The dinosaurs' last roar

The rear-engined revolution was in full swing at Indy by 1964, but the stars weren’t yet in alignment. Thus were the traditional roadsters permitted one final lap in the Brickyard’s spotlight...
Writer Paul Fearnley

Two-fifths of the American population watched The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964. Beatlemania had turned transatlantic: John, Paul, George and Ringo – plus Jim Clark.

More than 200,000 attended Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 16 to watch the shy Scot – hair fashionably lengthening, horizons rapidly expanding – claim pole for the 48th International 500-Mile Sweepstakes, his spindly, low-riding, British ‘funny car’ flirting with the 160mph barrier with minimum fuss. 

That’s how it seemed, at least.

Lotus Powered by Ford was in its second year at Indy: staid Motown combine seeks hip British combo with attitude and all-new tunes. The first year had been relatively low key and encouraging. The second was an all-out assault, with extra demands and pressures.

Ford, long dismissive of the Brickyard, was suddenly acting like it owned the joint. Mustang, its most important launch since Model T, was prevalent, and corporate blue was pre-eminent – albeit with a splash of green and a yellow stripe.

* * *

Colin Chapman had no time for convention. The quirks of Indy’s interminable Month of May were anathema to Lotus’s charismatic, quixotic boss. The opportunity to prove his superiority – and the resultant prize money – he loved; the rest he could leave. Abrasive, he tended to rub people up the wrong way – not least his own chief designer.

“We formed a good team, bounced ideas off each other and had mutual respect, but Colin and I never had a good personal relationship,” Len Terry says. “At Indy in 1963, he plumbed new depths in that respect.”

He refers to Chapman’s heartless, self-serving decision to send him home, via waiting helicopter, moments after Clark finished second.

Terry: “I was an unknown, even though I did most of the work [on Type 29]. Colin was the figurehead. He liked to think of himself as the key person, which he was to a very great extent, but that was detrimental to some employees.

“I had worked every hour God sent in 1963, but in ’64, because of his shabby treatment, I didn’t put in the same effort. I wasn’t paid on results, I wasn’t paid overtime; I was on a substandard salary.”

Fortunately, Type 34 was an evolution of the 29’s ‘bathtub’ monocoque, modified to accept Ford’s new engine and a ZF gearbox in place of the Colotti. Unfortunately, disenchanted Terry, usually meticulous and fast, took it upon himself to draw every part. The programme ran late. The build didn’t begin until mid-Feb; the engine spec was not signed off until three weeks before May; and the first car arrived in the US on April 27. As usual, the mechanics copped it.

“We were better-prepared in 1963 and ran the car in the UK before going to America,” says Dave Lazenby. “In ’64, we were still building it at the airport.” 

Despite this disarray, Lotus was years ahead of its American opposition. Fast, front-engined cars had been extinct in Grand Prix racing since 1960 – yet they roamed Indy still. Though beautifully built and presented, these ‘roadsters’ were archaic: simple tube-frames on solid axles, with a Ford Model A-based gearbox and, in the main, an engine designed in the ’30s. Although Parnelli Jones fended off the British invasion in controversial circumstances in ’63, the asteroid was looming. The roadsters’ time was up.

So millionaire team owner JC Agajanian had Dick Troutman and Tom Barnes of Scarab and Chaparral fame build a rear-engine car for Jones. A spaceframe powered by the legendary Offenhauser ‘four’, it lapped at more than 150mph during practice. Its driver, however, was not persuaded. “We knew it was the way to go, but ours didn’t handle well,” Jones says. “We took it to Trenton after Indy to test and something broke and I hit the wall. Caught a little fire, too. I said, ‘Take the f***** away!’ We’d tried to make it work, but there was a lot to learn and we hadn’t had time.”

For a fourth Indy 500 in succession, he would use the roadster that might also have won in 1961 and ’62, given better reliability. Its nickname was ‘Ol’ Calhoun’ – with increasing emphasis on ‘Ol’. “It wasn’t a decision as such: we had no choice,” Jones admits. “But at least we had developed a bigger, better tyre. Stock cars had been using smaller, wider (10in) tyres for a while, whereas Firestone had been encouraging us to use taller, narrower (8in) tyres – for aerodynamic benefits, I guess.

