New South Walian engineer/mechanic Jim Smith had been with Team Lotus for less than a year when he was suddenly allocated to the world’s best driver at the world’s most lucrative race: to Jim Clark at the 1965 Indianapolis 500.
“We – Colin [Chapman], Jimmy [Clark], Dave [Lazenby, the chief mechanic] and myself – ran the car [a Lotus 38] almost every day that Month of May,” he says. “Jimmy would come in and tell us what the car was or wasn’t doing – his descriptions were very good – and we’d talk it through, sometimes.
A recent Lotus reunion: L-R Bob Dance,Leo Wybrott, Jim Smith and Ray Parsons
“I never heard Jimmy say that we should do this or that. He only ever asked for one thing. When he saw a chunk missing from one of his Goodyears, he said: ‘Take them off!’ I don’t think Colin had any say in the matter; Jimmy was adamant.
“Their relationship, though, was incredible. Down to a fine art. I didn’t appreciate what a privileged position I was in. Not until many years later did I realise how few people ever get to enjoy an experience like that.
“Usually it was Colin – always present when Jimmy was running – telling us what to do. We changed springs, caster and camber a bit. Nothing drastic. There was no tyre stagger. It was pretty rudimentary. We jacked weight around more than anything else.
“Tyre-pressure changes are a reasonably new thing. Before our car went out onto the track, it stopped at the Firestone or Goodyear bay in Gasoline Alley and had its pressures set. Temperatures right across the tyre were checked and pressures re-checked when it came back in. That was that – and it was out of our hands.
“Indy was definitely set up for the old roadsters. You could remove an engine from one of those in less than a half-hour, fit another in 40 minutes and then go partying. Those cars were so solid that you might get a ding in the bodywork and that was all.
“The same could not be said for the lightweight rear-engined cars.
“Some American teams had kept the same Indy garages for years. They’d all grown up together and had a great lifestyle. We stuffed that up with our bloody ‘funny cars’ that you had to pull down after every session.
“But I don’t know where the story about Ford people draining our oil each day comes from, probably from 1964. You hardly saw them [in 1965]. The heavies would be there now and again, but they mostly spoke with Colin. None of them touched the car or told me what to do. All my instructions came from Colin and Dave.
“The only contacts I had with Ford were Danny ‘Termite’ Jones and ‘Chickie’ Hirashima, the Autolite representative. The latter was the only one to touch 38/1 [Clark’s chassis]. He’d fit the warm-up plugs, whip them out after four or five laps, check them, peer down the holes, put the hot plugs in and send Jimmy on his way.
“After a few days of running, we sent Jimmy out on nearly empty tanks, to run out of fuel. When we filled it up afterwards, if I remember correctly, it came up about two gallons short of the allowable maximum. Colin had a ‘blue’ with [designer] Len Terry about that.
“This fact, together with the consumption that we were getting – the engine was thirstier than anticipated – meant we couldn’t complete the race on two stops, as Colin had planned. He asked Ford if we could lean the mixture and was told that we couldn’t. So he turned to me and told me to lean it by half a turn. He needed Ford to come up with a solution.
“Jimmy went out and promptly melted eight pistons.
“I spent that night removing the engine. At 4.00am or 5.00am – that’s how long it took! – I heard a thump outside our garage: a crated engine being delivered. This one had a different injection system. Instead of a spray nozzle in the side of the body, it had a venturi and nozzle at its centre to give better atomisation and the consumption we needed.
“Later, when I was working with the Americans [from 1965-66], I found out that some of them had used that system earlier in May but hadn’t liked it; Jimmy reported no difference, that I was aware of.
“A few days before Pole Day we were in the pits with Ford’s engine guys and Colin asked them how much nitro we could run for qualifying.
“‘Thirty per cent, Mr Chapman. How much will you run?’ they replied.
“They nearly died.
“The first time Jimmy tried it, he pulled up with a grin from ear to ear: ‘Oh, this is a whole new deal. I planted my foot where I usually do and the back end stepped out.’
“There was a short practice session prior to qualifying and Jimmy came in to say that he was well over the rev-limit by the end of the front straight. It was decided that I should fit a higher gear.
