A driver running out of gas, pushing his car across the finish line and winning a world championship.
That’s where the bar is set for the inaugural Miami Grand Prix this weekend around Hard Rock Stadium. Organizers are determined to put on a show, what with concerts, a beach, yachts and celebs serving as window dressing for the first Formula 1 race in Florida in 63 years.
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Just try topping what happened on that wild and wacky weekend in Sebring in 1959 when Aussie Jack Brabham snagged the title as the world’s top driver and most famous human tow truck after he ran out of fuel just shy of the checkered flag. Brabham then ran out of fuel himself, collapsing from exhaustion after sidestepping disqualification had anyone helped him push his vehicle.
Yup, the only other Formula 1 stop in state history had everything, right down to the midget car somebody slipped into the field and the lad who qualified with an exceptionally quick lap.
As today’s Florida drivers will attest, taking an illegal shortcut will do that for you.
Brabham could be ‘Black Jack’ and ‘real sportsman’ rolled into one
Brabham, though, was the star of the stop, claiming the first of three world championships. “Black Jack,” the drivers called a guy who was exceptionally hard to pass, partly thanks to that newfangled, rear-engine car he put together and partly because he wasn’t above drifting just enough into the rough that his tires would kick up stones and dust for anyone brave enough to tailgate.
“A real sportsman,” Stirling Moss, his chief rival for the ’59 season title, once called him, and not sarcastically, either. Moss never forgot the time they were entered in the New Zealand Grand Prix in the 1950s. Moss had a problem with his rear axle. Take the one off my spare car, Brabham said, knowing the sporting gesture could bite him in the rear.
For today’s race fans, the mere mention of the name McLaren brings a knowing nod. It was Brabham who helped Bruce McLaren get a foot in the door, eventually leading to the empire that team is today.
John Arthur Brabham — everyone called him Jack — died in 2014 at age 88, but not before receiving an Order of the British Empire and later Knight Bachelor before even Moss and Jackie Stewart had “Sir” attached to their names.
“Australia has lost a legend,” Prime Minister Tony Abbott said.
That he was. Brabham once told the Sydney Morning Herald, “My aim is to die without an enemy in the world. I’m going to outlive the bastards.”
Any legitimate probe into such a life must never get hung up on “Black Jack.” Most every color on one’s palette must be put to use to tell the story.
Dec. 12, 1959, though, topped all. Moss still had a shot at the season championship and to a much lesser degree, so did Tony Brooks, having tightened the gap after a torrid first half of the year by Brabham. Talk about building suspense, though: The race at Sebring was going to be the first Grand Prix on American soil in 43 years, but it followed a three-month gap after the penultimate event. It also would be on a former airfield, on a track that included old runways.
“Sebring is a small town about 170 miles north of West Palm Beach,” Jon Akass wrote for London’s Daily Herald. “Florida is the U.S. State that sticks out into the Atlantic like a sore but pleasant thumb.” (Akass went on to talk about curfews in various Florida towns needed to head off “juvenile delinquents,” but that’s for another day.)
Nothing like taking a shortcut in qualifying
American Rodger Ward entered his dirt-track midget despite being 43 seconds slower than the pole-sitter on his qualifying lap and slower than a Porsche sportscar on race day. The real oddball prize, according to the site WTF1.com, went to American Harry Schell, who improved from 11th to third in qualifying courtesy of a shortcut no one noticed until after the race.
Brabham, meanwhile, seemed on his way to both the checkered flag and the world championship when his Cooper Climax coughed, sputtered and died. How close to the finish was he? A mile. Or 100 yards. Take your pick. Accounts at the time varied that much.
Part of the blame is that it appears Brabham coasted a bit before he got out and hoofed it quickly enough to place fourth. It’s fair to say most estimate he ran out of gas with a half mile to go, coasted, then pushed the final quarter mile. Although Brabham said the last stretch involved pushing the vehicle uphill, Miami News sports editor Howard Kleinberg stopped that bit of exaggeration in its tracks: “The track is, of course, flat,” he wrote.
“I had a fuel leak and used more petrol than I was supposed to,” Brabham said after the race. “I ran out of gas. It’s as simple as that.”
A career filled with thrills — and even a princess
Oh, but nothing on this day was that simple. One writer reported on Brabham being carried back to a trailer — possibly with Moss coming to his aide — and being out cold for 15 minutes thanks to exhaustion. Others say he recovered after a handful of minutes and addressed a throng of reporters on the track.
“The greatest thrill of my life,” said Brabham, the only man to win the F-1 title with a car he designed, built and drove.
If winning the championship was Brabham’s “greatest thrill,” what he listed as his “career highlight” was altogether different. It was a victory at Monaco earlier in the season. Why?
“Getting presented with the trophy by (Princess) Gracie,” he told motorsport.com. “That was worth going there for, I’d say!”
Brabham’s was a life that began April 2, 1926, outside Sydney. His father was a grocer, but for purposes of this story, Dad’s major contribution was teaching his son to drive the moment his feet reached the pedals. Young Jack went on to work in a garage, study engineering and serve in the Royal Australian Air Force. He also raced midget cars, though you never would have known it from his initial reaction to that game.
“They’re all lunatics,” he said.
Engineering background, ingenuity all pay off in the end
All that mechanical knowledge worked in his favor following lean early years in Formula 1. A trip to Paris before the 1959 season changed everything. Gearboxes whose casing kept splitting had been costing him races, but he had new ones constructed by a French group called ERSA. And throughout that season, one rival after another was dropping out of races with gearbox problems — including Moss, whose Sebring race quickly ended for that very reason.
The sight of Brabham pushing his car across the finish line elicited cheers from a crowd estimated at 15,000. Such an act would violate the rules today, possibly related to the likelihood of the driver getting killed.
“And the loser takes all,” London’s Daily Herald wrote in a banner headline. “He takes his triumph lying down, wearing not a laurel wreath, but an ice-pack.”
Amid all this, Brabham didn’t immediately realize he’d won the championship.
He also didn’t realize that when Moss’ day was finished, he’d clinched the championship.
He didn’t need to finish fourth to win it.
He didn’t need to finish at all.
Miami Grand Prix facts
Where: Around Hard Rock Stadium, Miami Gardens
Website, ticket info: f1miamigp.com
Featured Formula 1 race: Sunday, 3:30 p.m.
Saturday: W Series qualifying, 9:10 a.m. DJ Laz, 9:45 (music throughout the day). Porsche Sprint Challenge qualifying, 10:25. F-1 practice, 1 p.m. W Series first race, 2:30. Post Malone concert, 3:40. F-1 qualifying, 4. Porsche Sprint Challenge first race, 5:30. Zedd concert, 6:10.
Sunday: Parking gates open, 8:30 a.m. W Series second race, 10:20. Porsche Sprint Challenge second race, 12:30. F-1 drivers parade, 1:30. Tiesto concert, 2. F-1 Miami Grand Prix, 3:30. Chainsmokers concert, 6:10.