As automobile races go, the eighth annual U.S. Grand Prix was a pretty grand affair. For the sixth straight year it was held at Watkins Glen, N.Y., a picturesque resort town of 2,813 located at the southern tip of Seneca Lake, just up the Yellow Brick Road between Brobdingnag and Brigadoon, and a crowd of 70,000 somehow forced its way along the few narrow access roads to witness the 248-mile test. Lawyer Cameron Argetsinger and the Watkins Glen Grand Prix Corporation assured the financial success of the race, at least from the drivers' point of view, by raising $102,400 in prize money, the largest road-racing purse in history. The first-place pot of 20 grand added up to exactly $1,256 more than all the first purses in the eight other world championship events combined. (In those races, however, the drivers all received appearance money; at the Glen they did not.) Director John Frankenheimer showed up with Actor James Garner to film a segment of a movie they're making, called Grand Prix, scattering more green around the countryside.
But while the Glen was long on cash and class, it was a little short on dramatic action. The weather was miserable. When it wasn't raining, or threatening rain, a biting wind forced drivers and spectators into all sorts of unlikely garb. America's Dan Gurney didn't change expression for four days; England's Graham Hill looked characteristically worried; Scotland's Jackie Stewart looked characteristically unconcerned. Jimmy Clark won the race, which was nice, and nobody had much of anything to say about, for or to Australia's Jack Brabham.
This last was due to Jack's natural camouflage. He does not wear a mustache, as Hill does, is not embarked on a crusade to uphold his country's international racing honor, as Gurney is, has not made a comeback from a near-fatal racing accident, as John Surtees did, and is not exuberant, young and talkative, as Stewart is. This almost universal neglect is puzzling, however, when you understand that Brabham has won 11 Grand Prix races in his career, more than any other active driver except Jimmy Clark (who has 20), and has spaced his victories this season in such a way that on September 4 at Monza, Italy he clinched his third World Driving Championship with two events still to be run. Moreover, he is the very first champion to build his own car.
The world should be at Brabham's feet, at least that part that concerns itself with camshafts and rain tires, but it is not. A discussion of Brabham always ends with a "but," as in. "Oh, yes. Old Jack is the world champion, but..."
October 9, 1966
What follows the but could be Gurney's: "I think he would be the first to admit that there are three or four drivers who are quicker."
Or what Bob Bondurant said: "Jack's quick, but John Surtees and Jochen Rindt are better."
Or what Carroll Shelby said: "He's at the top of the second echelon. Jack's a plodder, a middle-of-the-roader. There are six or seven better."
It was the same way back in 1959 and 1960, when Brabham, after making a slow and painful transition from Australian dirt tracks to the European road circuits, won his first two world titles in Cooper-Climax cars built by an equally unglamorous Englishman, John Cooper. "Jack's the champion," they said, "but Stirling Moss is quicker." It made no difference that Brabham won races while Stirling the Quicker often broke his car and never did win the title.
Part of the problem lies in Brabham's personality. He recently told SI's John Lovesey, "I suppose if you get down to tin tacks I'm a very uninteresting person. I eat plain food, don't drink or smoke, and I'm not interested in going to nightclubs. I'm just interested in the job we're doing—motor racing. That's all I live for, virtually. If other people don't like it, that's just too bad for them."
The truth is, though, that Brabham. if not exactly a bucketful of high jinks, is neither dull nor uninteresting. He talks easily and freely to people he knows well. In the two days of practice leading up to the U.S. Grand Prix there was constant banter between Brabham and Denis Hulme (his team driver), Surtees and many other racing men.
But he is difficult for a stranger to know. "To get anything out of Jack," says his wife, Betty, "is like fishing—you've got to reel in the line. He's not shy, but he is quiet." His business manager, Phil Kerr, says poignantly, "Underneath it all, he is human."
Brabham is a superb mechanic and a cum laude student of racing machines, as even his severest critics admit. And since nobody has yet built a perfectly reliable car, these assets count every bit as much as driving skill. Jack's home-built racer is powered by an eight-cylinder engine from Repco, an industrial concern in Melbourne. Compared to other power plants on the Grand Prix circuits, the Repco is a deceptively simple thing. It has neither the sophistication of the new 16-cylinder BRM engine that Clark, Hill and Stewart used Sunday, nor the potential of the 12-cylinder Honda and Weslake. All the Repco-Brabhams do is win.
This season brought a switch in the Grand Prix formula from a 1.5-liter engine to one twice as big. The result—standard when engines are changed—was chaos. "It usually takes a year to get a new engine to where it's bulletproof," said Gurney. With just one race left on the calendar (in Mexico City, October 23), only Brabham has yet produced a reliable three-liter engine.
Brabham eschewed the complicated and the unproved, choosing instead an engine that is essentially a racing version of the defunct Oldsmobile aluminum V-8, a sturdy unit meant for passenger cars. While the other factory teams wallowed in experimentation, Brabham, in effect, stole the 1966 championship.
He did not finish the season's first race at Monaco on May 22, but three weeks later, in the rain-plagued Belgian Grand Prix, Brabham was fourth and picked up his first three points toward the title. Then came a remarkable streak. In a month and four days he won four consecutive Grands Prix—at Reims, France; Brands Hatch, England; Zandvoort, Holland; and on the N√ºrburgring in Germany. At Monza, Surtees and Stewart, the only drivers who could have caught Brabham, were eliminated from the championship fight when they, like Jack, did not finish the race.
At the Glen there were a few hopeful signs that somebody else had finally figured how to make a three-liter engine perform quickly over a reasonable period of time. During trials no fewer than 14 of the 19 drivers broke the existing practice-lap record of one minute 11.16 seconds (116.36 mph) for the 2.3-mile course set by Clark in a Lotus-Climax last year.
Most of the top qualifying was done on Friday in the face of a bitter wind that forced at least one driver—Gurney—to wear a topcoat over his fireproof racing suit during part of practice. Lorenzo Bandini, driving the only Ferrari entered, had the best speed of the day, 120.577 mph, followed closely by Hill and Surtees. Bandini kept the pole until the last hour of qualifying on Saturday, when Brabham, who practiced very little the second day, went out just before the track's close and turned in a 121.017. Clark, meanwhile, also slipped in a fast lap and wound up beside Brabham on the first row.
Right up until the start on Sunday afternoon there was doubt as to which of two cars Clark would choose to drive. He very nearly took an old two-liter Lotus-Climax that he had campaigned unsuccessfully this season, but at the last moment he and Team Manager Colin Chapman wheeled out a Lotus-BRM.
As the race began—in sunshine, for a change—Bandini, Brabham. Clark and Surtees broke from the grid, and while they did not exactly leave the rest of the field behind, it became clear that the winner would come from this quartet. Bandini's margin over Brabham was never more than three car lengths in the early stages and on the 10th lap Brabham passed the Italian in the 90° turn that sends the drivers sliding into the short pit straightaway.
Surtees, meanwhile, had an unfortunate encounter with Peter Arundell, who was driving the Lotus Clark had given up. Neither car was damaged, but the 1964 world champion lost three laps in the pit checking his over.
Then Bandini retired with a broken piston on Lap 34, Brabham went out because of ignition trouble 21 laps later, and the race was Clark's for the taking. He took it, at a record average of 114.94. At that moment Brabham was invisible behind that old reliable camouflage.