Brabham's rear engine threw Indy 500 for a loop

Veterans laughed at Jack Brabham's rear-engine racer, but not for long.

When Jack Brabham died May 19 at age 88, most stories cited the Australian driver's three Formula One world championships.

But for American race fans (of a certain vintage), he is best remembered for helping change the course of history at the 1961 Indianapolis 500.

That year, Brabham went to the Speedway in a modified version of his Formula One Cooper-Climax -- a rear-engine foreign job in an era of big, American front-engine cars at Indy.

Brabham's adapted Grand Prix racer had a 2.7-liter engine producing far less horsepower than the 4.5-liter engines used by the Offenhauser roadsters driven by all other entrants that year.

Still, Brabham ran as high as third in the race and wound up finishing ninth. Compared to the beefy Offys, his small, green racer cornered brilliantly whether in or out of the groove.

As Brabham once said, that car "triggered the rear-engined revolution at Indy."

He was right. In 1961, Brickyard veterans laughed at the car, but within five years, nearly everyone was running sleek rear-engine cars at Indianapolis. And in 1965, Jimmy Clark would win in one -- a Lotus Ford.