SI Vault
Kenneth Rudeen
June 12, 1961
The 50th anniversary '500' was a festival of American superlatives, but even in ninth place Britain's Cooper carried the flag of change
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June 12, 1961

A New Era Opens At Indy's Golden Jubilee

The 50th anniversary '500' was a festival of American superlatives, but even in ninth place Britain's Cooper carried the flag of change

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In all its aspects, last week's Indianapolis 500-mile race was a star-spangled hit. The race itself, on its 50th anniversary, was a marvel of speed and suspense, with seven different leaders and a last-act curtain to take one's breath away. Driver Eddie Sachs, by stopping to change a treadbare tire just three laps from the end, snatched defeat from victory, leaving his pursuer, A. J. Foyt, to claim the $117,975 winner's purse.

Everything else was measured in superlatives: biggest crowd (about 250,000 people); fastest, best-prepared field of cars; largest total purse ($400,000); record average "500" speed (139.130 mph); and even an unparalleled outpouring of nostalgia as Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, Ray Harroun and Earl Cooper circled the speedway in their restored and rackety old Indy racers.

How apple-pie American, how splendid it was—and how deceiving. For besides its cornucopia of American good things, the "500" also contained a small foreign omen for the future. This was the British Cooper-Climax car, driven to ninth place by Australia's World Champion Grand Prix Racer Jack Brabham. The Cooper's presence almost certainly marked the end of an Indianapolis epoch and the beginning of a new one, in which a sharp international rivalry will be added to the Brickyard's matchless wheel-to-wheel competitive spectacle.

The race proved once again that the American Indy roadsters—dominant for nearly ten years—are swift and spectacular. But it also revealed once more the roadsters' less-than-perfect manners and their vulnerability. Apart from the five cars involved in a scary homestretch accident on the 52nd lap, no fewer than 16 roadsters were disabled by mechanical failures before the finish. Mostly to blame were the "terrible power impulses," causing great interior stresses, for which the four-cylinder Indy Offenhauser engines are notorious.

By contrast, the Cooper ran smoothly from start to finish and demonstrated handling qualities far superior to the roadsters. Furthermore, it took a really diehard fan to thrill to the roadster's basic design. Says one impious car owner: "It is a refinement of the prewar passenger car, solid axles and all."

Thus, while giving the roadster full marks, one can honorably and even patriotically suggest that design progress is overdue. Actually, the subject is academic, for the Cooper has generated so much ferment, both abroad and at home, that progress will come willy-nilly.

And if that ninth-place finish seems a trifling accomplishment, consider another first-race precedent: in 1957 Chevrolet, with its vast resources, could make no more than an expensive sputter with the all-out Corvette SS sports car in its one and only race—the Sebring 12 Hours.

Consider also that the Cooper-Climax people (entering Indy for the first time with a car designed in the Grand Prix road racing—not U.S. track racing—tradition and with a maiden "500" driver) made two serious errors in judgment and had one piece of bad luck. The first error was to rely upon soft alloy hub nuts. During each of the Cooper's three pit stops the threads of the right rear hub and wing nut crossed and jammed as a crewman replaced the tire. Mostly because of this, the Cooper crew logged more than twice the pit time of the slickest American crews. The second error was to have Brabham stroke along at 135 to 136 mph in the middle part of the race while the leaders were going up to 10 mph faster. This was done in the hope that only two tire changes would be necessary—but a third stop had to be made anyway, thus adding to the time already squandered in the go-easy move.

Little green fish

Finally, it was Brabham's bad luck to be trapped like a fish in a net in the second flight of racing cars through the laps leading to the big accident (in which, luckily, no one was seriously hurt). The Aussie knew he hadn't enough engine to keep up with the roadsters on the straights. To be competitive, then, he had to produce the record-breaking cornering speeds he had displayed in the prerace trials. But as the early chargers drew away, Brabham found himself boxed in the turns by roadsters "going so slow T could have walked faster," but which he was unable to pass in the following straights.

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