SI Vault
Alfred Wright
December 21, 1959
At the Sebring Grand Prix, Jack Brabham finally clinched his world championship of race driving—even shoving his car the final 400 yards in a gesture of gallantry
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December 21, 1959

Long Push For A Champion

At the Sebring Grand Prix, Jack Brabham finally clinched his world championship of race driving—even shoving his car the final 400 yards in a gesture of gallantry

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Yet happen it did, with the leaders hardly more than a mile from home. Moving at perhaps 150 mph on the long airport straightaway just two turns from home, Brabham's car began to falter. He waved McLaren on past him as the engine died—out of gas. Right at McLaren's heels was the Frenchman, and down the last straightaway behind the pits they came and around the last U turn and up the final 200 yards to the finish line. But, alas, Trintignant could not quite catch the fleeing McLaren and took the checkered flag a mere two car lengths behind.

Brabham, meanwhile, coasted to a stop some 400 yards from the finish. According to the rules of racing, he had to get the car across the line without assistance, so he did the only thing possible: he got out and pushed. By this time there were only four other cars still in the race: Brooks, who was on the same lap with Brabham though nearly two minutes behind, and a trio of dogged also-rans who were several laps to the rear. One of the most extraordinary sights that auto racing may see in many years was Brabham in his sky-blue coveralls slowly pushing his car up the straight to the finish line and into the wildly seething crowd of photographers and reporters and fans who were surrounding Winner McLaren and his car during the victory ceremonies. As Brabham and car finally made it across the line and into the throng, the tall, dark-haired, extremely handsome new driving champion of the world collapsed in a heap, thoroughly exhausted. Although the three points he earned for finishing fourth were of no need or use to him in winning the championship, it was a champion's noble effort and entirely worthy of the biggest applause of the day.

From almost any angle, Jack Brabham very well fits the specifications for a champion. He has those extraordinary good looks. He is a man of few words, just as the heroes from wide-open spaces should be. He is modest and hard working. But above all, he is a pro to his finger tips. Among all the great drivers on the Grand Prix circuit, Brabham probably knows more than any about what goes on under the hood of his car. Not only is he the head driver for John Cooper, who makes the outstanding Formula I racing car of the world, but he also spends a great deal of his time in the factory itself, helping to tune and perfect the machines that have brought him his title.


Unlike the spectacular Stirling Moss, who has incorporated himself for the promotion of such byproducts as ghostwritten books and newspaper articles and TV appearances and the other perquisites of fame, Brabham has not made much money out of racing. His early days in Australia, starting just after World War II, were pretty much hand-to-mouth. He drove midgets on the grubby dirt-track circuit and later expanded to hill-climbing contests. It wasn't until 1955 that he had enough of a reputation to join the European circuit, and even there his first years were lean ones. By the sophisticated standards of the Grand Prix crowd, he was a rough and erratic performer. As one of them put it: "The marvelous thing about watching Jack come out of a turn is that you never know which end of the car will show up first." But his knowledge of cars and his tremendous competitive spirit carried him along. Finally, in 1958, he got his first crack at driving Formula I cars for the Cooper factory team. By then he knew he had made the grade, so he sold the little plot of land in Sydney, to which he had one day hoped to return, and invested in a garage not far from the Cooper works in Surbiton, England. It is there that he has now settled with his wife and young son.

During the days before the Sebring race Brabham made a lot of friends without knowing it by refusing to whine over a bad break. Traditionally, the Grand Prix racing season ends in the early fall. At the time it would normally have ended this year, Brabham had the driving title wrapped up. The Sebring race was almost like an afterthought. The international racing authorities were anxious to patronize Promoter Alec Ulmann's venture in hopes of breathing some American enthusiasm into the sport.

But it will be a long time before anyone will know whether the American public will cotton to Grand Prix racing the same way it does to its own track racing. Out in California, Lance Reventlow is still putting the finishing touches on some Formula I cars he hopes to enter in the 1960 races. Ulmann, the creator and indomitable entrepreneur of Sebring racing, is dedicated to the proposition of renewing the race either at the end of the 1960 season or at the start of 1961. With such fine American drivers as Phil Hill and Masten Gregory already making their mark in Europe, perhaps last Saturday's race was the start of something big. Anyway, it produced a fine new champion.

Just before the running of the Grand Prix race at Sebring on Saturday, there was a preliminary billed as the Sebring International Race for Compact Sedans. Since this was to be the second race meeting among Detroit's new compacts and the first in which Chrysler's Valiant was making an appearance, a lot of people were hoping it would prove something more about the respective merits of the cars than last month's compact race at Denver (SI, Nov. 23). Actually, the only thing it proved of importance was that the Corvair, which had chewed up its tires so badly at Denver, is no rougher on rubber than any other stock car when properly prepared for racing. The three Corvairs in the race were entered by Don Allen, a big New York Chevy dealer, who also sent along a first-rate team of mechanics under the direction of Zora Duntov, who used to head the Corvette racing team for General Motors. Each car had an optional "power pack" camshaft, a special suspension to give the rear wheels the negative camber they would have under a six-passenger load, and a set of special racing tires. One Corvair finished sixth over-all and first in its class, and separated from the Corvair only by a Volvo was a Ford Falcon just off a Sebring showroom floor. The leading Valiant, whose bigger engine puts it in a higher classification than Corvair and Falcon, was directly behind the Falcon. Not one of the cars showed any severe tire wear on this fast and winding course.

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