The massacre which occurred this week confirms the responsibility of those who don't prevent other men from exposing themselves to an atrocious death.... There is an insistent demand that these racing exhibitions be prohibited because they are not necessary to the progress of the machine.... And the drivers? The Marquis de Portago had written an article for Sports Illustrated. The unhappy man declared that nothing terrified him more than to lose control of his machine. This is the victim speaking. He teaches and warns without knowing he is doing so.... All racing, which is a race to death, must be abolished.
—THE VATICAN'S "L'OSSERVATORE ROMANO"
A young man was killed in Italy, racing his automobile. This young man has an article in this week's Sports Illustrated, and in this article he says this: "Racing is a vice." In other words, car racing had so gripped him, was so in his blood, that he had to race automobiles even though he knew it might mean death.
—BILLY GRAHAM IN NEW YORK
With the nation's foremost auto race, the Indianapolis "500" on Memorial Day, just around the corner, the racing world was astir last week with controversy over the Mille Miglia accidents and their toll of 13 dead. First there were attacks on city-to-city racing on public roads and then a broader assault, from some quarters, on all auto racing. The attacks came partly from responsible individuals and organizations genuinely shocked by the death toll and partly from persons who saw a chance to capitalize on the headlines.
At Indianapolis, where an apple-cheeked young man named Patrick James O'Connor seized the pole position for the "500" in the first day of qualifying trials, the Mille Miglia echoes were, however, faint. As a matter of fact, American racing perhaps never before displayed such vitality. After a driver's death and an extraordinary number of accidents during practice, Saturday's trials attracted a crowd of 130,000—to watch just nine cars qualify on a day that was forecast to be, and was, peppered with rain.
Except for its possible effect on the decision of Detroit automobile makers to meet June 6 and reappraise their involvement in stock car racing and performance trials, the Mille Miglia was hardly mentioned. But Detroit's case of nerves over the horsepower race and its recent excursions into competition was not exactly new. The manufacturers have been jumpy for some time over the possibility (real or imaginary) of a legislative ceiling on horsepower and have bent over backward upon occasion to free their products from the "taint" of speed.
The commotion over racing, however, raised questions that deserved to be answered. The clubs responsible for Italian auto racing reacted quickly and wisely by suspending all further open-road racing during 1957, snatching the initiative from politicians who howled for an immediate ban on all road racing.
The central question is whether cross-country racing should continue, and the almost universal answer is no. Speaking for drivers, the world champion, Juan Manuel Fangio, says the Mille Miglia should never be held again, because it is too dangerous. There can be no doubt that today's racing cars are too powerful for the ancient, narrow and winding roads of the Italian race, where evidently the spectators cannot be given reasonable guarantees of safety. The same appears to be true of open-road racing everywhere.
The United States discovered early—in the old days of the Vanderbilt Cup on Long Island—and rediscovered in races on public roads in the postwar sports car boom, that the danger to spectators was too great. Such racing no longer exists in the U.S. Mexico, once notoriously casual in its attitude toward racing, has not held its Pan-American road race since the ghastly slaughter of 1954.
Country after country has discovered that it could not in good conscience support city-to-city racing, which has now become as untypical of racing in general as the citing of the bulls by the public in the streets of Pamplona is a formal bullfight. The Mille Miglia, aside from an occasional event in Sicily and South America, was the last, and certainly the most important, race of its kind.
City-to-city racing is probably doomed then, and justifiably so, but what of racing in general?
In the U.S. professional competition is carried out largely on private, closed, usually oval-shaped tracks. Almost all American sports car racing is done by amateurs, again on closed courses. But these may be either airports with simulated roads, or actual roads on private property. In all such cases, efforts can be—and are—made to keep the spectators out of danger.
Virtually every reputable race these days, whether on a track or road course, can be seen with safety. Not absolute safety, to be sure; freak accidents like the one at Le Mans might occur again. But race organizers are, above all, safety conscious, especially since Le Mans. Simply from a cold business point of view, the possibility of staggering lawsuits forces the organizers to take care.
The morality of racing, or lack of it, is another thing. Man has always raced man and has caused animals and contrivances to race. Especially in America, where the virtue of competition is engraved on the mind from infancy, accentuating the natural drive to excel and surpass, do we pit man against man, animal against animal, thing against thing, and these against distance and time.
