The American Jim Clark
The year was 1964, when my father and two older brothers first went to the Indianapolis 500. At the age of five, I was considered too young to go. That was the first time I can recall listening to Sid Collins. I’m not sure how much listening a five year-old is capable of, but I do have vivid memories of my mother playing the race on the radio. I already knew that I wanted Parnelli Jones to win – mostly because he had won the year before, I thought he had a cool name and I thought his winning car was one of the prettiest cars I had ever seen.
When my brothers returned, they told me all kinds of stories. They were mostly about the Lap 2 fire that took the lives of Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald, or how Parnelli’s car caught fire as he was leaving the pits. There was even a lot of talk of AJ Foyt winning his second 500. Somewhere in the deepest corner of my brain, I have a vague recollection of hearing about Bobby Marshman. I couldn’t tell you what I was told, but it does seem vaguely familiar.
One year later, I got to attend the race myself. Our entire family went. My father, my two brothers, myself and even my mother went. She was not a racing fan then and she isn’t one now. But she went to a few races back then and she reads this site every day. While we were sitting there watching the pre-race festivities, I was excited to get hold of the new 1965 program. I had pretty well worn out the one from the year before. This one had all new pictures that I had never seen.
As I flipped through it, I saw a picture of Bobby Marshman on the “Memorial” page. I asked my brother why he was on that page with Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald. He explained that was the page that listed all of the drivers that had died in the past year. For whatever reason, that stuck with me. Maybe it was because I remember hearing his name from the year before, or perhaps it was because he looked so young compared to Sachs and MacDonald. Who knows why things stick in a kids head?
It wasn’t until years later that I came to appreciate who Bobby Marshman was and the kind of driving skills he possessed.
Bobby Marshman came to the Indianapolis 500 in 1961. He started thirty-third, but finished seventh in a race that saw high attrition. He was awarded Co-Rookie of the Year with Parnelli Jones. Although he had just finished seventh, he seemed very unhappy at the end of the race. His explanation was that he hadn’t passed anyone all day. He had just inherited seventh place because everyone else had dropped out.
During qualifying the following year, he proved his rookie stardom was no fluke. He qualified on the front row and finished fifth. In 1963, he qualified seventh and seemed destined for a good finish when he developed problems on Lap 196 and settled for sixteenth.
1964 appeared to be Marshman’s year. He was driving a rear-engine Lotus and qualified in the middle of the front row. After pole-sitter Jim Clark bolted into the lead at the start and then the subsequent re-start after the Sachs-MacDonald accident, Marshman passed Clark on Lap 6 and checked out. He was intent on lapping the entire field. Jack Beckley, his Chief Mechanic, signaled for him to slow down and take it easy. While leading on Lap 39, Marshman was attempting to lap a slower car heading into Turn Three, when he got pinched down low. He went into the bumpy grass momentarily, but it was enough to rip the oil plug out of the bottom and his day was done.
But Bobby Marshman had made a name for himself. When Colin Chapman returned to England after the 1964 race, he was asked by many people; “who was this Bobby Marshman that was doing so well at the beginning of the race”. His response was always the same and it was the ultimate compliment. He would say “…well, he’s sort of an American Jimmy” meaning he was the closest thing that the Americans had to Jim Clark.
Although his impatience had knocked himself out of the race, he had earned the respect of the European racing community.
Donald Davidson likes to say that if Roger Penske had been a car-owner in the early sixties, Bobby Marshman would have been his driver. Marshman carried himself in the manner befitting a Penske driver. He was clean-cut, quiet, articulate, well-mannered and was very serious about his racing. While many drivers of the day were going out to local watering holes like the Whitefront Lounge in Indianapolis, Marshman stayed behind. He had no interest in carousing and fraternizing with drivers he was trying to beat on the track. He preferred to stay behind and work on ways to go faster.
After the last race of the season in Phoenix, Clark and the team stayed behind to do some tire testing. During the test, Marshman chose not to wear his flame-retardant firesuit that was now required in races, due to the Phoenix heat. He instead wore only a T-shirt and jeans. As he came around the backstretch during the test, something broke on the car. Marshman’s car hit the wall and the gasoline-filled fuel tank exploded, engulfing the unprotected Marshman. Some say that the flames were so great that a firesuit would have done little to protect him. He was transferred to a burn hospital in San Antonio where he passed away from his injuries six days after his crash.
Things were so different in those days. Three drivers that started the 1964 Indianapolis 500 were dead before year’s end. Compared to some years, that was a relatively safe year. It was not uncommon in those days to lose six or seven drivers in any given year. By 1965, many safety improvements greeted drivers at the Speedway. Fuel cells were introduced. Gasoline had not been outlawed, but it no longer made sense to use it with a two pit stop minimum.
Unfortunately, you can add Bobby Marshman to a long list of promising drivers that were taken from us far too early. It’s a list that also includes Jim Clark himself, who died just three and a half years later at Hockenheim. Unlike my brothers, I never got to see Bobby Marshman race. But I was still saddened to see his picture on that Memorial page in the program. There is no telling what the American Jim Clark could have given us in the coming years.