Graham Hill: The 'smart' rookie's controversial Indy 500 win

It wasn't Graham Hill's first visit to Indianapolis, but it was his first crack at the race - and he won. Or did he? Joe Scalzo unravels the controversy.

2 Graham Hill 1966 Indianapolis 500

Hill: debonair Brit, misunderstood by the Indy locals

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Ray Harroun spent seven hours on the three million bricks of Indianapolis getting his bones beaten to powder winning the inaugural 500-mile sweepstakes. Called upon to say a few words for posterity, Harroun suffered a coughing fit. Then meekly begged for something to eat.

Billy Vukovich won the most molten Indy 500 on record. And in Victory Circle, when an especially astute interviewer inquired if it had been a warm day, the always-congenial Tookie’ barked back that if the moron interviewer had a brain he’d know Indianapolis temperatures were nothing, nothing, compared to a miserable California summer in Fresno ploughing with a tractor.

Sam Hanks, a grizzled warhorse, had ample time to prepare a Victory Circle statement because he was a campaign veteran who’d never led a single lap in 11 prior Indys. But when Sam at last won the 500, the weight of all those losing years so choked him up that, instead of talking, he broke down and bawled. Compared to all this made-in-America theatrics, bombast and weeping, Graham Hill‘s victory utterance in the mad 500 of 1966 was honest and droll: “I’m a bit surprised to have won.” He wasn’t the only one.

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Hill with Jackie Stewart and Jim Clark – the “Scottish accountants” mentioned in his victory speech?

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He was the first rookie winner in 26 years; had to survive getting trapped in the middle of a monster startline smash that wiped out a third of the field; and then had to withstand challenges from his own Indy team-mate Jackie Stewart, and finally from Jimmy Clark, Colin Chapman, and Andy Granatelli and his STP snake-oil gang. Quite an afternoon’s work.

What’s more, Graham only got invited to Indianapolis courtesy of a dead man. The unfortunate deader was Walt Hansgen, a marvelous 46-year-old jouster who road-raced with the same sort of old coot authority and gusto that his codger counterpart Don Branson brought to dirt-tracking. But during Le Mans tests just one month prior to the 1966 Indy, Wailin’ Walt continued lapping faster and faster on a flooded track surface until his Ford MkII ended up crushed and on its top.

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Hansgen, as an employee of Team John Mecom, had been scheduled to partner two-time 500 winner Rodger Ward and the squad’s celebrity Can-Am chauffeur and Indy rookie, Stewart, at Indy. Thus Walt’s violent end led to Graham getting offered the Hansgen chair.

But Graham was reluctant. His one and only unsatisfactory taste of the Brickyard had occurred back in 1963, when he was Formula 1’s reigning world champion. But that had also been the season of Chapman and Clark. Colin had shocked Yanks with his Lotuses; Jimmy had shocked us with his driving and the ease with which he’d made blond, buxom Linda Vaughn ‘Miss Hurst Golden Shifter’ his girlfriend. Graham, by comparison, was a bit of a comedown. His dry and understated humour were misunderstood. And in ’63, he’d been assigned a half-tamed Mickey Thompson automobile he never succeeded in getting into the 500. All this had been enough to keep him away in ’64 and ’65.

What most probably helped bring him back the following season was the priceless opportunity to work for George Bignotti, Team Mecom’s brilliant and obsessed chief mechanic. Already a two-time Indy winner with A J Foyt, Bignotti was hot to conquer a third Indy and a whole lot more after that. His attempts to purchase Lotuses hadn’t gotten anywhere, so George had travelled to England looking for the next best thing in monocoques, and purchased three Eric Broadley-designed Lolas.

Graham Hill 1966 Indianapolis 500

Hill qualified solidly after failing to make it into his first Indy in ’63

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Team Mecom had a peaceful May: Stewart time-trialed for a starting place in the middle of the fourth row; Ward and Hill got the inside and outside of the fifth, respectively. Ward, ostensibly the senior driver and team leader, whined all month about how Bignotti was spending too little time on his car and too much time babysitting his pair of UK novices. But Bignotti always encouraged dissension among his drivers anyway.