“They showed me on paper how it had a longer and, therefore, bigger contact patch. But I didn’t buy that. That might have provided grip going forward, but I wanted side grip, too. It was only when the little Lotus turned up in 1963 that they made the tyres I’d been asking for. I was like, ‘Hey, they’re mine!’”

Rubber was a bugbear of Lotus in 1964. Having ruled out Goodyear’s overheating Blue Streaks, its choice lay between old lag Firestone and newcomer Dunlop. Though softer, stickier and faster over a lap, the latter’s wares showed worrying signs of stress during testing.

“They put too much rubber on them, which was then difficult to keep attached at high speed: they were chunking,” Jones says. “They would have been better off on Firestones.”

Yet Chapman chose Dunlops, an incredibly ballsy decision considering Firestone’s experience and clout – Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone were related by marriage. That he stood up Firestone representatives at a last-minute secret meeting compounded his sin.

“It was a major source of conflict,” says Dan Gurney, Clark’s team-mate. “There was the usual tug of war between England and Detroit, but Colin was no slouch when it came to politics. It was still a good team.”

Lazenby: “The car ran pretty reliably. There were problems, however. Getting the engine in was one. New regulations required a larger gap between it and the driver – a quarter-inch aluminium sheet – and a mesh underneath to catch bits from any blow-ups. Another was the throttle linkage: a rod running down the centre of the engine, which stiffened when it got hot and the clearances altered.

“But these were Ford things. They were like a mother hen with that engine; we weren’t allowed to touch it. Ford had good engineers, but they were nine-to-five people, whereas we’d carry on until a job was finished.” 

Simplistically, the quad-cam V8 was the Fairlane-sourced aluminium bottom end used by the pushrod Indy engine of 1963 mated to a copy of the four-cylinder Offy’s four-valve, twin-cam heads. Terry was not impressed.

“The valve openings were too big for the cylinders,” he says. “Because of that we didn’t generate the gas velocity we needed. Ford wasn’t really au fait with racing at that time.”

He reckons 500bhp-plus should have been achievable on modified Hilborn mechanical fuel injection. The programme fell 75bhp short – yet that was sufficient for its cars to lock out the front row. Clark’s four-lap average on a brand new surface – and using nitro-spiked methanol rather than gasoline – was 158.828mph: a five per cent increase on Jones’s 1963 mark. Alongside him were Bobby Marshman, joint Rookie of the Year with Jones in ’61, and two-time winner Rodger Ward.

The former was driving a Lotus 29 for Lindsey Hopkins. Chapman had been reluctant to release this year-old design to a privateer, but Ford insisted so that Marshman could conduct engine testing. The talented 27-year-old used this experience to hustle Clark all month.

* * *

Ward’s was the first rear-engined car from the most successful builder of roadsters. Prematurely grey like Chapman, but far more even-tempered, A J Watson was a fabricator rather than designer. His roadsters, chalked on the floor of his cinder-block HQ at 421 West Palmer, Glendale, a northern satellite of LA, had followed the same pattern since a victorious debut in 1956. Their Offys were upright – ‘Head’ never felt the need to lay them over to lower CoG and reduce frontal area – and offset so that the driveline skirted the driver’s left hip. Sharky noses and shapely tails, a 6ft hood, sweeping cowl, 9ft exhaust pipe and Plexiglass screen were other winning motifs.

“Actually, I don’t think a Watson was necessarily the best,” Jones says. “The ‘laydown’ Epperly I first drove at Indy [in late 1960] was real good. I told [crew chief Johnny] Pouelsen that I could go straight out and beat the record. But I was told off for going too fast too soon. So they put [two-time champion] Tony Bettenhausen in it. He got near the record and told Hopkins to buy it for him. Or else!

“My Watson was good, but didn’t handle as well as the Epperly, which felt more of a piece.”

