Revolutionairy Perseverance - 1965 Lotus 38 Indycar

Since 1960, British racing firm Lotus had been at the forefront of the mid-engined revolution in Formula 1. Closely following the footsteps of innovator Cooper, the team was able to gain a sizable advantage over the opposition. After witnessing the pace of the concept on the European circuits, head of Lotus Colin Chapman saw an opportunity to spread it overseas.

To this end he elected to build a car for one of the most famous races on the planet, the Indianapolis 500. Chapman wasted no time at all, and had a car ready as early as 1963. Dubbed the Lotus 29, the machine would go into history as the first ever mid-engined Indycar.

The Lotus 29 was Colin Chapman's first warning to the front-engined establishment.

The Lotus 29 was Colin Chapman's first warning to the front-engined establishment.

Indycar racing had until then been dominated by large front-engined roadsters, powered by immensely powerful 4.1L 4-cylinder Offenhauser engines. Formula 1 did not allow anything larger than 1.5L at the time, so Chapman made a deal with Ford to supply a fuel-injected version of their 260 4.2L smallblock V8.

Driven by flying Scotsman Jim Clark, the car finished second behind Parnelli Jones in an oil-spewing Offenhauser-powered Watson. Team mate Dan Gurney finished in 5th. Even though the car failed to win, the writing was on the wall for the ruling Offenhauser elite.

The Lotus 34 failed to clinch the first mid-engine victory.

The Lotus 34 failed to clinch the first mid-engine victory.

For 1964 Ford provided Lotus an improved DOHC V8, supplying even more power. With this extra motivation behind his back, Jim Clark managed to set record speeds on the Brickyard. Coming perilously close to the 160 mph (257 kph) barrier, he clocked a record speed of 159.337. All signs were pointing to a Lotus victory this time.

However, there was a major problem. Tire manufacturer Dunlop had supplied a new tire for the race, but it soon became painfully clear the new rubber wasn't up to the task. Travelling at over 155 mph, Jim Clark suddenly lost all grip as his tire tread detached. The failure sent Clark slamming into the wall, but he was luckily unhurt. In response to the terrifying tire failure, Dan Gurney’s car was pulled out of the race as a safety measure. Again missing out on the victory, Colin Chapman set his sights on developing a winner for 1965.

The big Offenhauser roadster had dominated Indycar racing for over 30 years when Lotus-Ford entered the scene. Here is Arnie Knepper in his Kurtis Offenhauser, one of four still running at Indianapolis in 1965.

The big Offenhauser roadster had dominated Indycar racing for over 30 years when Lotus-Ford entered the scene. Here is Arnie Knepper in his Kurtis Offenhauser, one of four still running at Indianapolis in 1965.

Chapman and his engineer Len Terry decided to build on the previous two cars for their new design. The biggest changes came in the form of an aluminium monocoque instead of a tube frame chassis, and innovative offset suspension. To help the car get around the banked left turns at Indianapolis unequal suspension arms were used.

The suspension arms were longer on the right side of the car than they were on the left. Effectively this made the body sit closer to the inside of the corner. This improved the car’s center of gravity and equalized tire wear on both sides. A downside was very spooky handling for those unfamiliar with it.

Powering the car was an evolved version of Ford’s DOHC V8 Indycar engine, now producing around 500 horsepower. Like before the unit used Hillborn fuel injection. Transferrng the power to the rear wheels was a long-geared ZF 2DS-20 2-speed manual transmission. In total the tiny racer weighed just 612 kilo (1,349 lbs).

The Lotus team presenting the 38. At the wheel is Jim Clark. Next to him in the tan jacket Lotus founder Colin Chapman.

The Lotus team presenting the 38. At the wheel is Jim Clark. Next to him in the tan jacket Lotus founder Colin Chapman.

By 1965 the mid-engined concept had started to catch on with the conservative American teams. When Lotus first introduced the 29 in 1963 it was laughed off as a car for “guys who like to be pushed around“. But after the speed shown by the 29 and the later 34, these critics were starting to second guess their arrogance.

As a result a great number of mid-engined cars were hastily being built by the Americans. Half of these cars were however still powered by the venerable Offenhauser engine. That year, just four front-engined roadsters were left on the grid at Indianapolis.

Jim Clark, Indianapolis 1965.

Jim Clark, Indianapolis 1965.

In qualifying Jim Clark battled with American Indycar ace A.J. Foyt, the winner of last year’s race in a front-engined roadster. Foyt had ironically bought himself one of the older Lotus 34’s, which he had slightly modified to keep up.

Eventually both men broke the 160 mph (257 kph) barrier for, although Clark was the first man to do so in official qualifying. Foyt took pole in the older car with 161.233 mph, with Clark’s new 38 in second with 160.729 mph. Team Lotus’ second driver Bobby Johns managed no more than 22nd on the grid.

Jim Clark (#82) battling A.J. Foyt (#1) for the lead. The offset suspension of the Lotus 38 is clearly visible here.

Jim Clark (#82) battling A.J. Foyt (#1) for the lead. The offset suspension of the Lotus 38 is clearly visible here.

At race start Jim Clark immediately locked horns with A.J. Foyt. The pair jousted for the first three laps, with Clark eventually coming out on top. He held the lead until his first pit stop on lap 65. Foyt then took over until his stop on lap 74. Clark retook the lead and did not give it up after. Eventually just 4 cars out of 33 starters were left on the lead lap, with 3 of them Lotus cars.

A.J. Foyt briefly leading the field in his modified Lotus 34.

A.J. Foyt briefly leading the field in his modified Lotus 34.

Unchallenged, Jim Clark took the checkered flag after 200 laps, securing the first win for a mid-engined car at Indianapolis. Second was 1963 winner Parnelli Jones in a Lotus 34, with rookie Mario Andretti third in a Hawk-Ford. Bobby Johns in the second Lotus 38 managed to finish 7th, a full three laps down. After two unsuccessful attempts, Colin Chapman now finally had his Indy win.

The Lotus 38 finally solidified the end of the front-engined Offenhauser roadster domination. Driven by one of Formula 1’s all-time greats, it showed the conservative American racing world once and for all that the future laid somewhere in the middle. As a consequence of Lotus' commanding victory, A.J. Foyt’s 1964 win would prove to be the last ever victory for a front-engined car at Indianapolis.