Skip to main content
Original Issue


Jack Brabham is the world's leading driver for the second straight year, but he remains a bafflingly normal man: he likes to make haste slowly

Over the years a long procession of headstrong, audacious drivers has stamped auto racing as a sport of rare adventure—and adventurous sports. No driver made his mark more indelibly than Tazio Nuvolari, the granite-jawed Italian hero of the 1930s who, often half-choked by exhaust fumes, hurled a bright-red Alfa Romeo along perilous roads as if storming a fortress singlehanded.

Now along comes a low-pressure driver who is so different from the romantic figures of racing he hardly seems to belong to the same breed. Yet today he is the world's No. 1 road-racing man, and there are many racing followers who will tell you he is among the best of all time. He is Jack Brabham (see cover), a self-effacing, good-natured, soft-voiced Australian whose most distinguishing characteristic is his prudence. His philosophy of driving, which in his mild way he has repeated to any who have asked him, is "to win a race in the slowest possible time."

Suiting deeds to words, he narrowly won the world driver championship last year with the most deliberate brand of speed yet seen in racing. He recaptured the title this year by taking no fewer than five of seven races. None of the victories was spectacular. All were as precisely competent as a Rolls-Royce clock. Perhaps his finest race this year was in the Belgian Grand Prix. Ruthlessly pursued for a time on the fastest, most hazardous course in Europe, he coolly led from start to finish. His average speed was a record-breaking and rather staggering 133 mph. Fittingly enough, he won in probably the least glamorous car ever to move away from a starting grid—the tiny, rear-engined Cooper-Climax from the tiny shop of Britain's John Cooper (SI, Aug. 1).

In some respects Brabham resembles that quiet giant of postwar racing, Argentina's five-time world champion, Juan Manuel Fangio. Fangio was also a firm believer in making haste slowly. But on occasion Fangio would let his heart rule his head and unleash a galvanizing display of bravura driving. Outwardly nerveless, he seethed inwardly with the tensions of racing; he rarely could sleep the night after an event. Brabham has no trouble sleeping.

It is Brabham's very easy nature that has, until recently, detracted from his stature. People could not accept his refusal to go fast merely for the sake of speed—although that really was the reason for his success. In truth, he seemed a pale imitation of that romantic idol of British racing, Stirling Moss.

Moss was giving Fangio all the competition he wanted as long ago as the mid-1950s, when the little-known Brabham was slogging imperceptibly forward. Even today Moss is acknowledged by everyone, including Brabham, to be slightly the faster in getting around a race course.

After Fangio's retirement in 1957 it was assumed that Moss would promptly ascend his throne for an extended reign. However, his countryman, Mike Hawthorn, beat him in 1958; it was Brabham in 1959; and this year a crackup in practice for the Belgian race removed Moss once more from the running.

Moss's followers are convinced that he would have won in 1958 and 1959 if he had not been unnaturally tormented with unreliable cars. His critics are equally sure that Moss's damn-the-torpedoes style contributed to their fragility.

On and off the race course Brabham and his chief rival are as unlike as Perry Como and Frank Sinatra. Brabham, 34, is three years older than Moss. Nearly 6 feet tall, broad-shouldered and darkly handsome, he walks with the lazy shamble of a boy bound for school. All of his movements are deliberate, as is his conversation. On the speaking platform he does not shine. Reporting an English affair at which he was honored for his 1960 championship, the British press noted his "usual bashful speech."

Except for a taste for practical jokes (he specializes in the unexpected "banger," or firecracker), Brabham has none of the eccentricities or foibles that mark other drivers. One has grown a beard. Another dips snuff. A third chases skirts. Brabham is clean-shaven, neither smokes nor drinks and has been married to the same wife for nine years.

"He is not," says Moss, "what I would call a passionate driver. This makes him a very formidable competitor. He is always on form. He is always fast. He is a calculating driver. He is an intelligent and misleading driver. He will run a race as fast as necessary and no faster.

"He is not temperamental and he is not highly strung. That's surprising, when you come to think of it, in this business. I'm temperamental and I know it. Not when I'm racing, mind you, but away from the circuit things can upset me. Nothing upsets Jack."