Watson roadsters, however, had steered into Victory Lane from 1959-60 and 1962-63 – the missing year was filled by A J Foyt’s copycat Trevis – and remained the most popular choice: 11, plus four facsimiles, made the grid in ’64. Despite a down-on-power replacement engine, Jones was fastest of them at 155.099mph, good enough for the inside of row two. Foyt’s sister machine was alongside. Like Jones, the Texan had sampled a rear-engine car – a Huffaker-Offy fitted with BMC Hydrolastic suspension – during testing, before settling for the devil he knew. Tough, quick and smart, they formed a formidable threat to rear-engined success.

“I knew a roadster could win,” says Gurney, who qualified sixth. “Rear-engined cars had rendered front-engined GP cars obsolete long since, but that didn’t automatically mean a rear-engined Indycar was as close to its limit as an Indy roadster. The roadster guys hadn’t been stood still during those five years, whereas we were new to it. Indy doesn’t give up its secrets readily and the regulars weren’t handing out knowledge for free. I felt sure AJ and Parnelli had tricks up their sleeves.”

It looked as though they were going to need them. Of the 12 funny cars in the field, seven had qualified within the top 10. Not everything, however, was rosy in their camp. The switch was not a quick fix, and the handling of the non-Lotuses was not all it might be. Oregon’s inveterate innovator Rolla Vollstedt coped best with repackaging the taller, heavier Offy – veteran Len Sutton qualified eighth – and Watson was thankful that he had copied his bulbous spaceframe design; Don Branson’s Watson-Offy lined up ninth.

Some Ford cars were struggling. Ted Halibrand, at Indy’s hub since WWII as a supplier of wheels, brakes, axles, suspension and steering assemblies, plus final drives, used this changing of the guard to become a constructor. His machine, a neat monocoque with magnesium bulkheads and panels, was driven by Eddie Sachs, who knew zip about cars except how to drive them fast. Twice a pole-sitter in roadsters, he stuck with his funny car and qualified 17th thanks to the fastest time of the second day; he’d tagged the wall on the first. Directly ahead of him, therefore, was the ‘funniest’ of them all. (Bearing in mind that Smokey Yunick’s bizarre Offy-sidecar combination had crashed in qualifying.)

* * *

Mickey Thompson was a talented engineer who’d made his name on drag strips and salt flats. With the confidence and chutzpah of a snake oil salesman, he persuaded Ford to provide quad cams for his outlandish design. The previous year he had worked similar magic on Firestone, who made low-profile tyres for the 12in wheels on the Chevy-engined ‘rollerskate’ that defeated Graham Hill.

Thompson’s updated contender for 1964 featured enveloping bodywork and ran on unproven General tyres, badged as Allstate as part of a sponsorship deal with Sears, America’s largest retailer. It proved a handful, even more so after USAC insisted it use 15in wheels, and rookie Dave MacDonald, a rising star from Corvettes and Cobras, did well to qualify 14th. 

Running hard on full tanks, he was battling for seventh when he spun exiting Turn 4 on lap two. The car’s progress was graceful – until it struck the inside wall with sickening ferocity. The blazing wreck rebounded into the pack and left Sachs nowhere to go. 

The heat from the gasoline/magnesium fireball forced a large section of the record 250,000 crowd to reel. The acrid mushroom cloud caused tens of thousands of cinema-goers – the race was being shown live across America for the first time – to gasp. For the first time, a 500 was red-flagged because of an accident. 

During the two-hour delay it was announced that Sachs, Indy’s adored ‘Clown Prince’, was dead, killed on impact. MacDonald, burned and poisoned, succumbed in hospital two hours later. Clark, resting against the front wheel of his Lotus, did what he could to calm nerves: “Don’t look so worried… it’s only a sport.”

Gurney: “There was a lot of talk about the [Ford] decision to race using gasoline rather than [Indy standard] methanol. Methanol was better at looking after the engine; gasoline gave better mpg. I didn’t think about it much, other than considering that methanol was capable of cooking you, too. Would I continue? Yes.” 

The restart was undertaken in race order and single file, Clark leading the 26 remaining runners over the line. He maintained that position until Marshman, on Firestones, made a bold move on lap seven. The privateer then motored away at a second per lap, while Clark and Gurney provided a brief Lotus 1-2-3. 

