Brabham put Australian racing on the map

August 24, 2003|by TODD BURLAGE/Wheelbase Communications

Imagine Sir Jack Brabham's surprise this spring when after nearly 30 years away from the racing game, he was extended the opportunity to relive a little glory and drive one last lap around his old home track as part of Australian Grand Prix festivities.

And imagine the thrill the 77-year-old gave his thousands of fans that day as Australia's favorite son covered the 3.3-mile track in the BT19 he built and drove to a Formula One (F1) championship in 1966.

"I was humbled but filled with pride," Brabham said of the event that celebrated his life and nearly 40 years in motorsports. "I wouldn't have missed it for the quids."

Jack Brabham, this is your life. And what a life you led.

He wasn't just a driver, he was a national treasure. Brabham beat the odds, bucked the system and blazed the trail his entire career, showing the way for future generations of Australian drivers.


Need proof? Jack Brabham became Sir Jack Brabham in 1979, the only person in history to be knighted for his contributions to motorsports.

He could probably run for office and win in a landslide.

"I'd still race if I was just a little younger," he said, apparently only half joking.

The Brabham era began humbly enough in the late 1940s when a bright and brash teenager was throwing dirt on the oval tracks outside of Melbourne. He became a bit of a local legend but with little competition and even less interest in Australian racing, Brabham packed up his ideas and talents and moved to Europe in 1955.

It took only four years for Brabham to collect his first of three Formula One championships, but it wasn't until 1966 that he did what was considered the impossible: build your own car and drive it to victory. The BT19 would be part of his third F1 championship as a driver and his first as a constructor.

In a series and era dominated by the likes of Jackie Stewart and other British drivers, Brabham not only stood out, but buried the competition. He remains the only driver in Formula One history to win a championship in a self-built car.

"That put Australian racing on the map,'' said Brabham, who was named Australian of the Year that year by the Ausie government.

"Winning in 1966 was a fantastic thrill because it was a great Australian effort with all Australian engineering."

He finished his F1 racing career about 15 years after it began, walking away with 14 wins and 10 runner-up finishes.

But through it all, Brabham was always looking for a competitive advantage, often in ways many people first called unorthodox, but later described as innovative.

There was the time in 1977 when he co-designed a car that carried a large, rear-mounted fan that helped it stick to the track. The "fan car," as it was known, won its only F1 race in 1977 but it was immediately deemed illegal and was disqualified from competition.

Perhaps Brabham's most notable innovation came in the late 1950s when he shook the establishment at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, qualifying the first modern mid-engined car (with the engine located behind the driver) for the Indy 500. Brabham finished ninth. What seemed an anomaly at the time proved to be the beginning of the end to the classic Indy roadster and the foundation for modern race-car construction.

All in a day's work for Brabham.

"Black Jack" remained on top until through the early 1980s when his cars won two more Formula One championships with Nelson Piquet at the wheel. Technology and big money finally caught and passed Brabham by the mid-1980s but not before he had left an indelible mark on his sport, country and family.

His three sons all enjoyed solid racing careers. "And maybe that's what I am most proud of," Brabham has said. "After all, family is the true test of success for any man."

Todd Burlage is a feature writer and contributor to Wheelbase Communications.

© 2003, Wheelbase Communications

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