How Jim Clark and Lotus won at the Indianapolis 500

As an Indy 500 outsider in a “flimsy car” Jim Clark did more than just beat the Americans in their own Brickyard; he won their respect too

Jim Clark lead

Clark's reserved yet affable nature, combined with an incredible turn of speed, soon won over his American peers


 He was the face of the radical movement that changed open-wheel racing in the USA forever, and yet he did it with a style and a grace that disarmed his opposition rather than bludgeoned them.

He made five starts in the Indianapolis 500 and, with a little luck, could have easily won four of them. His slight frame and reserved demeanour belied the fact he went for the jugular every time he put on the goggles.

But maybe the most impressive thing about Jim Clark’s assault on America in the 1960s was how he won over the brave, burly heroes of the Brickyard, who ate nails for lunch and chewed up those squat-to-pee road racers.

“I’ll be honest, A J [Foyt] and I didn’t pay much attention to him when he first showed up because Formula 1 didn’t carry much prestige over here at that time and we looked at them as somewhat gentlemen racers,” admits Rufus ‘Parnelli’ Jones, arguably one of the five greatest all-around racers of all time.

Jim Clark 63

Clark and co had an instant impact at the Speedway, finishing second on his debut in ’63


“We were the rugged backyard bullies and they had those flimsy funny-looking cars and we really weren’t concerned. That doesn’t mean I didn’t respect Clark right away, because I did. But I wasn’t worried about him when he first showed up.”

People didn’t fear the unknown in 1963 and the front-engined roadster had ruled Indy since the early ’50s. Had it not been for Dan Gurney, there might not have been a chapter on Clark in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) record books. It was Gurney who introduced Ford and Colin Chapman who, in turn, brought his Lotus to Indy with Gurney and Clark, who had never seen an oval track let alone driven on one.

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“Jimmy was willing to do it and that’s what I really liked about him, he loved to race and wasn’t worried about protecting his reputation,” says Gurney, who had made his debut at Indy a year earlier in Mickey Thompson’s rear-engined roller skate.

“But I think no matter who it is, the first time you go to that place it’s a pretty daunting situation. Initially, he wasn’t sure and it took a while for him to get dialled in, but once he did he was right on the pace.”

Starting fifth, Clark’s Lotus was slower on the two long straightaways but quicker through the corners than the roadsters, and his one pitstop strategy allowed him to lead 28 laps, although Jones clearly had the fastest combination.

“He really wasn’t a thorn in my side all day, they just weren’t in our ballpark,” says Parnelli, who led 167 of 200 laps and finished 34 seconds ahead of Clark in a race soaked in controversy after Jones’ car leaked oil and was nearly black-flagged.

Gurney, who wound up starting 12th and finishing seventh after running all afternoon on seven cylinders, chuckles at the memory of owner J C Agajanian begging chief steward Harlan Fengler not to throw the black flag at ’ol Calhoun.

UNITED STATES - JUNE 03: 1963 Indianapolis 500. Lotus driver Jim Clark sits in his Ford powered Lotus 29. Clark will go on to finish the race in second place, Clark will also go to win his first Formula One World Championship later in the year in a Lotus. (Photo by Bob D'Olivo/The Enthusiast Network via Getty Images/Getty Images)

Clark finished second on his Indy debut, but could’ve won had Jones been disqualified

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“The Americans didn’t want some Limey to come over here and win but I think if the race would have been held in England, it would have been the other way round. But he did a fine job. He wanted to follow me but I was running sour so I waved him by after three laps and then he settled into a groove and got the bit between his teeth.”

Sandwiched between the red, white and blue legends of Jones and Foyt at the finish, Clark congratulated the winner and never mentioned the oil on his goggles, except to his crew. “He told Colin he wanted to go to another track and show how good the car was, so they came back to Milwaukee that August, where he won the pole and the race,” recalls Eamon ‘Chalkie’ Fullalove, a Lotus mechanic in the ’60s who today remains one of the best fabricators in the vintage F1 business.

“He lapped everyone except A J and, out of respect, he decided just to stay behind him the last 20 laps. That race opened some people’s eyes about Jim Clark.”

From the archive

As did May of 1964, when he captured pole with a track record and was leading the race when a shredded tyre broke the suspension.

“I took my hat off to Jimmy after he’d run Milwaukee and Trenton in ’63, and he definitely had our attention in 1964,” says Foyt, who scored the final victory for the front-engined roadster that year.

Despite the changing of the guard and the foreign invasion, Clark was not cast as a villain by the loyal fans at Indianapolis.

