Minutes before that moment pictured on the opposite page a voice intones over a loudspeaker: "Gentlemen, start your engines." Thirty-three racing cars immediately set up a growling, whining din, circle the track once behind a pace car (a stock DeSoto) like a parade of trained bugs and then burst across the brick straightaway in front of the grandstand in a shattering 150-mph explosion of men and metal. Within a few laps the leaders have begun to take charge, hurtling into the curves at speeds that the more cautious prefer to avoid. The Indianapolis "500" is on.
There are those who continually wish to say that the "500" and its attendant festivities at the Brickyard on Memorial Day are not important to racing; that these overspecialized contraptions of speed contribute nothing to either sport or man's fight for better automotion. But tell that to the 300-odd drivers and mechanics and owners who have labored for months and spent small fortunes to put 33 cars on the starting line. And tell it to the 110,000 people who gobble up every seat in the grandstands, paying as high as $30 apiece for the privilege, or the additional 50,000 or so who jam into the infield of this 2½-mile track. Or tell it to the 100,000 persons who turned out Saturday to watch the first of four days of qualifying trials which are being spread over two weekends.
To these latter, qualifications time is something of a climax. For weeks the cars have been working out their kinks on the track while anxious figures from Gasoline Alley, the garage area near the pits, have studied each lap with stop watch in hand. Now they are ready and on the opening day of the trials there is added incentive. For on that day the car with the fastest qualifying time—even if only one should navigate the full four laps—automatically assumes the important pole position on May 30. It also wins $3,000.
Saturday, as the fog slowly dissolved into an unexpectedly cloudless day, hopes ran high around Gasoline Alley. By now it was evident from more than a week of practice runs that the 47-year-old Brickyard was a new lady after her $100,000 facelifting last fall. The bumps and ruts worn into her pavement by years of racing were smooth and adhesive with a new layer of Kentucky rock asphalt. At least half a dozen of the top contenders had already turned practice laps two or three miles faster than Jack McGrath's track record of 143.793 mph. There was talk of 147 mph, maybe even 150. A mere 10 years earlier, 120 had been considered tops.
Jim Rathmann, a graduate of stock-car racing, was first out in a familiar car with a new number—24. This was the Hopkins Special, last seen upside down and in flames on the far stretch, the funeral pyre of Bill Vukovich during last year's race. Completely rebuilt, it was ready to go again, and Rathmann pushed it through four laps at the record-shattering average of 145.120 mph, turning his third lap at better than 146.
A few minutes later No. 8 was on the track. White with salmon-pink trimmings, this brand new car, known as a John Zink Special, is a stablemate to the one Bob Sweikert drove to victory last year. It had been built during the winter by A. J. Watson, Zink's chief mechanic, but to all outward appearances it was simply another Indy roadster hardly distinguishable from the Kurtis-Krafts and Kuzmas which had been dominating the race since 1953. Like almost all Indy cars it had the same four-cylinder, 270-cubic-inch Offenhauser engine. Its subtleties were inside—in the suspension, the cooling, the carburetion, the tuning.
At the wheel of No. 8 was a thin redhead named Pat Flaherty, a four-year veteran of the race who finished 10th last year. Flaherty wound up his car, rocketed into the speedway's terrifying corners like a hot-rod and drew "Ohs" from the grandstand as his lap times were announced. His average: 145.596 mph, high for the day and all time. He also turned one lap in 146.056, a fraction faster than Rathmann and another track record. The pole was his.
All weekend the qualifying continued, 29 cars finally committing themselves irrevocably, which means they elected to stand pat with their times and take their chances of being "bumped" from the final by faster qualifiers on the remaining two days. And of these—which included Sweikert, the current king of the "500," and such past royalty as Troy Ruttman and Johnny Parsons—15 had broken the track record for four laps set by McGrath last year.
