The Day the Dinosaurs Died: The Rear Engine Revolution at Indianapolis

Story by Dean Case August of 1963 marked the end of an era; the reign of the roadsters was over. The modern Indy roadster had evolved after World War II into a deceptively sophisticated device, brutally fast on the high speed Indy oval. Racing exclusively on ovals, the cars were very asymmetrical and unsuited for all but a few tracks. During the late ‘50s the cars even went head-to-head with the best of Formula One at the Monza War of the Worlds. The results there were lopsided victories for the specialized oval racers from America. A few years later, in 1961, reigning World Champion Jack Brabham brought the first modern rear-engined "funny-car" to America. Although horribly underpowered by speedway standards, his little Cooper-Climax was amazingly quick through the turns–faster than any roadster, quick enough to finish the race in ninth place. In 1962 a few others, including Mickey Thompson, tried their hands at the rear-engined cars. Thompson's lead car was driven by road racing star Dan Gurney in his Indy rookie year. Like many of Thompson's cars it was very adventurous in design, but it was also hastily built and contained too many flaws to achieve the desired result. The result of Gurney's participation, though, was profound and set into motion events that would forever change Indycar racing. Gurney's European racing experience was extensive and he knew first-hand the capabilities of the chassis builders. Gurney also knew the capabilities of the various American automakers. Simultaneously he approached both Colin Chapman at Lotus and the folks at Ford Motor Company. It was Gurney who saw a match between the premier Formula One chassis builder and the American giant looking to make its mark in racing. In the two decades since WWII, the engine of choice at Indy, and for all of AAA/USAC "Champ Car" (Note: The terms "Champ Car", "Indycar", and "Big Car" have all been used somewhat interchangeably to describe the cars that raced at the Indianapolis 500 and those races leading to national championships sanctioned by AAA, USAC, CART, and the IRL) racing, was the legendary Offenhauser. Four-cylinder Offys had in fact powered all but one race winner since late in 1947: 197 wins and one loss. The streak-breaker was Bob Finney's 1955 Pikes Peak win in a Lincoln-powered roadster. Any engine maker looking to knock Offenhauser off the top would need a great design. With only a year to work with, Ford did not have time to develop a clean sheet of paper racing engine–a production based engine would have to suffice. The final product from the Ford engineers was a 256-cubic-inch pushrod V8, derived from the Fairlane. Unlike its Offy competition, the Ford engine would race on pump gasoline, not methanol as was the Indy fuel of choice. Meanwhile in England, Colin Chapman's team built three type 29 chassis based on the 1962 type 25 Formula One car. The type 29 had a longer wheelbase in order to accommodate the larger engine, greater fuel capacity, and the longer legs of Dan Gurney! The vehicle was also offset in difference to the left turn only nature of oval track racing.


The combined Lotus-Ford effort made its racing debut at the 1963 Indianapolis 500. The race was won by Parnelli Jones, but Jimmy Clark ran a close and controversial second. The controversy surrounded the lack of a black flag for oil leaking from Parnelli's car. Being Indy rookies, and sportsmanlike people, Chapman and Clark did not file a protest, but the perceived injustice was a likely factor in the decision to race the cars again at both Milwaukee and Trenton later in the year. Indy had proven that the Lotus-Ford cars were both fast and reliable. Even though his engine developed a bad camshaft, Gurney managed to finish seventh in spite of a slow pit stop to tighten a loose wheel nut. The Lotus-Ford team rented the Milwaukee track for a private test on July 12. Having never run on a mile oval the purpose of the test was to learn the track, verify tire compounds, and determine the most effective gear ratios. The test was a success, with both Clark and Gurney unofficially obliterating the lap record set in 1961 by Don Branson at 34.09 seconds and 105.62 mph. Both Clark and Gurney ran consistent 32-second laps with ease. After the test, the Lotus team personnel returned to Europe and the cars were stored in Dearborn while the Ford team members tended to the engines.