“I had met him in 1963 at a car show in London and then came to know him after I moved to the US in 1964 and began working at the track,” says Donald Davidson, the loyal United States Auto Club (USAC)/IMS historian for five decades. “He was a lovely bloke – shy, polite and a little ill at ease with his fame.

“I was amazed at how popular he was. You figured the A J and Parnelli fans would have no time for a sissy from England. But, instead of the American fans feeling hostile towards him, he was adored.”

Well, maybe not by everyone. By 1965, Indianapolis had been overrun by the rear-engine revolution and the shy little Scotsman was in everyone’s gunsight. It was the height of patriotism in Gasoline Alley, if not skulduggery.

clark win 65

’64 brought Indy glory at second time of asking


“Clark had just set the track record when I went out and broke it in his year-old car,” says Foyt. “I got on the PA system and said I’d brought the track record back to America and the fans went crazy.”

Behind the scenes, USAC was making it tough on Clark & Co.

“There’s no other way to say it except a lot of effort was made to throw us out,” says Bob Sparshott, a Lotus mechanic at the time who would go on to form the respected BS Fabrications. “USAC made us remake our entire suspension before the race and then they questioned the thickness of our wheels so they all had to be recast.

“It was difficult to keep going and a very interesting month because we thought we had a proven package and everybody wanted to buy one, but some people didn’t seem to want us around.”

Especially after Clark’s virtuoso performance in the race, where he led 190 laps and took the chequered flag almost two minutes ahead of Jones. It seemed to be the perfect combination of driver, chassis, tempo and track.

“I was a rookie that year and I already had the ultimate respect for him because I loved Formula 1 and I wanted to go there some day,” says Mario Andretti, who started fourth and finished third in his first of 29 Indy 500s. “He had the demeanour of Rick Mears, he was quiet but you didn’t take him lightly.

“Look how quickly he adapted to the ovals and he seemed to make it an art, like Mears. Obviously, he had the advantage of a superior car but he had immense talent and Jimmy was the guy driving that train.”

As team-mates and friends, Gurney saw a different side to Clark’s success, especially on a road course.

“I think Jimmy was an edge man more than he was calculating – that’s why he was so good” Dan Gurney

“I think Jimmy was an edge man more than he was calculating. His tail was out a lot of the time and he ran the ragged edge, and that’s why he was so good. He was able to extract the maximum out of the car and hardly ever made a mistake.

“He was more the hell-bent for election kind of guy than calculating, and if you were a spectator, you’d be watching him.”

All eyes were on Clark again in May of 1966 as the now two-time World Champion returned to defend his Indy crown. But, as smooth as the year before had gone, ’66 was destined to be a month of madness.

“It started out bad because we had built cars for BRM engines and they never showed up,” recalls Allan McCall, who began working with Clark on the Ford Cortina programme the previous season. “The geometry on the cars wasn’t working properly and Jimmy just wasn’t with the programme.

From the archive

“What made it worse, we had Al Unser in the other car and he didn’t know the difference so he got right up to speed while Jimmy kept complaining. The night before the first day of qualifying, Chapman gathered us all in the garage and sat Jimmy on a chair in the middle of the room. He said: ‘These boys are working their asses off and they’ve done everything they can. What about you, Jimmy?’

“Clark was livid but he never said a word and finally got up and stormed out. The next day he qualified in the middle of the front row.”

From the disastrous start (a 13-car pile-up) to the confusing finish, it was a strange day. Despite two quick spins, Clark still managed to lead 66 laps and appeared to have back-to-back wins in his pocket. But, when he started to pull into Victory Lane, old buddy Graham Hill was already there.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that Jimmy won that race,” says McCall, who sprinted down the pits in jubilation only to learn Clark had been scored second. “He’d lapped Hill before his first spin and then Graham unlapped himself when Jimmy spun again coming off Turn 4. He didn’t pit for tyres either time and we still had like a 40-second lead after his second spin.

“Chapman had the head of timing and scoring from the RAC in our pit every May and USAC had some little old ladies scoring the race. The lap charts clearly showed Clark was the winner but it didn’t matter. He got screwed.”

Which pretty much set the tone for his final appearance in 1967.

“The whole programme was way behind, we never got to test with the new Firestone tyres and we kept changing engines like shirts because all they did was blow up,” says Fullalove, who watched his hero qualify an uncharacteristic 16th in a year-old car and retire after, naturally, an early engine failure.

Clark wedge 2

Clark (in car on right) showed the turbine-powered Lotus 56’s potential in testing


“It was the same car from 1966 and the changes we made didn’t work. Jimmy was upset the whole month because he wanted to make amends for ’66 for the team.”