To race a fast car is natural, but dangerous. It is possible that some unhappily twisted spectators watch auto races in the expectation of seeing violent death, but the overwhelming majority is not so base as that. We like to see men in dangerous pursuits; we are stimulated by the sight of a driver spinning wildly at high speeds at the Indianapolis Speedway, for example, but we want to see him surmount his difficulties, not suffer and succumb to them. We are with him, not against him.
Is racing too dangerous? Without the element of danger, there would be no auto race—no spectators to watch and no drivers to participate. Milk toast has never been popular with those having teeth strong enough to chew. Let us protect the spectators as well as we know how and make the courses as safe for the drivers as we can and provide them with equipment that is as safe as we can make it; but by all means let us race.
Indianapolis, of course, epitomizes American racing at its biggest, richest, most dangerous and, to many, most exciting. It is like an enormous pageant in three acts: first, the taut days of practice in costly and intricate roadsters that are built especially for the Brickyard's left-hand turns; second, the qualifying rounds, on the two weekends before race day, in which the drivers scrap for the best places in the starting lineup; finally, the 500 miles of flat-out competition before the largest sports gathering in the country—between 175,000 and 200,000 persons.
The old Brickyard has a new look this year, with a sizable grandstand replacing the old bleachers behind the pits on the home stretch. A five-story tower of glass and steel tops its midsection and gives it its name—the Tower Terrace. Gone is the old officials' stand, the Pagoda, which identified the speedway in the public mind as unmistakably as Churchill Downs's twin spires symbolize the Kentucky Derby. A low concrete safety wall now sets off the pit area from the track; the cars can enter the pits only at a gap at the north end of the straight and leave them at a gap at the south.
New, also, are the Indianapolis engines. Reduced from a maximum of 274 to 256 cubic inches (from 183 to 171 for supercharged cars) in a move to cut back the Brickyard's awesome speeds, they inspired the most popular guessing game of the practice days: whether or not the fastest 1957 cars would equal last year's record 145.596 mph qualifying run by the eventual winner, Pat Flaherty. Weighty arguments advanced by experts supported both sides. Speeds up to 147 mph were predicted at a late hour, and many a seer saw stubby Paul Russo sitting on the pole in the latest version of the supercharged V-8 Novi Special, which led most of the way last year until it cracked up with a blowout on the 22nd lap. Oldtimer Russo, veteran of 11 "500s," was paired with another old campaigner, and one of the great ones, Tony Bettenhausen. But Bettenhausen was having violent engine trouble with his Novi and he hardly expected to qualify for the 33-car field until the final weekend.
The chassis builders and mechanics, naturally, saw the reduction in engine size as a challenge to their ingenuity to produce more speed. They cropped an average of four inches from the width of the old cars in the new models and juggled suspension systems and weight distribution to give the cars better traction in the corners, where speeds have soared in the past decade. Straightaway speeds have stayed about the same.
As usual, the large majority of chassis came from the small but bustling Glendale, Calif. workshop of Frank Kurtis. Among the other body builders, Eddie Kuzma and A. J. Watson, both West Coast men, stood out. Kuzma fielded the potent white racer that appears on this week's cover for the USAC national champion driver, Jim Bryan (see page 16) and another car for the 1950 race winner, Johnnie Parsons. When Parsons wrecked it in practice, Kuzma flew to Indianapolis and rebuilt it in frantic haste. Watson is the graying boy wonder who built the winners of the past two "500s" for Tulsa's racing perfectionist, 28-year-old John Zink.
Zink's No. 1 driver, Troy Ruttman, the 6-foot 4-inch Californian who won the 1952 race at 22, was fresh from a winning stock car season on the Coast. He took the new car while Jud Larson, Kansas City's blond, husky Brickyard rookie, who was a sensation on the USAC championship circuit last season, took the old Flaherty car.
