Skip to main content
Original Issue


At the Sebring Grand Prix, Jack Brabham finally clinched his world championship of race driving—even shoving his car the final 400 yards in a gesture of gallantry

The new automobile driving champion of the world is a 33-year-old Australian named Jack Brabham. He battened down this title at the Grand Prix of the United States, a unique race that was run at Sebring, Fla. last Saturday afternoon and was utterly dominated by Brabham and Bruce McLaren, the genial young winner of the race, who comes from New Zealand.

Three of the 18 drivers entered had a chance to carry off the world championship through the complicated system of point distribution that governs the championship races sanctioned by the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile. Of these three, Brabham was well in the lead with 31 points. Stirling Moss, the brilliant English driver who had been four times runner-up for the title, stood second with 25½ points. Third with 23 was Tony Brooks, another talented English driver and the author who described all the possible permutations in this contest for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED readers last week.

As the field lined up to take the starter's flag at 1:30 on this blowy, ominous-looking, subtropical afternoon, these drivers occupied three of the first four positions on the starting grid. Moss, who had qualified with an astounding speed of 104 mph on the winding 5.2-mile course, had the pole. Next to him was Brabham and in the second row, behind Moss, was Brooks.

On the first lap Brooks's Ferrari was rammed from behind by another car from the Ferrari team, driven by young Count Wolfgang von Trips, of Germany. The collision and a consequent pit stop cost Brooks two minutes, and he was unable to make up more than 30 seconds of this in the two hours of racing that followed.

In the meantime, Moss was taking an imposing lead. Going into the sixth lap, he was 10 seconds ahead of Brabham, who was holding the second position. But Moss never finished that lap. While barreling along at about 100 mph, he heard what he described as "a loud rumble" inside the works of his little black No. 7 Cooper Climax. That was all the racing there was for Moss on this particular day. As best he could tell until the machine was torn apart, there was a failure in the gearbox.

Once Moss had left the action, the race settled down to a steady, apparently inexorable ride to victory for Jack Brabham. Mounted in a green, factory-owned Cooper hardly distinguishable except by color from Moss's black car (one of two entered by British sportsman Rob Walker of the Scotch whisky clan), the Australian just went round and round, holding a comfortable lead of some 30 seconds over the third-place Ferrari. In second place was the other entry of the Cooper factory team, and Bruce McLaren, its 22-year-old driver, had no intention of trying to pass Brabham. He was just holding on in case anything should go wrong with his senior partner.


During the routine middle stages of the race, only half of the original 18 cars were still running, all the others having retired with some form of mechanical trouble. Brabham and McLaren were first and second. The third car, one of the four factory Ferraris present, was driven by Cliff Allison, a highly regarded young English driver. Fourth was Von Trips' factory Ferrari, its red nose bashed in from the earlier collision with Brooks. Behind Von Trips was Maurice Trintignant, the little mustachioed French precisionist, driving Rob Walker's other Cooper. Then came Brooks, too far behind to matter, and after him three also-rans.

With something like 70 miles to go and Brabham and McLaren still having things all their own way, it became apparent that Trintignant's Cooper was making a serious move at the leaders. The Frenchman had put the bigger, heavier, more powerful Ferraris well behind him and was steadily cutting the interval between him-self and the leaders—now 25 seconds, now 22, now 18 and so on. it hardly seemed possible he could make it, but with just three laps to go, Trintignant had the leaders in sight—only five seconds away. As he crouched over the wheel of his humpbacked little Cooper he resembled a kid in the Soapbox Derby at Akron, for the Cooper cockpit is way up front, and the car lacks the lovely long-hooded lines of the classic racing cars.

Gaining, slowly gaining, Trintignant went into the 42nd and last lap only four seconds behind the Brabham-McLaren team, which was still running in tandem as if the two cars were tied by a tow rope. Rob Walker, the anxious owner of Trintignant's car, said as it flew by for the last time, "Anything can happen on the last lap." But he didn't really believe it.

Yet happen it did, with the leaders hardly more than a mile from home. Moving at perhaps 150 mph on the long airport straightaway just two turns from home, Brabham's car began to falter. He waved McLaren on past him as the engine died—out of gas. Right at McLaren's heels was the Frenchman, and down the last straightaway behind the pits they came and around the last U turn and up the final 200 yards to the finish line. But, alas, Trintignant could not quite catch the fleeing McLaren and took the checkered flag a mere two car lengths behind.