That ’67 classic had been dominated by Jones in a turbine-powered, four-wheel-drive missile and Clark was set to wheel Andy Granatelli’s new wedge turbine in 1968. He tested it at the Speedway in early April before being killed in a Formula 2 race at Hockenheim.

“They wanted me to drive that old turbine but after I saw the new one test with Clark in it, I knew everyone would be running for second place,” says Jones, who retired from open-wheel racing at that juncture. (As it was, Joe Leonard took over the car, sat it on pole and was leading when he broke down with nine laps left to run.)

Forty years after his death, Clark is still talked about in revered terms by former rivals and, like Andretti and Jones, is considered one of Indy’s best despite having only one win on his resume.

“For a foreigner, he was a nice guy,” says Foyt with a chuckle. “But seriously, he wasn’t cocky, he showed a lot of respect for Indianapolis and I think he was in a league of his own in F1. He didn’t have to knock people out the way to beat them like some of those boys today.

“Like I said, when he came to our smaller tracks and even tried stock cars once (at Rockingham), that showed me a lot about his character. I enjoyed getting to know him and he was a helluva driver, one of the best.”

Jones agrees with Super Tex. “Clark is right there at the top with A J, Mario, Branson and Hurtubise. He was just a natural racer and had all the talent in the world. Chapman wanted me to run F1 as Jimmy’s team-mate with the understanding I would be the number two driver. I told him I’d be on the gas the last 50 laps regardless of who my team-mate was so it never happened. But I think Jimmy knew where I was coming from.”

Andretti’s goal to make it to F1 was encouraged, if not enabled, by Clark. “I so much looked forward to having conversations with him and I probably asked him 5000 questions about Formula 1, and he answered every one. I asked him what I needed to work on and he said I needed to be quick in the slow corners and carry speed into them. I always appreciated his honesty and friendship and that’s how I got to meet Colin.

“As far as a person, he was absolute class and every positive adjective applied to him. As a race driver, he was flawless.”

Perhaps nobody can offer the perspective of Gurney, once described by Clark’s father as the only driver his son truly feared. They were team-mates at Indy, rivals in F1 and fast friends.

“Whenever Jimmy stepped away from Colin Chapman’s apron strings, he was very good wherever he went. When he got in a car that wasn’t very good, he made it look good anyway. Like the time he took an old car and put it next to me on the front row at Riverside and ran me ragged before he finally dropped out.

Clark spin 2

Spin and no win in ’66


“I wasn’t overwhelmed by Jimmy, but I admired him a lot and I reckon he was just like A J and Mario and Parnelli at their peak. There was no place to hide back then and you could always tell who’s who.

“He got used to winning because he did it a lot, but I know he was very proud to have won the Indy 500. And he was having a good time all the way to the end.”

In only five years at Indy, Clark nonetheless established a popular following and a respected reputation, both of which remain intact today. Success in racing always seems to breed jealousy, but not in this case. As Davidson states: “I never heard anybody say anything negative about Jim Clark, as a driver or a person.”

That alone puts him in a class by himself.

DSJ on…
Why Jim Clark was the best driver in the world

Without question the event of the past weeks was Jim Clark winning the Indianapolis 500 in a Lotus 38-Ford V8, beating the Americans at their own game, fairly and squarely. As he has beaten the Grand Prix world fairly and squarely on numerous occasions, he must be accepted as the best in the world. Certainly the best of today, if not all time, for when you add up all the great accomplishments he has achieved he gets a remarkable score, and I am not counting first places, nor seconds or thirds, but individual driving feats. To my mind there are only two things Clark has still to achieve and they are a resounding win at the Nürburgring and an impressive performance in an open-road race like the Targa Florio.

Clark’s victories can be found in the record books and there are a lot of them, including seven Grands Prix in a row in 1963, but the outstanding things about his driving are those that don’t get in the history books. Like Moss, Fangio, Ascari and Nuvolari, he excels in doing the impossible and is seldom beaten until the flag falls. How many times has he been leading a Grand Prix when his Lotus-Climax has let him down? I have long been a Clark fan, and I still get letters from readers who write to disparage him and his driving, but I know there are many more who, like me, are sure that he is the best.

The weekend after Indianapolis he won an F2 race and the weekend after that he won an F1 race. Three assorted victories in a row and in each event the opposition was the best. No one can dispute the fact that Clark is a good driver, even his rivals don’t do that, but it is a matter of opinion as to whether he is the best motor racing has ever seen. I haven’t overlooked the fact that Colin Chapman supplies Clark with cars, Coventry Climax, Cosworth and Ford supply him with engines, ZF and Hewland supply him with gearboxes and Dunlop and Firestone supply him with tyres. All those people supply their goods to other drivers too, but it is Clark who gets results.

Taken from Motor Sport, July 1965