“By this time, however, we were in the qualifying queue, so I threw a tray under the gearbox and sat on my bum and proceeded to work, crabbing along and pushing the tray in front of me as the queue moved up.
“At the same time AJ Foyt claimed that he had an engine problem and moved back down the line, immediately behind Jimmy; this gave him the edge he needed and Jimmy ended up second fastest. But Colin wasn’t worried.
“I removed that engine and sent it to Ford for an overhaul – you were required to race using the engine that you had qualified with – and then I stripped the car and rebuilt it, renewing and greasing the wheel bearings, etc.
Back row, L-R: Dave Lazenby, Graham Clode, Peter Jackson, Bob Sparshott, Allan Moffat, Jim Smith
Front row, L-R: Colin Chapman, Mike Underwood, Jim Clark
“There was not enough running time on Carburetion Day [May 27] to reset the suspension on a rear-engined car, so I was meticulous to ensure that it went back together exactly as it was before. I’m not sure that had always happened.
“Unlike most of the others, I guess, I thought that the race was an anti-climax. I had very much enjoyed the Month of May and all the work that had gone into getting the car to the starting line. In contrast I did nothing during the race. I just stood there in case something went wrong. And nothing did.
“Jimmy later told me that on the second lap he had eased to let AJ past so that he could have a look at him, but that AJ was not running as fast as he wanted to run: so he repassed him.
“NASCAR’s Wood Brothers did our race refuelling. I was the only one to spend time with them.
“I’d been buggering with the refuelling system since qualifying [May 15]. Brand new aircraft coupling units, they were OK if you were in no particular rush, but useless for refuelling during a race. One jammed the first time I tried to connect it. You had to get it absolutely square.
“For the few next days I filed off any sharp edges and made a taper on the locking tabs, trying it after every alteration.
“I was still working on it when the Brothers arrived. They nailed a female receiver to an engine crate, tried the coupling – and it jammed. So I kept modifying until they could virtually throw it into place, lock, unlock and remove it without a hitch. Every time.
“I showed them what I had done and they modified the other three connectors.
“Officials impounded Jimmy’s car after the race and someone had to stay with it. I drew the short straw.
“We finally went for dinner at an Italian restaurant in downtown Indianapolis. State law banned the sale of liquor on Memorial Day [May 31], so they served us wine in coffee cups.
“There was a great feeling of relief and elation. It was overwhelming. The only thing I can remember about that night is putting my head on the table and Jimmy digging me in the ribs.
“It had been a long month.
“Colin and I stayed on after everyone else had either gone home or to Mosport for a sports car race. I was the last Team Lotus mechanic at Indy.
“I ate with Colin a night or so after the official photo shoot and he asked me to have a look at the gearbox, because, he believed, it had been our weakest point.
“He also said, ‘I am talking with Ford tomorrow. Don’t worry! They’re not getting these cars. Last year’s cars were our only opposition this year.’
“At 10.00am the next day – I’d only just arrived – the garage phone rang: ‘Chapman here. Have you looked at the gearbox yet?’
“‘Halfway through it.’
“‘Well, hurry up! The cars are going to Ford Motor Company.’
“I whipped a spark plug from the winner as a souvenir – I’ve since lost it – and had a good look inside its gearbox before the trucks arrived that afternoon. That was the last contact I had with the cars.
“I received another urgent call a few days later, this time from [competitions manager] Andrew Ferguson. The prize money cheques had been made out to Team Lotus Ltd rather than Team Lotus (Overseas) Ltd, the Bahamas-based entrant.
“I returned to London with new cheques in my pocket.”
And with a ruined roll of film.
“I’d taken a few photos during the month, not very many; I was too busy. But somewhere [in Victory Lane] I changed a roll and must have rewound with the bloody camera back open.”
A photo (taken by McLaren’s Tyler Alexander) exists, however, of Jim, camera clutched tight, and Colin – along with Ford’s US racing director Leo Beebe and a mysterious other in sunglasses and a striped shirt – running side-by-side and pell-mell along the pit lane towards Clark the returning hero (above).
Though their paths would soon diverge – Jim left Team Lotus a few weeks later for an 18-month spell in American auto and offshore powerboat racing before returning to his first love, the sea – they will be forever united at this crucial crossroads in motor racing history.