In early August, the Lotus crew flew into Detroit, prepared the cars at Ford, and drove to Milwaukee. Come race weekend the cars dominated practice and qualifying. Both Clark and Gurney officially shattered the official lap record. There were problems, though, as Clark blew an engine on Saturday afternoon after sucking a sandwich wrapper into the intake. Chapman asked the Ford folks to come up with some sort of countermeasure to prevent a reoccurrence during the race. Mose Nowland, a young Ford team member, ran down to the local hardware store and bought a few feet of a fine mesh chicken wire and fabricated a protective screen–problem solved. Gurney was having troubles of his own as there was but a single set of the proper North/South mounted Weber carburetors and those were attached to Clark's car. Gurney's car, fitted with an East/West carburetor arrangement, was suffering from an intermittent hesitation coming out of the corners, caused by the centrifugal loads. This precluded his opportunity to challenge Clark for either the pole or the win. Although the Lotus-Ford duo secured the front row, the roadster brigade was not giving up. Both A.J. Foyt and Parnelli Jones had also managed to break Branson's lap record, securing the row two starting positions. Further down the grid were proven race winners such as Rodger Ward, and Eddie Sachs as well as young up-and-comers like Johnny Rutherford and Lloyd Ruby. The race was a Clark runaway. Before a record crowd of 35,000 people, Clark led all 200 laps, slowed only by two brief caution periods. The start had been delayed as Parnelli Jones' team was frantically trying to correct a brake problem. Jones started from the rear and quickly moved through the field to fourth before the brake problems were too severe to continue. Meanwhile, Gurney's run for second place was in jeopardy when the carburetors caused his engine to misfire once again. Gurney was unable to hold off the inspired driving of A.J. Foyt, and just managed to keep Rodger Ward at bay towards the end. Clark lapped the field, save A.J., opting not to rub in the total domination. Clark's efforts were rewarded with over $12,000 in prize and accessory money, a large payday by European racing standards. The significance of the win was noted at the time, this "money" race on the USAC Championship trail being written up in Road & Track, Car and Driver, Motor Trend, and numerous other publications. Clark noted in his 1965 autobiography, Jim Clark at the Wheel, "By winning Milwaukee I had been instrumental in breaking a monopoly in a purely American class of racing. This was almost like an Indy car coming over here and winning a Grand Prix, and though it was not fully realized as such in Britain it certainly was in America." These performances were sufficient to inspire veteran roadster racer Eddie Sachs to write in the Fall 1963 issue of Automobile Quarterly that Tony Hulman might as well change his annual command to "Gentlemen, Start Your Rear Engines." Although roadsters would continue to win USAC races for another year and a half, including the 1964 Indy 500, the handwriting was very clear–future designs would follow the new path, that was clearly demonstrated in Milwaukee by Clark, Gurney, Lotus, and Ford. The Milwaukee race was notable for a number of firsts:
·       First Indycar/Champ car race win for a rear-engined car.
·       First Indycar/Champ car race win for a Lotus chassis.
·       First Indycar/Champ car race win (and pole position) for a modern monocoque chassis.
·       New track records for both qualifying and race distances.
·       First Indycar/Champ car race win (& pole position) for a "Ford" engine.
·       Note: A Lincoln powered roadster won the 1955 Pikes Peak race, a AAA Champ car points paying race - On August 9, 1998 at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, Adrian Fernandez scored the 300th Indycar/Champ car win for Ford.
·       First Indycar/Champ car race win (and pole position) for Jimmy Clark.

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ckosacranoid SuperDork
3/27/18 4:08 p.m.

That was cool to read and thank you very much for sharing this peice of history.

Torqued New Reader
5/21/19 10:10 p.m.

Boy does that story bring backmemories. I was 16 and had my driver's license less than a year. In 1962 I and my high school buddies were all rooting for Micky Thompson, mostly because, I think, he dared to challenge the establishment Offys with a Buick! None of us had ever seen an Offenhauser motor. One of the car magazines that year ran the article title: "Thirty-two Offys and a Buick." At that time that Buick motor was itself something of a novelty, being aluminum and smaller displacement when everything out of Detroit and Dearborn was cast iron. Thanks for the write-up. That was a fun read. 

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