Big Jim Bryan arrived with a straw cowboy hat, cowboy boots, Levis, a supply of cigars and Kuzma's latest Dean Van Lines Special, artfully tuned by Chief Mechanic Clint Brawner. Pat O'Connor, who was a solid second last year until a magneto broke, breezed in from Monza. He had been testing tires there for Firestone in preparation for the June 29 race, which will match "500" drivers against Europe's best, blazing around the Monza oval with an oversized Indy car in the world record time of 170.8 mph.
Against these young chargers stood the old guard of Russo, 43, the canny Fred Agabashian, 42, and Sam Hanks, 43. Hanks alone had been toughened by recent racing experience in stock cars. He needed all of it, too, for his Belond Exhaust Special had the trickiest engine arrangement of any car at the speedway. The engine lay on its side, producing the lowest profile but also some of the meanest handling.
No practice in recent memory produced so many slips and slides—13 serious incidents in all and one fatality. Giuseppe (Nino) Farina, Italy's 50-year-old former world champion who failed to qualify a Ferrari-engined Kurtis-Kraft last year, returned with an Offy-Kurtis. He was never quite at home on the track. When he loaned the car to Keith Andrews, winner of the 1954 Pikes Peak hill climb, for a practice run, Andrews spun, slid and hurtled backward into a concrete abutment. He died in the cockpit.
As practice time ran out last week, the young chargers were a bit ahead of the grizzled veterans. Ruttman turned a lap at 144.3 mph, Pat O'Connor at 144.1, Rookie Eddie Suchs at 144. Hanks coaxed the trying Belond Special up to 143, Russo squeezed 143.5 from the Novi and Agabashian led the old guard at 143.8. Just to make sure youth had the edge, though, Bryan bit into a fresh cigar and sizzled fastest of all—144.5. The first act was over.
Next morning, one of the worst traffic jams in Indianapolis history funneled into the speedway and emerged as the largest crowd ever to watch the qualifications—a fantastic, eye-popping 130,000. Heavy clouds moved overhead, but there were big patches of blue; the morning air was heavy and hot. At 11 a.m., with 19 cars waiting to qualify, and just as Mercury General Manager F. C. Reith, with Speedway President Anton Hulman Jr. as passenger, bashed a two-foot-wide "ribbon"asunder with the convertible cruiser pace car to get things going properly, it began to rain. Out came tarps and blankets to cover the cars and heaters to keep engine oil hot. Under cover went the spectators.
Now it would be a race against time to qualify as many drivers as possible. The track was not ready for three and one half hours. Drivers fidgeted uneasily as the first heats began, fearful that they would miss a chance at the pole, which goes to the fastest qualifier on opening day.
Up front, handsome Patrick O'Connor of North Vernon, Ind. was relaxed. When his turn came he took the four laps smoothly, in the day's fastest time—an average of 143.948 mph. His fastest lap was 144.046, and it was becoming clear that estimates of speeds near 146 mph were visionary. There would be no record this day.
No record, but continuous tension. A shade slower than O'Connor went 29-year-old Eddie Sachs, Center Valley, Pennsylvania's swiftest hotel owner, with a 143.822 average and one very fast lap at 144.648.
TIME TO QUIT
Troy Ruttman squeezed his long frame into Zink's red-and-white No. 52. A first lap of 144.393 promised an excellent chance for the pole, and then the rain came again. When it eased, and Ruttman tried once more, the track was a little slick; he tailed off to an average of 142.772. Nearly time to quit now, but Jim Bryan still had a chance at the pole if the rain held off. He blasted into the groove, turned a rapid warmup lap, but by then the crowd knew it was all over. The rain started again in earnest; the champ would have to wait until the first fair day. With nine drivers already in the fold he could aim no higher than the fourth row on race day.
Pat O'Connor, scrubbed clean after his ride, standing arrow straight, turned a happy Irish face up to the pelting rain. The day and the pole were his. He had Sachs and Ruttman beside him on the front row for the big day, but he looked confident and cheerful and the weather couldn't have been better.
QUALIFIERS ON THE FIRST WEEKEND
MAKER OF CHASSIS-BODY
MAKE OF ENGINE
KURTIS 500 G2
A. J. WATSON (1957)
KURTIS 500 G2
KURTIS 500 G2
KURTIS 500 C
KURTIS 500 D
KURTIS 500 G2
KURTIS 500 B