- The Washington Times - Monday, May 28, 2001

When the engines roared into action yesterday for the start of the Indianapolis 500, it marked a couple of notable anniversaries at the Brickyard.

For one thing, it had been 90 years since the first Indy won by Ray Harroun in a Marmon at the startling speed of 74.602 mph. And it had been 40 years since the most revolutionary and perhaps significant Indy 500 when Australia's Jackie Brabham showed up with an underpowered rear-engine car called the Cooper Climax on Memorial Day 1961.

In those days, most cars that competed at Indy and on the U.S. Auto Club circuit were monstrous front-engine jobs. Brabham didn't win the '61 race; he finished ninth. But it was readily apparent that nimble, more maneuverable rear-engine vehicles were coming over the horizon.

The changeover didn't take long. By 1969, there wasn't a front-engine hulk in Indy's 33-car field. Perhaps the best sporting parallel for change was in baseball in the '20s, when Babe Ruth began swatting all those home runs, the lively ball was introduced and "inside strategy" went the way of sidewhiskers and muttonchops.

Brabham was a career road racer and Formula One world champion. He and Englishman John Cooper had built a little car that defied Indy tradition. Brabham sat in the nose of his racer, with the engine throbbing behind. And the car was painted green, supposedly an unlucky color. Brabham looked like a man sitting in a green bathtub, one observer giggled. Lots of laughter and even more skepticism surrounded what people were calling "the funny car."

"We were terribly short on horsepower," Brabham recalled years later. "We had a stretched-out, 2.7-liter engine, and the front-engine cars had a 4.2-liter. We had to use the smaller engine because it was the only one that would fit in our chassis."

When the race began, Brabham drove steadily to his ninth-place finish as A.J. Foyt who's still around as an owner won the first of his three Indy 500s in a Trevis-Offenhauser at an average speed of 139.130 mph. The Aussie simply avoided the roadsters, which had to stay more or less in a groove to negotiate the turns. Brabham's tiny Cooper stayed low on the track but could run wide open almost all the way.

Brabham might have finished as high as fourth except for an accident in front of him, but it didn't really matter. Many rival drivers and owners noticed how he could drive through corners with his little green machine a case of "Jackie, be nimble, Jackie be quick."

Veteran owner Andy Granatelli was among the most prescient eyewitnesses, saying, "What he has done is make every other car obsolete."

Rodger Ward, who had won at Indy in 1960, was equally observant, telling the titterers, "Hey, guys, don't laugh. This guy is on to something."

The following year, 1962, more powerful rear-engine cars turned up at Indy and even more the year after that. Clearly, the '61 event marked a turning point pun intended for America's most famous auto race.

Ironically, Brabham never won at the Brickyard, but a flurry of European invaders followed in his tracks. Four years later, Scotland's Jim Clark took the checkered flag, followed in 1966 by England's Graham Hill. Hey, anybody want to buy a used front-engine racing car cheap?

Before Brabham's appearance, of course, the brutish muscle cars had their day, and it was a long one. Over the decades, modified stock cars had yielded to vehicles designed for racing, some of them exclusively at Indy. Eventually, Offenhauser roadsters came to dominate the field.

In 1962, the classic front-engine roadsters enjoyed their final Memorial Day in the sun as Parnelli Jones took the pole with the first 150 mph qualifying lap. Ward, Jones and Foyt broke speed records while winning the next three races, with Foyt topping out at 147.350 in '64.

But nothing lasts forever especially where technology is concerned. The first car to top 150 mph in the 500 was, appropriately, Clark's rear-engine Lotus-Ford in '65.

The idea of rear engines was nothing new. When Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz independently built the first automobiles in 1885, both put the engines behind the seats, using what we now call a transaxle to drive the rear wheels. Only around the turn of the century, when more powerful engines became too large to place between the seats and rear wheels, were they moved to the front.

In one sense then, Jackie Brabham was going back to the future (apologies to Michael J. Fox and Co.) when he chugged into the Brickyard 40 Memorial Day weekends ago. Seen from a historical perspective, his little green Cooper might have been one of the biggest cars ever to run there.


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