The fame and fortune that can come with a strong result at the Indianapolis 500 has been luring Australian competitors since its inception in 1911.
In the famous inaugural year, Rupert Jeffkins from Maitland in New South Wales tried to qualify a car entered by the Velie Motor Company from Illinois, but it suffered a mechanical failure.
He then tried to qualify for Indianapolis-based manufacturer, Cole, but to the disappointment of the locals, it failed to make the speed required.
With the Velie team reduced to one car, Jeffkins paired with his teammate Howard Hall.
Despite being the smallest car in the field, the pair finished 17th in a field of 40 cars, but Jeffkins is recorded as a non-qualifier and Howard’s name is next to the result.
In an article in the Adelaide Register a couple of years later, Jeffkins told the reporter he finished 10th in the race and that the only reason he did not finish third or fourth was because his co-driver was “addicted to drugs”.
The following year Jeffkins was the ridealong co-driver for clear favourite Ralph DePalma in a Mercedes.
The pair dominated the race and led all but two laps when the car stopped with just the main straight and one lap to complete. At that point they were 5.5 laps and 11 minutes in front. The two got out and pushed the car to the line to the cheers of 80,000 fans, but victory would elude them.
In fact, they would be classed as the “highest-placed” non-finisher in 11th, with just 10 of the 24 starters finishing.
Australia’s next entrant would not come until 1961 when Sir Jack Brabham debuted the first rear-engined car in the 500-mile race in what is still regarded as one of the most revolutionary days in the sport’s history.
Brabham ran as high as third, but struggled with tyre wear and eventually finished ninth in what would be the best result of four attempts.
In 1970, Kevin Bartlett went to Indy and did his rookie orientation in an entry for Marvin Webster, but it soon became apparent that the car was not going to be quick enough to make the show.
Denny Hulme injured his hands in a fuel fire and Peter Revson was offered the drive in Hulme’s McLaren. Bartlett could not be offered the seat because of a conflicting tire deal, but did replace Revson in the #77 Ford Walther.
He qualified mid field but was eventually bumped by a fraction of a second and was the third car in line to try and re-qualify when a shower of rain ended the final session 20 minutes early – and that was that!
Ironically, Bartlett was bumped by Texan Jim McElreath, who had been bumped himself earlier in the day by non other than Jack Brabham, who started as the only international in the field.
Vern Schuppan was next in line and made his Indy 500 debut in 1976, starting 17th and finishing 18th in a Offenhauser-powered Eagle.
Schuppan had five more attempts to qualify for the 500, but only made the field twice more.
In 1981 he qualified 18th in a Cosworth-powered McLaren and went on to finish third – which remained the best result for an Australian until Will Power’s second placing in 2015.
Schuppan did not return after failing to qualify in 1982, but the following year he would go on to win the 24-hour race of Le Mans.
Townsville-born racer Dennis Firestone had five consecutive starts in the 500 from 1980 with his best result being 10th in 1981 in a Cosworth-powered Wildcat.
He did not qualify in 1985, crashed his car in Carburetion Day practice and had to withdraw in 1986 and failed to qualify in his last attempt in 1987 after a massive practice crash which left him with a broken neck.
Firestone finished 12th in the 1980 CART Series pointscore and was Rookie of the Year. He continues to live in California and regularly drives in historic events.
The second generation of the Brabham clan to make his Indy 500 debut was Geoff in 1981 when he qualified 15th and finished fifth in a Ford Cosworth-Powered Penske for Kraco Racing.
He had seven consecutive starts, with his best result being fourth for VDS Racing in 1983.
Geoff was given some practice laps by Roger Penske after Danny Sullivan injured his arm in practice, but a decision was made to let Sullivan drive and he qualified 26th and finished 28th after an axle failure on lap 41. Geoff later replaced Sullivan at Pocono and was running second when he had an engine problem.
Geoff finished 19th in 1990. In 1991, he went back to Truesports and was classed as 20th after an electrical problem ended his race.
An engine failure in his Menard saw him classed 26th in 1993 and he failed to qualify at his last attempt with Menard in 1994.
From 1988 to 1991 Geoff won four consecutive IMSA Sports Car Championships for Nissan before he clinched the Le Mans 24-hour in 1993. He drove his only NASCAR Winston Cup event at the inaugural Brickyard 400 the following year and qualified 18th and finished 38th after crashing on lap 127 of 160.
In 1996, little-known Australian-born American racer Brad Murphy qualified 26th and was classified 23rd for Hemelgran Racing after his suspension failed on lap 92. The team also entered cars for Stephan Gregoire and Buddy Lazier, who went on to win the race.
