1963 — Year Of Transition

Jim Clark in his Lotus at Trenton (N.J.) Speedway in 1963.
Jim Clark in his Lotus at Trenton (N.J.) Speedway in 1963.

1963 was a year of dramatic transition in Indy Car racing.

With backing from Ford, Lotus’s Colin Chapman had created an Indianapolis car based on his Formula One machines that nearly won the 500 in its first outing.

The obvious advantage of the lightweight, rear-engine, English-built cars had opened a virtual war between two camps. On one side was the traditional, Offy-powered, front engine, American made, roadster contingent. The other group, sports car oriented, were fervent in their support of the new European technology.

Drama and tension pervaded American championship racing. There were verbal barrages, veiled threats, and posturing on both sides. Fans, officials and competitors alike were drawn into the fray.

It made for great theater. It was the Americans against the foreigners. The Offys against the Fords. Front engines roadsters against rear engine cars. The traditionalists against the innovators. Interest in Indy Car racing boomed, attracting the attention of even casual observers.

Despite what was accomplished, Henry Ford II was not happy about Ford losing the Indianapolis 500, and insisted that Chapman run the Lotuses with Jim Clark, and Dan Gurney at Milwaukee and Trenton.

The Lotus performance at Milwaukee on August 18, rubbed American racing nerves even rawer. Clark broke the track record by a full second, and led all 200 circuits of the Tony Bettenhausen 200.

He lapped the entire field, with the exception of second place A.J. Foyt. Only Clark’s respect for the proud Texan kept him from being lapped. Gurney finished 3rd in the other Lotus/Ford.

The Trenton 200 was Sept. 22, and by that time emotions on both sides was running red-hot. Lotus supporters believed that Parnelli Jones had snookered Clark at Indianapolis during the cautions to get the win, and that the “Old Guard” had got their comeuppance at Milwaukee. The traditionalists were fighting for a way of racing that had been theirs for decades.

When asked about how he thought he would do at Trenton, Clark, a humble, reserved Scotsman, simply stated, “I’ll most likely win the race, and break the course record, too.”

“Clark might just go back to Scotland talking out of the other side of his mouth,” snorted Jones when told of Clark’s remarks.

When qualifying began before a standing-room-only crowd, Clark’s pre-race statements rang true. Gurney timed first at just over 109 miles per hour, three mph faster than the track record. Clark’s run was even quicker. The Lotuses had the front row.

At the green they motored away. In 20 laps Clark and Gurney had lapped most of the field. One staunch “Old Guard” supporter, turned to his wife and said, “Let’s go home.”

Suddenly, however, Clark’s car was spewing oil. A hose had broken. Gurney slipped into the lead, and by lap 131 of the 200, had lapped every car with the exception of Foyt’s. But, on lap 147, Gurney’s Ford too belched smoke, and he was out.

Foyt went on to take the race, as well as the 1963 National Championship.

In the three races where they went head to head, it was two to one in favor of the roadsters. As Jones predicted, Clark did go back to Scotland, “…talking out of the other side of his mouth.”

But, all involved understood it was the beginning of the end for the dinosaurs of Indy car racing. By the next season, Foyt, Jones and most of the other top drivers would have rear-engine cars at their disposal.