On lap 37, the aggressive Marshman dived` very low onto the apron to pass a backmarker, and immediately began to trail oil smoke. The line was that he’d ripped out the gearbox’s (or engine’s) drain plug. Lazenby is adamant that an oil pipe rerouted by the Hopkins team had been snagged. Whatever the cause, Marshman retired after 39 laps.

Clark led again – but not for long. 

A vibration caused by a chunking Dunlop caused his left-rear suspension to collapse and he tricycled into retirement on lap 48. The team had lived under threat of this since the previous October. Prior to qualifying (no switch of brand was allowed thereafter), Dunlop spoke of a rogue batch and promised improvements, but a busy Whit weekend in the UK – Clark dashed home to win in F2, Lotus 30 and Lotus Cortina, at Mallory Park and Crystal Palace – left the firm unable to respond effectively.

“I guess there was enough chance that they would be okay,” Gurney says. “We didn’t know. No one really knew. Dunlop had sensed there was trouble on the horizon and assured us it was all under control. Without hindsight, we had to presume they were sincere.” 

Both Lazenby and Terry, though not privy to Chapman’s decision, believe there was a monetary motivation. 

“The tyre testing that should have been done, wasn’t,” Terry says. “That could be laid at my door. The jack’s failure was partly my fault, too. My heart just wasn’t in it.”

Lazenby: “That bloody jack [a platform raised by air pressure]! It was just 3in high but the car wouldn’t go over it; perhaps because Dan was heavy with fuel. It was a pantomime. Ford went ballistic. We were doomed from the start.”

It was immediately after a later, scheduled stop that Chapman decided to withdraw Gurney from fifth when he noticed that his Dunlops were showing signs of fatigue.

“I don’t recall exactly, but I suspect I felt a little something [with the tyres],” Gurney says. “Anytime you don’t win you can be excused for being a little peeved. But we had concerns and made a sensible decision. I didn’t dwell on it. Only afterwards did people, not directly connected to it, pontificate.”

With Lotus out of the equation, Jones and Foyt enacted another roaring roadster dice for the lead, passing and repassing for six laps. 

“I had AJ covered, and he knew it,” Jones says. “We were only going back and forth because of my problem. We’d fitted an aluminium tail section that wasn’t strong enough, and the flexing caused the fuel pick-up to work loose; I was misfiring by the end of the straights. If we’d stuck with steel, we would have won. Sometimes you can engineer yourself out of business.

“The only good thing about the aluminium was that it was easier to blow up.”

A spark from the hot exhaust, at the moment Pouelsen snapped the filler shut, ended Jones’s race at his first stop. Though it looked comical – methanol burns invisibly – an undignified bale-out was his only option. He would listen to the remainder of the race on radio, in hospital, while sharing a few unwise beers with Ronnie Duman, a burns victim of the pile-up.

After leading unchallenged for 146 laps, Foyt rumbled down Victory Lane in his “dinosaur”, mischievously flicking a finger at Ford bigwigs as he did so. Despite his roadster being at least 100lb heavier than a Lotus, it had gone the distance on a single set of Firestones; Foyt, unlike inflexible Chapman, had made a late switch. So late that he hadn’t changed the Goodyear patch on his overalls!

Ward’s Watson was the only rear-engined car – ditto Ford – in the top 10. It finished second... and might have won but for an oversight that caused Ward to richen its mixture when he believed he was weakening it. Despite using methanol, he made five stops to Foyt’s two.

Ford’s mood could be imagined. Just about every decision taken had come back to haunt the programme. Two of its drivers had been killed, and dramatic photos were large in every paper. Chapman was summoned to Dearborn, and at the mid-point of a chastening meeting there was a real possibility that Ford would wrest control from him. At which point he launched a bold attack and earned a reprieve. Jones was drafted and won the 200-milers at Milwaukee and Trenton in August-September. 

Foyt, too, drove a Lotus at Milwaukee. Though he retired with a broken gearchange it was clear that the roadsters’ final line of defence had been breached. Only six would contest the 1965 Indy 500 – a race dominated by Clark in a brand new, brilliant Lotus designed by a remotivated Terry; contract up, he was happily clearing his desk on race day. Completed early and tested before shipping, Type 38 ran on Firestones and featured an improved Ford V8 slurping methanol; gasoline had been banned. Harsh lessons had been learned.