An old pro using all his resources to win a major triumph is one of the great spectacles of sport. Last week an old pro named Samuel Dwight Hanks Jr. showed us that again when he drove the Brickyard's 41st 500-mile race faster than any man before him. At the finish he lifted a clenched left fist in a gesture of fierce exultation which conveyed all the agony of desire and the fulfillment of victory.
Hanks broke the late Bill Vukovich's 1954 record of 130.840 mph by nearly 5 mph. Beyond that, Hanks won with an experimental car in its first outing, took the Speedway's first $100,000 winner's purse and helped dispel what might be called the Novi myth—the traditional article of faith that, barring accident or mechanical failure, the Novi racers are unbeatable. And Hanks did it all before possibly the largest "500" crowd of all—around 200,000.
In the vanguard of the spectators were those hundreds who parked outside the gates overnight, awaiting the 4 a.m. dash to choice locations in the infield. Some dozed in their cars; others fretted away the hours of darkness at a marathon midget race or a frowsy carnival whose collection of female freaks paraded as "Hell's Belles."
The morning of race day was warm and mildly hazy. Fifteen minutes before race time the Metropolitan Opera basso, Jerome Hines, sang the traditional Back Home Again in Indiana. Then Speedway President Anton Hulman Jr. was saying, "Gentlemen, start your engines," and a swarm of colored balloons soared from the Tower Terrace, the new stand behind the pits.
Now the 33 race cars—angle-parked in the pits instead of in the customary grid formation on the homestretch—moved noisily onto the track behind the Mercury pace car. It was, however, an inauspicious start. On the first lineup lap, Rookie Elmer George bumped Eddie Russo's car from behind, and both were out of the race.
Out on the bricks Driver Pat O'Connor took the green starting flag in the inside front pole position and led a ragged formation across the line and safely through the first turn.
O'Connor held the lead for five laps. Big Troy Ruttman, winner of the 1952 race, who should have been abreast of O'Connor on the front row at the start but was off slowly, swooped past the pole car in the southwest corner at the start of the sixth lap. A real scrap was on, but, as so frequently happens, this early sparring meant nothing. Ruttman, one of a half dozen solid favorites, driving one of the fastest cars on the track—the latest from the phenomenal stable of Tulsa's John Zink, whose cars had won the last two races—was out of it at the end of 12 laps with a broken piston. O'Connor began to slip back, eventually to lose any chance because of a damaged shock absorber.
When the Ruttman-O'Connor duel ended, the essential race began—an exhibition of virtuoso driving by two of the oldest and saltiest campaigners at the Speedway, Paul Russo and Sam Hanks. Short, thick and blacksmith-strong, 43-year-old Paul Russo had started 10 previous "500s." He had led strongly in 1956 before crashing on the 22nd lap. This, the Novi partisans were thinking, would be the year. True, they admitted, the Novis had never won a race in the 10 years they had been entered, and two drivers had been killed in them. But just wait until one gets through without accident or mechanical difficulty, they said.
If Russo and his Novi teammate, Tony Bettenhausen, were the sentimental favorites, Hanks attracted the most curiosity. Owner George Salih had tipped the Offy engine in Hanks's mount over on its side, just 18° off horizontal, to produce the lowest center of gravity and the most effective streamlining among the entries. As shop foreman at the Meyer-Drake Offenhauser plant in Bell, Calif., Salih had blueprinted the horizontal-engine scheme in 1952 and had been refining it ever since. It had taken nine months to build the car, and the entire practice period to make it behave at high speed.
Few drivers, however, can make a car mind like Samuel Dwight Hanks, and no one, going into last week's race, had had more Brickyard experience. In his 11 previous "500s" he had turned more competitive laps at Indianapolis than any other driver on the Speedway this year. Third-place finishes in 1952 and 1953, and a sensational second last year after a collision early in the race and a save-the-wagon-train kind of sprint through the field with a damaged car, had given him a strong scent of the laurels. Above all, Hanks had always driven with the kind of competitive fire that Indianapolis demands. He had won the National Midget Racing Championship in 1941 and 1949, and the AAA big car championship in 1953, and he led in the current USAC stock car standings. At 42 he was still in excellent physical condition. His 142.812-mph qualifying average placed him on the fifth row, abreast of the 1956 national big car champion, Jim Bryan.
