The so-called ‘foreign invasion’ began coincidentally with the much-anticipated 50th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500 in 1961. World Champion Jack Brabham brought a Cooper-Climax grand prix car to the Speedway in 1961, qualified easily and finished 9th. Although Brabham’s race speed was nearly 5 mph slower than A.J. Foyt’s winning speed, the Cooper’s light weight and lower consumption of fuel and tires showed that the anvil-strong, but heavy Roadsters could be beaten.
Dan Gurney, Colin Chapman and Jim Clark deserve much of the credit for exploiting the opportunity. Gurney drove a Buick-powered rear-engine car designed by Mickey Thompson at the Speedway in 1962. Little-known today, Chapman and Clark also practiced at the Speedway in 1962 with a Lotus-Climax GP car although no attempt was made to qualify. Gurney, Chapman and Clark returned together in 1963 with support from the Ford Motor Company and a pair of purpose-built Lotus Indy cars powered by Ford V-8s.
The history of the Indianapolis 500 was rewritten in just three years—as Clark’s Lotus-Ford threatened in 1963, led convincingly in 1964 and won the Indianapolis 500 in 1965. Extraordinarily, the 500 field included only one front-engine roadster by just the following year. The 1966 500-mile race also included three World Champions—Clark, Graham Hill and Jackie Stewart, who all led the race.
American-built chassis—particularly Dan Gurney’s Eagles—soon supplanted European competitors, but the introduction of the first McLaren-Offy to the Speedway in 1970 led to a long rivalry between the two top car builders.
An engine war raged, as well. After racing a stock-block 260 cu. in. V-8 in 1963, Ford introduced a sophisticated dohc V-8 in 1964 that quickly replaced the venerable Offenhauser just as quickly as the Roadsters had been dispatched. After giving away three races to Ford, Offenhauser—now built by Meyer-Drake—came back with a turbocharged engine that beat all comers. Offys finished in eight of the Top Ten positions in 1968. Ford answered with the same, and took back the next three races with a turbocharged four-cam Ford. Then beginning with Mark Donohue’s victory in 1972, the re-born turbo-Offy won five-straight 500s before introduction of an Indy version of the Cosworth V-8, originally designed for Formula 1, made the competition academic.
No team in history has been as successful at the Speedway as Penske Racing. Mark Donohue’s victory in the 1972 Indianapolis 500 marked Roger Penske’s first victory at the Speedway as a car owner. Nearly 40 years later—prior to the 2011 500—Penske Racing has won a record 15 Indianapolis 500s and won the pole position another 15 times. Penske Racing is only the second team in Speedway history to win three consecutive 500s, in 2001-2002-2003, tying a record set by Lou Moore’s Blue Crown Spark Plug team more than 50 years earlier.
An invitation to drive for Penske Racing is as close as a driver will ever come to a guaranteed victory at Indianapolis. Penske Racing’s Indianapolis 500-winners have included Donohue, Rick Mears, Bobby Unser, Danny Sullivan, Al Unser Sr, Emerson Fittipaldi, Al Unser Jr, Gil de Ferran, Sam Hornish Jr and Helio Castroneves. Rick Mears became a four-time 500 winner, all with Penske. And Al Unser Sr. won his record-tying 4th 500 victory with Penske Racing. Helio Castroneves became the latest 3-time winner in 500 history with Penske, and the only driver with an active chance to become a four-time winner.
In 1978, Penske revealed a shrewd strategy—one, again, that reflected the course of a changing nation where industries once dominated by America were increasingly giving way to foreign competition.
Penske Racing converted its PC4-Cosworth Formula 1 car, built in the team’s Poole, England facility, into the PC6 Indy car in 1978. The car was an immediate success, finishing 2nd in 1978 and giving Rick Mears his first 500 victory in 1979. The success of the Penske-Cosworth led the way for British manufacturers March and Lola at the Speedway. The last American-built car to win the Indianapolis 500 was the Patrick Wildcat—an Eagle copy—driven by Gordon Johncock in 1982.
Penske Racing won two more 500s with the Penske chassis before adopting the March car to win four-out-of-five 500s in the mid-80s. Then, as the competition caught up, Penske revealed another surprise. Roger Penske formed a partnership with Chevrolet and former Cosworth engineers Mario Illian and Paul Morgan to create the Ilmore V-8 that raced at Indianapolis as the Chevrolet Indy engine in a new Penske chassis.
Another three-out-of-four victories for Penske Racing came between 1988-1991. And then Roger Penske’s bombshell: Penske Racing arrived at the Speedway in May 1994 with a Mercedes-Benz stock-block engine developed in secrecy with Ilmore. Al Unser Jr absolutely shattered the competition, starting on the pole and winning the race easily.
In more recent years, Helio Castroneves led the Penske Racing three-race sweep from 2001-2003, driving to two victories and creating a new Speedway tradition of climbing the main straight catch fence, then won again in 2009. No team in Indianapolis 500 history has been more successful, or for a longer period of time.