Twelve Years of Speed: The Roadster to Rear Engine Transition

Who knew that the tiny green rear engine Cooper Climax was a harbinger of sweeping change when it qualified for the 1961 Indianapolis 500? Jack Brabham drove to a ninth place finish in that race. What followed over the next five to six was a nearly complete switch to rear engine racecars. The transition resulted in a dozen years of record smashing qualifying and race speeds.

The little car that started the rear engine revolution

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum opened its newest exhibit last week. Races2Records: 12 Years that Revolutionized the Indy 500, 1960-1972. The exhibit features 19 cars, many which are not usually seen on their exhibition floor. The cars include the last roadster to win the race, the last roadster to compete in the 500, and the first winged car to win the 500. Several of the cars on display never made the race, but are there to show some of the innovations and experiments during one of the greatest eras of creativity in Indycar racing.

Roadsters Go Down Swinging

By 1963, the rear engine cars were gaining momentum, but the roadsters still were strong enough to win the pole and the race. Parnelli Jones was the first driver to break the 150 mile per hour barrier in 1962. In 1963 Jones won the pole again and also won the race. Jim Clark finished second in a rear engine car.

Parnelli Jones cracked 150 mph in 1962, then won the race in 1963 in this car.

In 1964 A. J. Foyt won the 500. The race was marred by second lap accident which took the lives of Eddie Sachs and Dave McDonald. It would be the last victory for a front engine car.

The last front engine car to win the 500.

After 1964 roadsters lingered in the race, and 1968 saw the last roadster, driven by Jim Hurtubise, compete in the 500. The car is on display. it is currently being restored.

The last roadster to run in the 500. The state of the car reflects the status of roadsters at the time.


Two innovations in the exhibit that had little success on track are Smoky Yunick’s side car and the Liquid Suspension Special.

Smokey Yunick and George Hurst of Hurst Floor Shift fame collaborated on the design for the 1964 race. Track officials said the car had to do a “rookie test” to prove its safety and speed. The car passed the test, but driver Bobby Johns crashed on his warmup lap prior top a qualifying attempt.

I find it hard to believe anyone would want to drive this

The Liquid Suspension Special entered in 1964 used a hydraulic suspension system. Rubber bladders of hydraulic fluid were connected by a hydraulic line. The concept was to eliminate the need for shck absorbers. Walt Hansgen finished 13th in the race. He had run as high as ourth until a lengthy pit stop took him out of contention. One of the cars was sold to A. J. Foyt, who decided to use his roadster for the race. That turned out to be a pretty good choice.

Liquid Suspension Special

The 60s saw many innovations from people like Yunick, Dan Gurney, and Andy Granatelli. Some of them like the turbine are not the xcope of this exhibit.

A Well Done Presentation

The Museum has done a great job with their special exhibits. The Unser Family was outstanding. I was very impressed with this display. Maybe because of the era it recalls, which is the one I grew up in. The murals behind the car displays are impressive. This one behind the Jones car (R) and the Jim Rathmann’s 1960 race winner is especially striking.

I also liked the graph showing the increase in speed during the 12 year time frame. The black line is the pole speed and the yellow line is the race average.

The exhibit has some other fun things and also one sobering display which is a tribute to Eddie Sachs. It is nothing gory. Sachs’ car from the 1964 race is completely reconstructed as it was on race morning. I didn’t take a picture of it. The car is a nice tribute, and I paused for a moment of silent reflection.

I will post some more photos on The Pit Window’s Facebook page in the next couple of days.

My Long Beach race coverage begins tomorrow with a bit of history.