Murphy failed to qualify for two CART races in 1984. and ran two IRL races in 1997 at New Hampshire and Las Vegas. The second ending in an accident with Eddie Cheever and Gregorie, which broke his right leg and pelvis.
In 2002 John deVries ran the first three races of the IRL season for Brayton and then withdrew from the fourth at New Hampshire. He then attempted to qualify for the Indy 500, but did not make the show. The former Formula Holden competitor ran the sixth race of the season for PDM Racing in Texas and finished 11th in what would be his last IRL race.
The next Australian-born driver to have a start at Indy was Scott Dixon in 2003. While Australians like to claim the likeable redhead as their own after being born in Brisbane, he grew up in New Zealand and classes himself as a Kiwi.
Dixon has an amazing record at the 500, including nine top-10 finishes and a win in 2008 (but for Australians that doesn’t count). He also added a fourth IndyCar Championship to his CV in 2015 after winning the final round and clinching the title on a countback from Juan Pablo Montoya at Sonoma in August 2015.
Sydney’s Ryan Briscoe made his debut at the Brickyard in 2005 when he qualified 24th and finished 10th for Chip Ganassi Racing.
He missed the 2006 race, but returned to qualify seventh and finish fifth in 2007 for Luczo-Dragon Racing.
Briscoe has driven in the race each year since, with another fifth placed finish coming in 2012 after he became the first Australian to grab the pole position for Team Penske.
He got a last minute call up to replace the injured James Hinchcliffe in 2015 and finished a tremendous 12th for Schmidt-Peterson Motorsport.
Will Power made his Indianapolis debut in the Team Australia colours for KV Racing in 2008 and qualified 23rd and finished a creditable 13th.
The following year he moved to the mighty Team Penske organization and finished with four top-eight results from 2009 to 2015.
He became the highest-placed Australian when he finished second in 2015, just 0.104 of a second behind his Team Penske teammate Juan Pablo Montoya.
The third Australian in the field in 2014 and 2015 was Melbourne’s James Davison.
A third-generation driver and grandson of four-time Australian Grand Prix winner, Lex Davison, James did a remarkable job on a limited budget and preparation to finish 16th after qualifying 26th for KV Racing in 2014.
He returned to the Speedway in 2015 and qualified 33rd before a blunder from a crew member caused an accident in pitlane. This ruined his race and saw him classified in 27th place.
In all, there have been just seven Australian drivers officially qualify for the Indianapolis 500 in its 99-year history.
Matt Brabham is hoping to be number eight in 2016.
BY THE NUMBERS
2nd: 2015 – Will Power
3rd: 1981 – Vern Schuppan
4th: 1983 – Geoff Brabham
5th: 2007 & 2012 – Ryan Briscoe; 2009 – Will Power; 1981 – Geoff Brabham
8th: 2010 & 2014 – Will Power
9th: 1961 – Sir Jack Brabham
10th: 2005 – Ryan Briscoe; 1981 – Dennis Firestone
1st: 2012 – Ryan Briscoe
2nd: 2010 & 2015 – Will Power; 2009 – Ryan Briscoe
3rd: 2014 – Will Power; 2008 – Ryan Briscoe
1976: Vern Schuppan (Finished 18th) – Schuppan and Englishman David Hobbs were the only two non Americans in the field.
Scott Dixon was born in Brisbane, Queensland in 1980, but grew up in New Zealand and counts himself as a Kiwi. He won the race from pole in 2008.
Barry and Kim Green won the race with Jacques Villenuve in 1995.
Kevin Kalkhoven won the race with Tony Kanaan in 2013.
Results by Australian Drivers
|1911||Velie||Velie||Velie Motor Co||DNQ||17*|
|1964||Brabham||Offy||Brabham Racing Organisation||25||20|
|1969||Brabham||Repco||Brabham Racing Organisation||29||24|
|1970||Brabham||Offy||Brabham Racing Organisation||26||13|
|1981||Penske||Ford Cosworth||Kraco Racing||15||5|
|1983||Penske||Ford Cosworth||Team VDS||26||4|
|1996||Reynard Ford||Ford||Helmegarn Racing||26||23|
|2002||Dallara Chevy||Chevy||Brayton Racing||DNQ|
* Rupert Jeffkins failed to qualify his car and then replaced his teammate Howard Hall during the race. The car finished 17th, but Howard is noted as the finisher.
* Jeffkins was the ride-along mechanic for Ralph de Palma who qualified 4th.
* Jeffkins and de Palma pushed their car over the line, but still had one lap to complete. When the race was flagged it was determined they were in 11th place, but classed as non-finishers. (only 10 cars finished the race).