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Why third-gen Brabham could be next-gen IndyCar star

12.10.13 (via RACER.com) – It took far too long, but at Fontana in October, I finally met Geoff Brabham, albeit briefly, just before the press conference announcing his son's graduation to the Indy Lights series next year. My colleague Marshall Pruett kindly introduced us and I was about to tell Mr. B. that he'd been a hero of mine, but I restrained myself because 1) it's a bit tragic to be saying stuff like that at my age; 2) I didn't want to embarrass the man himself who, at 61, seems as self-effacing as ever; and 3) it isn'tquite as true as it should be…

You see, Geoff, eldest son of the great Sir Jack Brabham, has become a hero of mine only in retrospect. At the time when he was dominating the IMSA Camel GT Championship driving the Electramotive Nissans, he was actually more of an anti-hero for this pimply-faced youth. I couldn't get my head around how the legendary Porsche 962s and the beautiful Tony Southgate-designed Jaguar XJRs could have their asses kicked so regularly and so comprehensively by a car that looked like it was styled by a 10-year-old with a cardboard box and a blunt knife.

By 1991, on the back of Brabham's fourth straight Camel GT title, I'd come to accept that the Electramotive/Lola design was as effective as its engine was powerful…and that the dude doing the driving was pretty damn special. While Geoff modestly said at the time, “There are a lot of drivers who could win in the Nissan,” eventual two-time Indy 500 winner Arie Luyendyk wasn't so sure. After sampling the Nissan in 1989, the Dutchman remarked: “It's a lot harder to drive this car to the maximum than Geoff appears to make it….” Surely the sign of a true artist.

With two Sebring 12 Hours wins and a Le Mans 24 Hour win (with Peugeot in 1993), Brabham will be remembered as a sports car ace worldwide; but it's the four straight IMSA titles, that has earned him truly legendary status in U.S. sports car racing. A big question for me, and I suspect countless others – including maybe Geoff himself – is whether he could have become a star in Indy cars, too? He certainly starred in them on occasion, but that's not the same thing.

Part of the problem he encountered in his six years running full time in the CART series was his past. At the time Brabham was trying to make it in this rarefied branch of the sport, the CART series was split around 50/50 between road racing and ovals, with any bias tending toward the latter. That hardly worked in Geoff's favor, for after leaving his native Australia in 1976 as domestic Formula 2 champion, he headed to Britain for two years. After then moving to America in '78, he put his heart and soul into Super Vee, both the short-lived USAC-sanctioned Mini-Indy Series and the more significant and prestigious Bosch/Valvoline series, winning the latter title in '79. That gave him his first oval starts in low-powered open-wheelers, but he then returned to his road racing roots, spending two years in Can-Am. That ultimately proved successful, too, as he took the 1981 championship…but added nothing to his minimal oval experience.

That '81 season, Geoff had simultaneously become an Indy car rookie and, driving for Dan Gurney's All American Racers, he stunned the series regulars with pole at his second race, Riverside, and second on the grid for his third race, in Mexico City. We're talking about a pretty remarkable talent, then. Yet his debut Indy car race had been the season opener at Phoenix, and that was his first taste of an oval while having more than 200hp at his back…and he now had 900-plus.

Could Brabham have succeeded, actually got to the point where he could say he'd masteredoval racing? Almost certainly. Ultimately, it comes down to application and willingness to learn. And just as Rick Mears had forced himself to become a strong road racer, progress only stymied by his horrendous leg injuries incurred at Sanair in '84, there's no reason to believe Brabham's skill set couldn't have expanded in the opposite direction, given more time. Time, however, was not on Geoff's side. Aged 29 when he made his Indy car debut, he was always going to be playing catch-up with the kids for whom oval races had been ingrained since the first time they could turn a wheel.

Although curiously adept at both the Pocono tri-oval and the Michigan superspeedway, and twice finishing top-five in the Indy 500, the fact remains that of the 10 podium finishes Brabham achieved in his 92 Indy car starts, eight came on tracks requiring right turns as well as left. By the end of 1987, despite taking eighth in the CART points standings (for the third time), he was out of a ride. Team owner Rick Galles was going to be running a one-car outfit in 1988, and he had his sights set on a driver 10 years Geoff's junior, a superstar in the making by the name of Al Unser Jr.

Brabham was gutted at having to leave Galles Racing, especially with brilliant race engineer Tony Cicale now on board to help turn the squad into winners. But the Florida-domiciled Aussie had too much pride to hang around just to be part of the Indy car scene, and so avoided the mistake so many drivers in their mid-30s make when their best opportunity slips away. Instead of spending a few bitter years licking his wounds while driving an inferior car, Geoff changed disciplines, started over…and became the best sports car racer in the country.

There's little chance of Geoff's son Matt needing to make that career switch. Right now this American of Australian descent is hot property because he's not only seriously fast but also because, in or out of the cockpit, he displays maturity that belies his 18 years.

A karting hotshot in Australia, Matt then showed his potential in Australian Formula Ford where, despite competing in only nine of the 23 races in the 2011 FF championship, he won two of them and finished runner-up in two more. His first experience of slicks and wings came this side of the Pacific in USF2000…and he promptly won the 2012 championship.

Now, to be fair, another very talented American, Spencer Pigot, who was his teammate at Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing, won eight races to Brabham's four that season. But it's difficult to emphasize enough how much these junior formulas are about learning on the job at a huge rate – and Pigot was in his second year in the category. Also, by the time Pigot dominated the final event, the double-header at Virginia International Raceway, Brabham had only to nurse a healthy lead in the championship, which he did adequately with cautious runs to fourth and eighth that weekend.

None of this is a slight against Spencer who, unfairly under the radar, is one of the most accomplished open-wheel racers on the Mazda Road to Indy system. But it does highlight the fact that young Brabham, in only his second full season racing cars, could drive with his brains in the manner of a wily veteran in order to seal the deal.

 

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