Moss is smallish and quick-moving. He radiates energy. He is an eloquent apologist for auto racing, a keen and articulate analyst of the sport and an outspoken commentator on its controversial issues.

He is also an unabashed defender of his own driving style.

"When my car will move," he says, "I will try to win. I like a fight. Sometimes this may not be the right approach, but there it is. I like to race. I like a go."

There is a further, and critical, difference between the two men. Brabham is a superb mechanic, as was Fangio; Moss is not mechanically inclined. Brabham can go like the wind, make no mistake about it, but his racing tactics are always tailored to the health of his car. Understanding perfectly what goes on inside it, he is supersensitive to the slightest danger signal.

John Arthur Brabham has been a mover and tinkerer since earliest childhood. Reared in Hurstville, a suburb of Sydney, Australia, he was excited by cars and planes almost from the moment he first saw them.

At 3 he was hugely delighted by a joyride in an open-cockpit plane. At 5, when his mother removed the handlebars from his tricycle as punishment for roaming from home on it, he triumphantly told Mum he "could do more things" without them. When he was 10 he was permitted to cruise the family Willys around his backyard. Work in his father's greengrocery bored young Jack, so he was pleased to help out around the garage of a man named Harry Ferguson.

"There were a thousand and one things that we used to do," Ferguson recalls. "That's how Jack got his grounding. There was a wartime shortage of parts, but we had to keep cars on the road. We had to improvise and make things work.

"Jack was a good boy, not brilliant, but a good boy. One thing about him, he never gave me any lip."

Military service found Brabham following his natural mechanical bent as an RAAF ground crewman. Then came six years of racing midget cars in the Australian small time. Needless to say, Brabham was not then celebrated for making haste slowly, or for driving finesse. The races were too short for either, and the tactics too crude. Brabham, like everybody else, hunched over the wheel, jammed his foot down hard on the short straights and horsed his car through the turns in long, dust-kicking broad slides.

There has always been a strong urge toward self-improvement in Brabham, however, and in 1955, having become intrigued by a taste of road racing in Australia, he arrived unsung in Europe to have a flutter at the big time.

He soon made his way to the shop of Builder Cooper, in Surbiton, a suburb of London. Cooper was already a prophet of the rear-engined racing car. He had conquered one branch of racing with his little 500-cc. Formula III cars and was moving strongly in the more important Formula II (1.5-liter) sphere. His dream was to reach the Formula I, Grand Prix summit, which was then occupied solely by front-engined machines.

At Cooper's invitation Brabham began to put together a racing car from bits and pieces in the blithely informal Surbiton shop. He was so taciturn at first that the Cooper people thought they had offended him, but Brabham silently, doggedly sharpened his mechanical touch and raced whenever he could.

"The midgets," he reflected the other day, "were very bad training for formula cars. It was not until the 1959 season that I got things weighed up and started to drive the way I should. I stopped throwing the cars around and sliding them when it wasn't necessary. I began to sit back a little and lose some of that midget-car crouch."

As he spoke, Brabham was sitting up to a plate of well-done roast beef at a restaurant near Watkins Glen, N.Y., where he would shortly be racing. Across the table sat Cooper, a compact, black-haired man of 37, who was similarly provisioned. He has become one of Brabham's closest friends. They live within a stone's throw of each other, some 200 yards from the Cooper shop.

Neither Brabham nor Cooper ever thought in the old days of winning the world championship. "Crikey," Brabham said, "our big thrill was going to be winning one Grand Prix. And after that, one more."

It was in the Monaco Grand Prix early in 1959 that Brabham and Cooper first broke through. Relishing the memory, Brabham recalled that Moss had taken the lead after a long duel with France's Jean Behra, only to have his car sicken and retire. The Australian, meanwhile, had heard expensive noises when he attempted to use first gear.

As the race heated up, Brabham, out in front, was being pressed by the first-rate British driver Tony Brooks in a Ferrari. Never divulging that he had a problem, even to Cooper in the pits, Brabham drove to stay just ahead of Brooks, using first gear only when absolutely necessary to prevent him from passing. Toward the end Brooks gave up.

"He didn't know anything was wrong," Brabham said. "He thought I was playing games with him. If he'd kept after me I think he might have forced me to break the Cooper."

