I get accused of living in the past and I’m guilty as charged, if for no other reason than the 1960s. In terms of innovation, star power and diversity there was no other decade like it. Rear-engined cars took charge and something called aerodynamics came into play. And it was also the deadliest decade, as race drivers in USAC, Formula 1 and NASCAR became endangered species.
In terms of capturing the general public’s attention with speed, danger and great characters, there was no other era to match it. Can-Am and Trans Am shared the spotlight, and the heroes of the day raced almost every weekend, all over the map. A.J. Foyt, Rodger Ward, Parnelli Jones, Jimmy Clark, Graham Hill, Jack Brabham, Richard Petty and David Pearson dominated the headlines, while Mario Andretti, Jackie Stewart, Dan Gurney, Bruce McLaren and the Unser brothers drove into that rarified air.
But while F1 and NASCAR were still fighting for recognition, Indy cars stood at the top of the motorsports mountain and the Indianapolis 500 attracted some of the best of those two disciplines. The claim of having the 33 best drivers in the world wasn’t too far off.
So sit back, and enjoy 10 years that changed the game and shaped the future.
* Foyt captured the first of his seven national championships with four wins (all on one-mile dirt tracks) in 12 races as Ward finished 280 points behind, but only competed in 10 races. He missed Langhorne on purpose and Jimmy Bryan came out of retirement to drive his car, but was killed on the opening lap.
* At Indy, a brave rookie named Jim Hurtubise came within an eyelash of breaking the 150 mph barrier and qualified almost three mph quicker than pole-sitter Eddie Sachs by dirt-tracking his roadster at 149.601 mph. The veterans warned USAC officials “Herk” was going to crash, but instead he shattered the IMS track record. In the race, Jim Rathmann and Ward staged a terrific duel for most of the 200 laps before Rathmann prevailed.
* Bobby Grim earned his first and only Champ Car win at Syracuse, N.Y. while Jim Packard captured Springfield, Ill. only to lose his life two weeks later in a USAC midget race at Fairfield, Ill.
* Jack Brabham won the second of his three world championships in the final year a front-engined F1 car would ever visit victory lane. Stirling Moss gave Lotus’ Colin Chapman his initial F1 triumph before breaking both legs at Spa in a race that saw Chris Bristow and Alan Stacey lose their lives in separate accidents.
* Rex White won the NASCAR title, and 22-year-old Petty scored his first win on a dirt track in Charlotte and earned $800. Junior Johnson won the Daytona 500, and Herman Beam was black-flagged in one of the 100-miler qualifiers for not wearing a helmet.
* Veteran Tony Bettenhausen, who had been the fastest during Indy practice, was killed the day before qualifying began while testing the car of buddy Paul Russo. The two-time national driving champion never won Indianapolis in 14 tries.
* Foyt outlasted Sachs (they both made late pit stops) by eight seconds to take his first Indy 500 in a race contested by a rear-engined Cooper Climax driven by two-time world champ Brabham. He finished ninth on the lead lap but some people predicted that car would mark the end of the roadster. A rookie named Parnelli led 27 laps before being hit in the face with a piece of metal and wound up 12th but a lot of people predicted he would win Indy many times.
* Jones got his first victory in the season finale at Phoenix, while Lloyd Ruby also got his first at Milwaukee. Al Keller was on the pole at Phoenix, but was killed in the race.
* Foyt won the championship again with George Bignotti, scoring four wins, while runner-up Sachs never finished lower than sixth but had five DNQs or DNS.
* Phil Hill became the first American to win the F1 title by beating Ferrari teammate Wolfgang von Trips, who was fatally injured at Monza. The U.S. Grand Prix was held at Watkins Glen, N.Y. for the first time.
* NASCAR staged 52 races, 20 on dirt, 31 on paved ovals and one road course, as Ned Jarrett racked up 27,222 points to take the title over seven-time winner White. Marvin Panch won Daytona for Smokey Yunick – his lone victory in stock car’s grandest stage. And Curtis Turner was banned from competition by Bill France for trying to start a driver’s union.
* Parnelli won the pole at Indy by breaking the 150 mph barrier and led 120 laps in the race before losing his brakes and finishing seventh. Ward led the final 30 laps to put his face on the Borg-Warner Trophy a second time, and teammate Len Sutton finished second to give A.J. Watson’s Leader Card team a rare 1-2.
* Ward beat Foyt for the championship (they each had four wins) on the strength of his Indy win (AJ finished 23rd) as the Leader Card team excelled on dirt and pavement. Bobby Marshman (Phoenix) and Don Branson (Langhorne) notched their first big car wins, and Hugh Randall was killed at the ‘Horne.
* Hill won four of the nine races to become F1 king while Gurney scored his first win for Porsche and Ricardo Rodriguez lost his life in the Mexican Grand Prix.
* Joe Weatherly won the NASCAR title, and Fireball Roberts captured Daytona.