Jim Clark and Ford started a new era at Indy in 1965
Ford Racing’s open-wheel program was still in its infancy when the 1965 Indianapolis 500 rolled around, but winning one of the most prestigious auto races in the world had become a priority for all involved.
This marked the third straight season Lotus-Ford team owner Colin Chapman and drivers Jim Clark and Dan Gurney were representing the Blue Oval and while steady progress had been made the previous two years with a controversial car that saw its engine mounted behind the driver, there were still some missing pieces.
“What had happened to us was we had come close to winning it and then there was the big Parnelli Jones-Jim Clark conflict in 1963,” recalled legendary Ford engine builder Mose Nowland. “They wouldn’t black flag Parnelli for drizzling oil in a steady stream that covered the front of our Lotus, so we finished second but that was quite the controversy. That hyped the desire to go and win that thing.”
Nowland, a Spirit of Ford Award winner, the highest honor the company can bestow in racing, was assembling and coordinating the build of the pushrod and then the new overhead cam engine during that time. He spent the entire month of May at the speedway in 1963 and ’64, working with the teams on refining its state-of-the-art engine and race car.
“I believe that we set the pace for the future in 1963. We had the push-rod engine and our ‘Cammer’. The ’64 and ’65 engine was on the drawing board in ’63 and it was December of ’63 that we took the Cammer for the first test trip out to Kingman, Arizona. Our driver at that time was Bobby Marshman, only because Jim Clark was tied up with some other commitments, but that was the beginning of the rear engine and V8s.
“When we led most of the ’63 race and then Parnelli got ahead of us and had the oil leak, we had really showed our strength at that time and that was on a V8,” said Nowland, whose career at Ford has lasted over 50 years. “Of course, ’63 was on gasoline and not alcohol, so we had some more power and torque available to us by switching over to alcohol and we did that with the Cammer engine. There was a direct constant flow injection on that, so I would say we pretty much set the pace in ’63 and ’64 with the rear engine V8.”
So with the ’65 race drawing near everything seemed to be taking shape, but there was still an element that was missing. Leo Beebe, who was special vehicles manager for Ford Division at the time, decided to try something unconventional.
“As far as the car and the engine, they were both in order and ready for the win,” said Nowland. “The one thing Ford Motor Company thought we could improve on was the pit stop, so who is the best pit stop team of all? The Wood Brothers. So that’s who they went after.”
With their well-rehearsed choreography and quick reflexes, the Wood Brothers had revolutionized the modern-day pit stop in NASCAR. Brothers Glen, Leonard, Delano and Ray Lee were the recognized leaders in their field and seeing if they could make the transition from stock cars to open-wheel models was a gamble worth taking.
The Wood Brothers crew arrived at the speedway a week before the 500, but did so with some initial trepidation.
“Are these guys gonna resent us being there,” wondered Leonard Wood. “If they are, then it’s not gonna work. But they were very nice and welcomed us with open arms. They were glad we were there, so that made it work. They turned us loose and let us prepare the car the way we wanted to and we began to streamline the system and make everything connect and disconnect easily so it didn’t hang up.”
Delano Wood summed up the way his brothers approached their open-wheel task saying, “I had never seen one, much less had anything to do with it, but we said if it could be done, we could do it.”
Now that the final puzzle piece of the pit crew was in place, all that remained was the race itself.
Since Ford debuted its rear-engine car two years earlier, the sport had rapidly shifted in a similar direction to the point where 27 of the 33 cars in the ’65 race had their engines mounted in the back of the car. In addition, a new rule was put into effect for the race, making it mandatory for each team to make a minimum of two pit stops.
When the green flag flew, Clark and A.J. Foyt immediately engaged in a two-car duel for the lead. The two swapped turns out front with Clark leading the first circuit and Foyt the second before Clark took control on lap three and began to dominate the field. By the time he was scheduled to make his first pit stop on Lap 66, he had a 10-second lead.
“My role in it was to hold the long hose that wound around to the far side of the car,” said Delano Wood. “Leonard was working that and I was holding the hose.”
After a 17-second stop for fuel only, Clark was off pit road and assumed the lead once again when Foyt had to come in for his initial service.
“Everybody thought we’d be in there for close to a minute,” said Leonard Wood. “The commentator, Sam Hanks said, ‘You can bet they didn’t get it full with a green crew and all that. They’ll be coming back in.’ So time went on and we didn’t come back in, so they questioned it and figured we must be running a mixture, where you don’t have to put in half as much. So they went down and asked Chapman what he was running and he said, ‘Pure alcohol.’”
The Wood Brothers had already made an impact and solidified Clark’s lead. When Foyt was forced to drop out with transmission problems 16 laps after the halfway mark, it left Jones as the only real challenger. Clark came in for his second and final stop on Lap 137 with a two-minute cushion and sat calm and collected while the Wood Brothers filled his green-colored No. 82 Lotus powered by Ford machine with fuel in 24 seconds.
Clark, who led 190 of 200 laps, cruised to victory by 119.98 seconds to give Ford Racing its first win in the 500 and the first victory for a rear-engine car. In addition, Clark was the first driver to average more than 150 miles per hour in a 500-mile race (150.686) and became the first foreign-born competitor to win since 1916. He also went on to win the Formula 1 championship a few months later and remains the only man to win the Indianapolis 500 and F1 title in the same season.
Another streak was also started that day and it’s still intact today. Every open-wheel race since that ’65 Indianapolis 500 has been won by a rear-engine car.
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