In his Motor Racing Book Brabham says: "Moss is the greatest driver of all time,...better than Fangio." He has not changed his opinion. In identical unbreakable cars he reckoned Stirling would have "that little edge." But Brabham has obviously gained a healthier respect for his own gifts, for he does not now feel obliged to compare his own style unfavorably with Moss's.

In terms of winning the world championship it is patently clear by now that Moss could profit from Brabham's example.

Some people seem to believe that the 1960 Cooper is supernaturally reliable, forgetting that both Brabham and his partner-protégé, 22-year-old Bruce McLaren of New Zealand, who is second in the championship standings, preserve and extend the Cooper's inherent sturdiness.

One racing man who wants proof of Brabham's versatility is Rob Walker, owner of Moss's Lotus-Climax racer and a member of the family that gave its name to Johnnie Walker Scotch.

"Jack has improved enormously," Walker says. (Everybody agrees that Jack has improved enormously.) "He was jolly good in 1959 but not, I think', in the world-champion class. Good as he is now, I wonder what Jack could do in another car. He has raced in virtually nothing but Coopers, you know."

The English driver Roy Salvadori brings the whole Brabham-Moss controversy into sharp focus when he says: "If I suddenly came into a great deal of money and got myself a stable of Grand Prix cars and had my choice of drivers, my first choice would be Mr. Brabham. Stirling would be quicker around a given circuit, but for value over a full Grand Prix season, I prefer Jack."

Americans will be able to make their own comparisons when Brabham and Moss race November 20 in the Grand Prix of the United States, at Riverside, Calif. The best cars will be there: British Lotuses and BRMs, whose engines were switched from front to rear this season, following the Cooper's lead, and the doughty Coopers; but not Italy's front-engined Ferraris (Builder Enzo Ferrari is sulking over not having received a "proper" invitation). So will the top drivers, including (if he can get a ride) California's Phil Hill. Hill's Ferrari victory this summer at Monza, Italy, although cheapened by a boycott by the British works teams, was still the first by an American in a Grand Prix since 1921. Riverside's fast-moving home-town boy, Dan Gurney, will also be on hand.

As the last race in the last of seven seasons for the present 2½-liter Formula I (1½-liter engines come in next year), Riverside will mark a turning point in racing history.

It will also be the last performance by Brabham on American soil this fall. Earlier this month he was second to Moss in a free-formula race at Watkins Glen. Then came two sports car scrambles on the West Coast.

It was before the smallest audience that Brabham made his biggest U.S. hit. This was at Indianapolis, which has been a postwar graveyard for European cars. "I just thought I'd like to have a go at it to see what it's like," said Brabham.

"Watch it, Jack," warned Rodger Ward, the 1959 Indianapolis "500" winner. "This track can fool you and those walls are awful hard."

Brabham listened respectfully. Then, after warming up, he did three consecutive laps at precisely 142.857 mph and a fastest lap of 143.403. The next day he turned eight straight 143-plus-mph laps and one at a slightly incredible 144.834, which would have won the "500" pole in 1957.

"That's the most astounding performance I've seen in all my years here," said the veteran Speedway timer, C. B. Smith.

"He's got me about half mad," said a clowning but profoundly impressed Ward. "I'm going to send him home."

Brabham's speeds would have qualified him for the 1960, or any other "500." He accomplished them with his standard Cooper, not one of the superspecialized Indy cars. His Coventry-Climax engine was a mere two-thirds the size of the big 4.2-liter Indy Offenhausers. He had no special Speedway tires. He ran on a "cold" track (higher May temperatures at "500" time produce better tire traction). Moreover, he had no helpful "groove" of rubber laid down by other cars.

The pity of it is that Brabham is not likely to race at Indianapolis unless a financial angel steps in to underwrite the cost. Cooper says he can't afford the gamble. He would have to build a special car and excuse his ace just as the European Grand Prix season, on which he depends for a sizable part of his income, is beginning.

Any angels who would like to take the plunge are advised not to procrastinate. Brabham says he plans to retire from racing in two years, what with a wife and son to think of and. another child on the way, as well as an automobile dealership to tend.

If at some point before retirement day he ever feels the urge to behave like a hero, the chances are he will take a cold shower and wash that romantic nonsense out of his hair.