Almost everything will seem very much as usual next Tuesday when some 250,000 persons assemble at Indianapolis for the annual 500-mile auto race, but one thing will make the occasion very different: the presence of the small, green British bullet shown below. Lurking five rows down in pole position as the 33 cars line up for this 45th running of America's greatest race, this Cooper-Climax adaptation of a Grand Prix racer will pose a hard, new question, which all the color and clamor of Indy on Memorial day will not be able to smother: Is the time-honored Indianapolis roadster (see cover) still master of the Brickyard, or is it merely an expensive fossil soon to be pulverized by intruders from overseas?
Indianapolis has already been profoundly shaken by the little British upstart. Despite an engine only two-thirds the size of the big Indy Offenhausers and a design conceived basically for road racing, quite different from American-style track racing, it was qualified easily by Australia's World Champion Driver Jack Brabham. It is the first foreign car since 1952 to make the "500" starting field. Should it overcome heavy odds and actually win the race, it will be the first to do so since the Italian Maseratis driven by Wilbur Shaw in 1939 and 1940. In any case, it will surely encourage other foreign entrants to come and fight for future "500" purses. The purse this year may well reach $400,000, a figure undreamed of in European racing.
Moreover, the Cooper has one successful revolution already to its credit as it sits on the line in the Brickyard. The British car is fundamentally the same Cooper-Climax with which its beef-loving, pipe-smoking builder and owner, John Cooper, turned international Grand Prix racing frontside-back two years ago. After Cooper's rear-engined car won the 1959 world championship, his rivals abruptly discarded their front-engined designs and put their engines in the rear, where all Grand Prix cars have them now.
That happened overseas, however, and those distant convulsions caused hardly a tremor at Indianapolis. The "500" race was thought to be as remote from the Grand Prix sport as baseball from cricket. Sporadic and mostly ill-planned postwar foreign ventures in the "500" have been futile, and for 20 years the Indy men have remained in their well-worn groove.
No designer appeared to dispute the basic roadster introduced in 1952 by Frank Kurtis, whose greatest innovations were to offset the engine to the left side of the chassis, compensating for the Speedway's four left turns, and drop the driver down beside the drive shaft from his old perch above it. Only the fragile Novisupercharged V-8 interrupted the complacent routine of Meyer-Drake, builders of the long-dominant Offy engine—and then only slightly. Nor did any competitor threaten Ted Halibrand, who cornered nearly all the wheel, rear axle and differential business, or Firestone, who year after year could confidently predict that the winning car would ride on their tires—no other manufacturer built "500" tires.
Thus the simple front-engined, solid-axle Indianapolis car became, as one insider puts it, a catalog item. A new one cost between $25,000 and $30,000. The price was steep, but after all the roadster was the best of all possible cars for the extremely special tasks assigned to it: to accelerate violently away from the Speedway's turns, and be beefy enough not to break should it kiss a concrete retaining wall.
Then Cooper and Brabham happened by Indianapolis last fall on the way to an American road race. They warmed up for some trial laps, and suddenly the far-off thunder reverberated here at home, for Brabham reached an astonishing lap speed of 144.8 mph with a pure Grand Prix Cooper-Climax car. Brabham also cornered brilliantly whether in or out of the "groove," the Americans' fastest safe line through the turns. Indy roadsters out of the groove at extreme speed are in immediate danger of crashing.
Instantly the question rose from America's Grand Prix and sports car fans who have long, and rather blindly, looked down their noses at the Brickyard: Why not try? But wait, said John Cooper. I am not a well-heeled revolutionary. My shop is as modest as my manner. I can't possibly afford to enter your race on my own. If I am to subvert the Indianapolis tradition, I must have financial backing.
And lo, a financial angel appeared, an American with silver hair and a small gold earring in his right ear lobe. James (Gentleman Jim) Kimberly, the footloose millionaire who road-raced Ferrari sports cars in the mid-1950s, offered to underwrite the entire cost of building a special Cooper-Climax for the "500" as well as all attendant expenses. His offer accepted, he set up a $30,000 drawing account for Cooper.