The Transition To Rear-Engine Cars

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In 1963 rear-engine race cars began to take over the world of open-wheel racing.

In 1963, a dramatic transition occurred at the top echelon of American open-wheel racing.

With backing from Ford, Colin Chapman created an Indianapolis car based on his Lotus Formula One machines that nearly won the Indianapolis 500 in its first outing. Jim Clark finished second to Parnelli Jones in a controversy-laced finish that saw Clark supporters accuse USAC officials of favoritism toward the American by allowing Jones to continue to run while his car was leaking oil.

This set off a virtual war between two camps. On one side was the traditional Offy-powered, front-engine, American-built roadster contingent. On the other were supporters of the new European technology, particularly the rear-engine, English-built Lotuses.

There was more at stake than nationalistic pride, however. A tradition-laden form of racing and millions of dollars in equipment would become obsolete should the European technology prevail.

American championship racing was in a state of upheaval. Verbal barrages, veiled threats and posturing were the norm from both sides. Competitors, the media, officials and even the fans were drawn into the fray.

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It certainly made for great theater — the Americans against the foreigners. Offys against Fords. Front-engine roadsters against rear-engine cars. Interest in Indy car racing boomed as the unfolding strife attracted even the casual observer.

Despite the fact the Lotus/Fords had made a remarkable first venture into Indianapolis racing, Henry Ford II was furious that Ford had lost the 500. He insisted Chapman run the cars with Clark and Dan Gurney at Milwaukee and Trenton n order to recoup lost public relations.

The first outing for the Lotuses on a mile oval rubbed already raw American racing nerves more raw. At the Milwaukee Mile for the August Tony Bettenhausen 200, Clark broke the track record by a full second.

In the race, he led all 200 circuits, lapping the field with the exception of second-place A.J. Foyt. Only Clark’s respect for the proud Texan prevented him from putting Foyt a lap down. Gurney finished third.

The Trenton 200 came a month later. By then emotions were burning red-hot. Lotus supporters, elated that the traditionalists got their comeuppance at Milwaukee for their perceived indiscretions at Indianapolis, excitedly anticipated more of the same at Trenton.

When asked about how he would do there, Clark, normally the reserved, humble Scotsman, confidently stated, “I’ll most likely win the race and break the course record, too.”

When told of Clark’s comments, Jones snorted, “Clark might just go back to Scotland talking out of the other side of his mouth!”

The stage was set for a dramatic showdown on the New Jersey oval.

When the Lotuses arrived at Trenton, their exhaust pipes were angled skyward. It was a jab at the roadster drivers, who in the unceasing war of words claimed they were being “gassed” by exhaust from the low-riding Lotuses.

Because of the cool and windy weather conditions, most expected Foyt’s track record of 106.635 mph to stand. Gurney quickly dismissed that prognostication by shattering Foyt’s mark with a 109.24 mph run.

Clark was even quicker.

He took to the track amid great fanfare in front of a raucous record crowd. Master promoter Sam Nunis had brought in a bagpipe band and Clark was piped to his car with “Scotland The Brave.”

When the hoopla settled, Clark had beat Gurney’s mark by .332 mph.

At the green flag, the Lotuses quickly pulled away and within only 20 laps put most of the field a lap down. Fans were stunned. One staunch “old guard” supporter turned to his wife and said, “Let’s go home.”

Suddenly, however, Clark’s car began spewing oil. An oil line had broken. With Clark out, Gurney slipped into the lead and by lap 131 had lapped everyone with the exception of second-place Foyt. Then, on lap 147, Gurney’s Ford belched a cloud of smoke, and he was out of the race.

Foyt claimed the victory.

Clark went back to Scotland, “… talking out of the other side of his mouth.”

In the three races where the new technology and the traditional American equipment had battled head to head, it was two to one in favor of the Americans.

But all involved understood it was the beginning of the end for one of the golden eras of Indianapolis racing.

By the next season, most of the top drivers had rear-engine cars at their disposal. In another year, Foyt would earn the Indianapolis pole with a track record run … in a Lotus.