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What Jack Did: The 1964 Indy 500

Sir Jack Brabham on the fifth row inside.

With this year's running of the Indianapolis 500 it will be 50 years since a front engined, Offenhauser powered race car last won the world's biggest motor sports event. And the guy who profoundly influenced that outcome was Sir Jack Brabham.

In 1961 Sir Jack took a rear engine Cooper Climax to the famed oval. No one gave him much of a chance, and many derided the Cooper as toy-like.

By comparison with the big, long, sleek Indy roadsters, with their radical left-offset Offenhauser power plants, the Cooper was a small, spindly and fragile thing.

And if an engine hanging out of the back was not enough of a challenge to existing Indy orthodoxy, then the fact it was not powered by an Offenhauser really got everyone talking.

You see, Offenhauser engines dominated American oval tracks and for as long as anyone cared to remember the sound of racing was "Offy, Offy, and Offy"

The unitary construction of the motor (it had no separate cylinder head) meant it was not vulnerable to head gasket or cylinder stud problems. Accordingly, car owners could run higher compression levels than what was achievable with other motors of the day.

It was the power plant you had to have to win at Indy and that was the accepted wisdom until Jack arrived.
Brabham did not win at Indy that year. He finished ninth. AJ Foyt won. But Jack showed the way of the future and it wasn't front engined and it wasn't Offy powered.

In 1963 Ford combined with Colin Chapman's Team Lotus, Jim Clark and Dan Gurney ( who would go on to drive for Brabham) to qualify two fast, rear-engined cars, running Ford's new 260 cubic inch V8. Clark ran second to Parnelli Jones and gave roadster owners and drivers a BIG fright.

Chapman and Clark returned in 1964. It was to be a dark year in Indy history. Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald, in two the "new fangled" rear engine cars, died in a turn four crash which became a raging inferno. You can see the horror of it all on YouTube by entering ‘indy1964'.

Clark exited on lap 47 with a collapsed left rear suspension and AJ Foyt won. Officials knew the writing was on the wall for the roadsters. As soon as the podium festivities were over they rolled Foyt's  Sheraton-Thompson Special straight into the Indy Museum.

It is the only Indy winner in the museum to not have been restored. It made a recent appearance at the Amelia Island Concourse de Elegance and the stone chips and oil sprays are still plainly visible on its handcrafted panels.

Clark and Chapman won in 1965. A front engine roadster never saw success at Indianapolis again. By 1967 even the venerable Offenhauser engine was in a rear engined car and Johnny Rutherford gave the iconic engine its last win in 1976.

Jim Clark, Dan Gurney, Colin Chapman and Sir Jack Brabham, they changed motor racing as we know it.

David Burrell is the editor of