The 1965 Indy 500, Part 1 – The End Of An Era

[first posted 6/9/2012.  all pictures were taken by the author on his Kodak Instamatic 100]  Between 1956 and 1965, the Indy 500 had been won by a Watson Roadster seven times.  Roger Ward won in ’59 and ’62, and A.J. Foyt had won in ’61 and ’64.  Parnelli Jones won in ’63.  Watson chassis won six consecutive races from 1959 through 1964.  Also in ’64, Chuck Stevenson was in another Dinosaur, a well-worn Kuzma; he qualified 26th but finished 25th with a burnt piston.

But by 1961, the writing was on the wall.  A Cooper T54, driven by Jack Brabham, with a tiny Coventry Climax 168 c.i. four, finished 9th on the lead lap.  The car was sponsored by Jim Kimberly of Kleenex tissue fame.  In keeping with contemporary Formula 1 conventions, the sponsor’s name was not to be seen on the car.  The Watson Roadsters, along with all front engine Indy cars, were labeled “dinosaurs” by the automotive press.

The first serious threat to the Dinosaur’s domination came in 1963 when Jimmy Clark, in a pushrod Lotus-Ford, finished second to Parnelli Jones.  Clark was running strong in 1964 in a Lotus-4 cam Ford but his Dunlop tires let him down.

Jim Clark looks over his #82 Lotus Powered by Ford. Colin Chapman, in gray, attends to some details before the final practice.

Jim Clark had narrowly lost 500 wins in both 1963 and 1964.  In ’63 Clark lost a controversial race to Parnelli Jones’ dinosaur with a badly leaking oil tank.  In ’64, Colin Chapman, against advice otherwise, ran Dunlop tires.  They predictably “chunked” (catastrophic tread loss).  I had my field glasses on Clark’s car as a band of rubber came off the left rear tire, wrapped around the upper A-arm, and broke the suspension, ending Clark’s run that year.

Colin Chapman in discussion with one of the Lotus mechanics.

At the time, Enco/Humble/Esso (now Exxon) wasn’t sure how they wanted the buying public to know them by.  Colin Chapman, seen in this photo, really didn’t give a rat’s ass.  Aside from his sponsorship by Enco, which provided only engine oil and lubes, the Lotus ran on 100% ethanol.

A Mobil fuel rig. My father worked for Mobil so this was a required photo.

Only A.J. Foyt and Al Unser ran gasoline in ’65.  The Fords were able to achieve 3-4 mpg on alcohol.  Clark only needed two fuel stops, the mandated minimum.  Clark’s team used the Wood Brothers of NASCAR renown as a pit crew, and their refueling efforts were so fast it was speculated that they were using a “blend”, gasoline/alcohol.

Jim Clark qualified on the pole with a speed of 160.729 mph. He won the race with an average speed of 150.686 mph.

Clark skipped the Monaco F1 GP in ’65 to run the 500.  Nonetheless he won the F1 Championship in that year, the only driver to have achieved that distinction to date (Mario Andretti won the 500 and the F1 championship, as did others, but not in the same year).

Firestones and Halibrand magnesium wheels.

Amazingly, Clark ran the entire race on one set of Firestones.  Appropriately, the tires were known as “stones” as they were rock hard. It didn’t take long before the tire makers and the racers figured out that softer/grippier tires could be run and changed out at every pit stop, without a time penalty, due to smaller fuel loads.  Today tires are typically changed at every pit stop.

Chuck Stevenson’s Vita Fresh Orange Juice Special.

The Dinosaurs, be they Watsons, Kuzmas or Epperlys with Offy power, were designed to compete reliably on not only paved ovals, but dirt tracks as well.  The USAC trail was a grueling series in which drivers and chief mechanics towed their cars behind their pickups and station wagons from race-to-race, not only to the Indy 500, but numerous state fair races plus the usual USAC fare such as Langhorne, PA, and Trenton, NJ.

Gordon Johncock’s #76 Weinberger Homes Spl, a Watson chassis.

These things were tanks.  Straight axles front and rear.  Torsion bar suspensions.  Low-revving Offy fours.  Only well-heeled owners could afford engine refreshing by Meyer-Drake at the end of the season.  At the end of the season!  These things had to run an entire schedule with one chassis, one engine.  Many promising efforts were scuttled by magneto failure.  Why?  Because the cheap-assed owners wouldn’t cough up for a new Scintilla (magneto).  These things had to run competitively the entire USAC season with no more than tuning and a fresh set of plugs.

Gordon Johncock inside Gasoline Alley.

But by 1965 the Dinosaurs were curiosities.  Only six front-engined cars qualified for the race, two of which were Novis.  The Novis were anomalies that never were considered Dinosaurs.  They were just Novis, or front-engined V8 cars with superchargers.  After 1965 a front-engined car would never again qualify, or run at the Brickyard.

Eddie Johnson’s #23 Chapman Special, a Watson, qualified 28th but managed to finish 10th, five laps down.

Eddie Johnson, driving a Watson Offy, finished 10th.  I was fortunate to have witnessed the last running of the Dinosaurs at the 500.  At the time I felt a certain sense of satisfaction (I had a Euro-centric bias) when Clark won in 1965.  Today I have a sense of loss.  The shark-nosed Watson Dinosaurs, and the laydown Epperlys were some of the most beautiful racers ever crafted.

Postscript:  My father was in marketing for the Mobil Oil Corp. That had gotten me into the 1964 race (sat just behind Ted Kennedy and family), but as an added bonus in 1965, I also had a pass to enter the track on Carburation Day. This was when these photos were taken. I was 16 years-old at the time. I took all of these photos with my new Kodak Instamatic 100. I mistakenly bought slide film (I didn’t own a slide projector), but the film turned out to be Kodak Kodachrome so the images are as brilliant today as they were in 1965. Lucky mistake!