferno erupted with a hollow ‘whump’. My father fell across me to protect me, but I could still feel the heat from the wall of flame. It was little wonder that both drivers died. The other cars stopped immediately, lining the front straight. I thought I could see the Novi of Bobby Unser and the Offy of Johnny Rutherford, but little else. The crowd was very quiet for a very long time. It was hard to imagine continuing after this horrific scene…

But the race did resume, and Bobby Marshman led most of its first 100 miles in a year-old Lotus before losing the drain plug from its oil tank. Clark, who had started on pole, took the lead and was driving away… Suddenly, my father shouted, “His wheel is broken!” Clark’s rear suspension had failed. He had led only eight laps.

The race was now between Jones in the same roadster that he had used to win in 1963, and ’61 winner Al Foyt, also in a Watson roadster. The matter was decided when Jones’ car caught fire during a lap 47 pitstop and was out. Brabham was soon out with a split fuel tank. Gurney’s Lotus was withdrawn for fear of the same failure as Clark. Hansgen continued, but! could see that he didn’t have the speed to win. So, as it turned out, the race had provided a last, not a first: the last win for a road ster at Indy. But 1965 would be the year. I was sure of it.

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