Brabham, meanwhile, coasted to a stop some 400 yards from the finish. According to the rules of racing, he had to get the car across the line without assistance, so he did the only thing possible: he got out and pushed. By this time there were only four other cars still in the race: Brooks, who was on the same lap with Brabham though nearly two minutes behind, and a trio of dogged also-rans who were several laps to the rear. One of the most extraordinary sights that auto racing may see in many years was Brabham in his sky-blue coveralls slowly pushing his car up the straight to the finish line and into the wildly seething crowd of photographers and reporters and fans who were surrounding Winner McLaren and his car during the victory ceremonies. As Brabham and car finally made it across the line and into the throng, the tall, dark-haired, extremely handsome new driving champion of the world collapsed in a heap, thoroughly exhausted. Although the three points he earned for finishing fourth were of no need or use to him in winning the championship, it was a champion's noble effort and entirely worthy of the biggest applause of the day.

From almost any angle, Jack Brabham very well fits the specifications for a champion. He has those extraordinary good looks. He is a man of few words, just as the heroes from wide-open spaces should be. He is modest and hard working. But above all, he is a pro to his finger tips. Among all the great drivers on the Grand Prix circuit, Brabham probably knows more than any about what goes on under the hood of his car. Not only is he the head driver for John Cooper, who makes the outstanding Formula I racing car of the world, but he also spends a great deal of his time in the factory itself, helping to tune and perfect the machines that have brought him his title.


Unlike the spectacular Stirling Moss, who has incorporated himself for the promotion of such byproducts as ghostwritten books and newspaper articles and TV appearances and the other perquisites of fame, Brabham has not made much money out of racing. His early days in Australia, starting just after World War II, were pretty much hand-to-mouth. He drove midgets on the grubby dirt-track circuit and later expanded to hill-climbing contests. It wasn't until 1955 that he had enough of a reputation to join the European circuit, and even there his first years were lean ones. By the sophisticated standards of the Grand Prix crowd, he was a rough and erratic performer. As one of them put it: "The marvelous thing about watching Jack come out of a turn is that you never know which end of the car will show up first." But his knowledge of cars and his tremendous competitive spirit carried him along. Finally, in 1958, he got his first crack at driving Formula I cars for the Cooper factory team. By then he knew he had made the grade, so he sold the little plot of land in Sydney, to which he had one day hoped to return, and invested in a garage not far from the Cooper works in Surbiton, England. It is there that he has now settled with his wife and young son.

During the days before the Sebring race Brabham made a lot of friends without knowing it by refusing to whine over a bad break. Traditionally, the Grand Prix racing season ends in the early fall. At the time it would normally have ended this year, Brabham had the driving title wrapped up. The Sebring race was almost like an afterthought. The international racing authorities were anxious to patronize Promoter Alec Ulmann's venture in hopes of breathing some American enthusiasm into the sport.

But it will be a long time before anyone will know whether the American public will cotton to Grand Prix racing the same way it does to its own track racing. Out in California, Lance Reventlow is still putting the finishing touches on some Formula I cars he hopes to enter in the 1960 races. Ulmann, the creator and indomitable entrepreneur of Sebring racing, is dedicated to the proposition of renewing the race either at the end of the 1960 season or at the start of 1961. With such fine American drivers as Phil Hill and Masten Gregory already making their mark in Europe, perhaps last Saturday's race was the start of something big. Anyway, it produced a fine new champion.

Just before the running of the Grand Prix race at Sebring on Saturday, there was a preliminary billed as the Sebring International Race for Compact Sedans. Since this was to be the second race meeting among Detroit's new compacts and the first in which Chrysler's Valiant was making an appearance, a lot of people were hoping it would prove something more about the respective merits of the cars than last month's compact race at Denver (SI, Nov. 23). Actually, the only thing it proved of importance was that the Corvair, which had chewed up its tires so badly at Denver, is no rougher on rubber than any other stock car when properly prepared for racing. The three Corvairs in the race were entered by Don Allen, a big New York Chevy dealer, who also sent along a first-rate team of mechanics under the direction of Zora Duntov, who used to head the Corvette racing team for General Motors. Each car had an optional "power pack" camshaft, a special suspension to give the rear wheels the negative camber they would have under a six-passenger load, and a set of special racing tires. One Corvair finished sixth over-all and first in its class, and separated from the Corvair only by a Volvo was a Ford Falcon just off a Sebring showroom floor. The leading Valiant, whose bigger engine puts it in a higher classification than Corvair and Falcon, was directly behind the Falcon. Not one of the cars showed any severe tire wear on this fast and winding course.



LAST PUSH: puts car inches over the finish line, and exhausted Brabham is fourth in race but wins championship.



COLLAPSED: beside car, Brabham is congratulated by friends after race ends.