Jim Clark and Robin Miller never crossed paths at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In fact, Robin’s rocky tenure as Jim Hurtubise’s gofer at the 1968 Indy 500 came just weeks after Clark’s death in a Formula 2 race at Hockenheim.
Had he lived, the legendary Scot was set to make his sixth attempt on the biggest, richest race in the world, his turbine-powered Lotus 56 sharing the same rickety Gasoline Alley garages as Hurtubise’s Mallard and Miller and his polishing cloths.
In the five years before that, Clark had earned the respect and friendship of the Brickyard’s brightest, toughest stars, and entranced a young Miller, whose lifelong love of Indy and its signature race was forged in those wild, daring days of the early 1960s.
With his Lotus boss and mentor Colin Chapman lured by the treasures Indy offered, Clark made his first 500 start in 1963, finishing a controversial second to Parnelli Jones. He earned a dominant win in ’65 (and $166,621 to split with Chapman), came second again in ’66 – or was it really first? – and, after an ill-starred ’67 race, was enthused by the wedge-shaped 56 and his prospects for ’68.
Robin’s RACER story was written in 2015, a half century after Clark’s ’65 win. It’s liberally sprinkled with recollections of the home-grown heroes Clark raced with at Indy and, in his trademark style, it’s an evocative, entertaining look back on events that entranced the young Miller and helped determine his future path.
Laurence Foster, RACER Editor-in-chief
A wispy little sheep farmer with a flimsy car painted green and its engine in the wrong place. Jim Clark and his Lotus-Ford were hardly imposing figures when they unloaded at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the first time in 1963.
The Indianapolis 500 was the richest, deadliest and most prestigious motor race in the world, and had a reputation for sending drivers back home, into retirement or to the morgue.
It required muscles, balls, focus and unwavering confidence to horse around a roadster for four hours, and was certainly no place for “gentlemen racers.” So the slight-built, introverted Scotsman hardly drew any second looks, let alone concern, from the USAC brigade in Gasoline Alley.
“I didn’t give those Formula 1 guys a lot of respect and neither did A.J.,” declares Parnelli Jones, who along with A.J. Foyt ruled USAC racing in the 1960s. “We were the rough, backyard bullies and they were those polite road racers with funny accents who thought they were better than everyone else.
“But he was a nice guy and he caught on to oval racing pretty quick,” he adds. “I was impressed because he was a helluva talent.”
Fifty years ago, Clark put his stamp on the history books by demoralizing the competition and leading 190 of the 200 laps on the way to capturing the 1965 Indy 500. It was his lone win in five starts from 1963-’67 yet, with just a little extra nudge from the racing gods, he could easily have been a two- or even three-time winner at the Brickyard.
But it wasn’t just that dominating drive in ’65 that makes the quiet Scot so revered five decades later.
It was his adaptability to big speeds and concrete walls.
It was his respectful attitude towards Indy and the competition.
It was his ability to handle the ragged edge, lap after lap after lap.
It was the changing philosophy he helped introduce to U.S. racing.
It was his classy demeanor, both on and off the race track.
It was everything.
“Clark was a nice guy, he wasn’t cocky like Graham Hill or (Jackie) Stewart,” says Foyt, whose disdain for English engineers is racing folklore. “He drove hard, but clean, and I had a lot of respect for him because he raced at Milwaukee and Trenton, too. He also drove a terrible stock car at Rockingham and I took my hat off to him.
“I guess we were rivals but, like I said, I liked the guy and I wasn’t real fond of the Brits in general.”
In what became the line of demarcation in American motorsports, Clark was the face of the rear-engine revolution and the overthrower of the status quo in open-wheel racing. His profile was on the rise in 1962 as he scored three grand prix victories for Chapman before testing his F1 Lotus at IMS in October. He would make his Indy 500 debut in ’63 – the same season he earned the first of his two Formula 1 World Championship titles.
“Well, he was willing to do it,” recalls Dan Gurney of his friend, teammate and rival’s decision to go with Lotus to Indy that May. “I think no matter who you are, the first time you go there it’s a pretty daunting situation. You have to be damned determined. Initially, he wasn’t sure, and it took a while for him to get dialed in. But he loved to race and he wasn’t worried about protecting his reputation. If he drove a car that wasn’t very good, he made it look good anyway.”
Jackie Stewart, still three years away from his own sensational Indy 500 debut, was sharing a London apartment with his soon-to-be-rival and marveled at Clark’s swift adaption to the Speedway’s sustained high speeds, left-hand turns and those unforgiving cement walls.
“I think Jim’s style – smooth, clean and gentle – was a good fit for Indianapolis,” says the three-time World Champion, who came within 10 laps of winning Indy as a rookie in 1966. “And because he was in a rear-engine car, that familiarity helped him a little, but ovals were an entirely different style of racing. He laid the groundwork for us other F1 guys going to Indy, showed it could be done. Yet we all still knew we were going over there as amateurs with a big learning curve.”
The 1963 race was soaked in controversy as a result of spilled oil from Parnelli’s cracked tank and the almost-black flag that would have elevated Clark into victory lane as a rookie.
“I was a couple mph faster than he was all day, and he really wasn’t a thorn in my side,” recalls Jones, who led 167 laps to Clark’s 28. “I made three pit stops to his one and the Lotus wasn’t in the same ballpark in the race but, of course, there was the big controversy after the race about me leaking that oil.
“I had no idea that they were thinking about black-flagging me. My oil tank had cracked in the middle and I about spun because the oil poured onto my left rear tire. But it stopped after a while, and I still had quite a bit at the end of the race. The track was greasy all day, but with two laps to go I ran my fastest lap of the race, so how bad could it have been?
“Clark came up after the race and congratulated me,” he adds, “and I thought that was very classy.”
Still, Gurney figures the lack of a black flag was a geographical decision…
“The Americans didn’t want to see some Limey come over here and win the race,” chuckles the eighth-place finisher in ’63, “and I imagine if it had been in England, the decision would have gone the other way.”