One of the frequent complaints of the speedway detractors is the similarity of the cars. It is true that any real differences in the cars lie beyond the normal vision of the naked eye, but despite this the interest and fascination of each year's innovations always attract the fans as well as the experts, and 1956 is no exception. First of all, there is No. 9, a red Kurtis-Kraft roadster trimmed in black and apparently no different than others of her sort. But under her hood is a six-cylinder, 269-cubic-inch Ferrari engine, built especially for this car and this track. Although owned by Bardahl Manufacturing Corporation, a West Coast firm which specializes in fuel additives, the Bardahl-Ferrari Experimental Special has become something of an Italo-American joint venture. Ferrari has sent Luigi Parenti, its roly-poly chief racing mechanic, to assist the U.S. crew in tuning the car. And to give the project full international flavor, Bardahl imported Giuseppe (Nino) Farina to drive the car. At 49, Farina (a nephew of the famous Italian body designer) has been driving in European races for 28 years and ranks with the greatest of the Grand Prix champions. A dashing fellow, who favors a sky-blue poplin driving suit with black-and-white asbestos-lined driving shoes, he has been the focus of attention since his arrival. He passed his driving test with flying colors in a beat-up old Ferrari that ran at Indy years ago and now awaits his first outing in the Bardahl car.
HOPE SPRINGS ETERNAL
Although both Bardahl and the Italians emphasize the word "experimental," which they have attached to their car, they are not without hope despite the prohibitive odds against any new car, and they promise to continue the experiment in years to come. "It is a sporty attempt we make," said one of the Italians rather defensively as he watched the Offies scudding around the track at 140 plus mph.
Another center of interest is the twin Novi Specials, the only V-eights likely to start the race. Novi, an automotive accessory firm in Detroit, built these engines in 1941 and has been running them at Indianapolis for years, but always in cars with a front-wheel drive. This year they have reversed the action of the engines and installed them in two identical rear-wheel-drive roadsters built by Kurtis. Only 29 inches high, they are the lowest machines on the track—so low they look like surfboards on wheels as they speed away from you. Although Paul Russo, driving one of the Novis, failed to qualify better than eighth on the first day, these two cars are still regarded by many as the fastest things on the speedway this year. In an early practice run, Russo was clocked at better than 146.6, the fastest unofficial single lap ever recorded by a competitive car.
With so many people turning out for the qualifications, one fact was evident: interest in the "500" keeps growing and growing. The man probably most responsible for this is a public-spirited Hoosier businessman from Terre Haute named Anton Hulman Jr., who refused to let the speedway die. Hulman, head of a large baking powder manufacturing company, has poured profits back into big steel grandstands, better garaging, better track, all manner of public conveniences plus an automotive museum where the motorabilia of Indianapolis racing will some day reside. The rest of the profits he splits among the competitors, and last year they came to $270,400. The good green incentive Hulman continues to offer to the chauffeurs does much to fill the ranks after their tragic annual depletions. This year, for instance, the great Vukie is absent. So is Jack McGrath, who raced Vukie almost head-and-head through the first 54 laps of last year's race but died in a dirt-track crash last fall in Phoenix. So is young Jerry Hoyt, who had the pole last year and died in a dirt-track crash a few months later. So are such other familiar competitors as Mike Nazaruk, Larry Crocket and Manuel Ayulo.
Yet plenty of big names will be zooming down the track straightaway on Memorial Day. Parsons and Ruttman, the former champs; Sam Hanks in the Jones and Maley Special, out for the 11th time; Fred Agabashian, Paul Russo and Tony Bettenhausen—all taking their 10th crack at the three-foot silver trophy; Andy Linden in the cockpit of the Chapman Special for his sixth try, after a recent crash in California; and naturally the king himself—Bob Sweikert—in a spanking new yellow Kuzma called the D-A Lubricant Special, out to add to the $54,833.33 he has won in four previous starts. "It's hell out there," the king will tell you, "but nothing beats winning it."
FASTEST 10 OF FIRST TWO QUALIFYING DAYS
MAKER OF CHASSIS-BODY
MAKE OF ENGINE
A. J. WATSON
In Record-smashing two days, fastest 15 qualifiers exceeded 142.580-mph track mark set last year by the late Jack McGrath. Above list is not order of start.