The start of the 1966 500 was a textbook example for any sadist wanting to choreograph the most gargantuan wreck in Brickyard annals in five simple steps: mix a hurtling pack of 33 Lotuses, Lolas, Brabhams, Shrikes, Vollstedts, Huffakers, Gerhardts, Watsons, and Eagles, some of them supercharged, some of them turbos, some of them not; add a multi-speed close-ratio gearbox or two so that some cars can come batting through traffic up-shifting through the gears; assemble a field of chauffeurs of every racing discipline from Formula 1 to sprint-car racing; then line up at the wrong end of the grid the impatient likes of Foyt, Dan Gurney, Bobby and Al Unser, ‘Herkie’ Hurtubuise and Roger McCluskey; finally, hold back the screaming mob of 33 with a Mercury Cyclone GT pace car whose clueless pilot brings the surging pack to the starting line at school-zone speeds.

From the archive

The result wasn’t pretty. Flying wheels, halfshafts and miscellaneous shrapnel from colliding and exploding machinery dropped into the grandstands. So almost did Foyt who, after abandoning the carcass of his mauled Lotus, at first sought safety from the flying bits by trying to scale a fence. And then, looking for a scapegoat, A J tried blaming the whole mess on Graham: “Hill’s foot came off the pedal that started the troubles. I’ve been telling everybody that those blankety-blank midget drivers from overseas would cause something like this.”

Clark, Stewart and Hill the three blankety-blanks regrouped an hour later when all the survivors dropped hammers and took off a second time. And after pole-sitter Mario Andretti suffered his annual breakdown, Clark took over the race. Stewart, meanwhile, hovered in the top 10. And Graham was playing it ultra-conservative back in the second tier.

Clark ran the race’s fast lap, but Jimmy’s STP Lotus was proving schizophrenic: at 165 miles, without warning, it unleashed a full 360-degree without hitting anything or losing first place. And just 52 miles later that pantomime repeated. (Fast on his feet as ever, Jimmy later defined STP as ‘Spinning Takes Practice’.)

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Startline crash causes chaos

There was widespread attrition: Ward’s supercharged Offy Mecom was among the casualties and Stewart managed to catch Jimmy and his dodgy Lotus to go into first. Jackie next prepared to go a lap ahead of Hill. Graham resisted. To the amazement of Bignotti and the Mecom crew, he woke up and kicked up his pace by three mph. And to the horror of Bignotti and the Mecom crew, Stewart went after him.

Bignotti believed he had planned things to perfection. However, he hadn’t taken into consideration that Jackie and Graham were BRM team-mates in F1 that year. Egos flying high, each believed he was the faster driver. So the last thing Graham was going to allow happen was have Jackie lap him.

Imploring ‘EZY’ pit board signals to Jackie went unheeded, and just 20 miles of the increased pace that Graham had forced upon the leading machine was all Jackie’s frail four-cam Ford could put up with: with only 10 laps to go, JYS felt everything tying up under him, followed by a total loss of power, and he went tumbling from the lead to a finishing position of merely sixth. Graham, meanwhile, inherited the lead, and the victory.

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Or had he? The Speedway’s scoring tower initially credited Jimmy and his Lotus with the win. Which was why Clark, Chapman, Granatelli and the whole STP circus tried unsuccessfully to crash the winner’s circle. But it turned out that the tower had suffered a nervous breakdown of its own and was itself in error. So it was Graham, and not Jimmy, who ultimately got to cash the hefty winner’s cheque of $156,297.

Behaving with British understatement to the end, Graham declared at the evening’s victory banquet: “I’m very impressed with the size of this cheque. I’m not used to this, but I did bring along a couple of Scottish accountants to handle it” A final harpoon at Jimmy and Jackie?

Graham’s victory didn’t translate to additional Lola sales in America. The arrival of John Surtees that winter subsequently redirected Lola into Formula 1 and away from future successes at the Brickyard, although counterfeit Lolas constructed by Bignotti, and named Colts, subsequently won Indy 500s for Al Unser in 1970 and ’71. Victory-hungry George won twice again, for Eagle in ’73 and March in ’82.

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Hill celebrates his win – after finishing order confusion

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Graham would return to Indianapolis in 1967, qualifying next to last and finishing only 23rd in an ill-prepared Lotus-Ford. Then in ’68, he started from the front row in one of the ill-fated Lotus turbines, which he put into the wall after 110 laps.

The final irony? He was employed by Andy Granatelli’s STP group, the same gang which had unsuccessfully and mistakenly tried to evict him from the Victory Circle in mad 1966.