When Ruttman retired, Paul Russo barged into the lead on the 12th lap, ahead of O'Connor, Hanks and the canny veteran, Fred Agabashian, with Rookie Eddie Sachs, Bryan and a charging Tony Bettenhausen struggling for fifth place. Hanks soon passed O'Connor and closed in on Russo. Inexorably he chipped away at Russo's big lead.
Hanks's low yellow roadster caught Russo's blue Novi on the 36th lap. Thereupon Bettenhausen made the first of five costly pit stops. Russo's car was functioning well, but no matter how close he came to Hanks on the long straightaways, the other's lighter and more nimble machine always lost him in the corners.
Russo's failure to hold Hanks when both machines and drivers were fresh clearly demonstrated that, while the Novis may surpass the Offe for sheer speed, they cannot at present lap the Brickyard faster than the best Offe over a sustained period of time. Some oil invariably spills on the track during the "500," and it bothers the Offe far less than the heavier Novis.
"When I caught Russo and stayed ahead of him," said Hanks later, "I figured I had a real terrific chance to win. The more that oil spilled on the track the better my car went and the worse his went. I saw Paul bring the Novi out of a real nasty slide out there. In the whole race I had just one tiny little slide."
While Hanks and nearly everyone on the grounds were concentrating on this duel with Russo, an astonishing new challenge was in the making. It was obscured by the first flurry of pit stops. When the field settled down again a red-helmeted figure in a bright blue car with the number 26 was hurrying up through the pack. For the first 60 laps Driver Jim Rathmann and No. 26 had been thoroughly ignored. And then, there it was on a bulletin in the press box: No. 26 in fifth place after 70 laps (175 miles). Fifth. He hadn't been as high as 10th only 10 laps before.
The yellow caution light had been on for nearly 13 minutes after Jimmy Daywalt crashed in the northeast corner on the 54th lap, an episode which distracted attention from the standings, so Rathmann's move from the last row to fifth place in 70 laps was all the more surprising. It began to border on the incredible when Rathmann was credited with first place as Hanks made his second pit stop with a little less than half the race yet to be run, and when Hanks actually had to overtake Rathmann to regain the lead after both their second pit stops.
There were three more accidents—Al Keller hit the south wall; Mike Magill crashed into the wall at the top of the homestretch, and Al Herman crashed into him; and Rookie Don Edmunds, the last new man left in the race at this point, spun in the northeast turn—but Rathmann now was getting all the attention he so richly deserved before.
If Rathmann had been able to urge a little more speed from his car toward the end there would have been a dogfight between him and Hanks. As it was, Hanks went in front on the 134th lap and widened the gap with ease, keeping the lead when they both pitted once more. He picked off slower cars fiercely and surely on the straights and in the corners ("I went over 'em and under 'em in the corners and between 'em if I had to on the straights," said Hanks. "I don't like to follow cars. I figure if you follow a car long enough you'll get into trouble").
Winner by 21 seconds over Rathmann (almost the same margin as his defeat by Pat Flaherty last year), Sam Hanks rolled into victory lane to collect a kiss from his lovely blonde wife, Alice, and Film Star Cyd Charisse. He wept. He said he had won the big one and would not race again, except possibly to fulfill some stock car commitments, not even in the competition between Indianapolis drivers and European stars at Monza, Italy, June 29. "The only way to drive this race is hard and smooth—use all the track and drift right up against the wall in the turns."
The new, smaller Indy engines (reduced from 274 to 256 cubic inches) slowed potential lap speeds a bit, but the caution signals were out for only 31 minutes and 41 seconds. That, with Hanks's decision to keep his foot down hard, substantially explains the new record of 135.601 mph. In fact, Hanks's race was the safest "500" in years. Only Magill had hospital treatment—for a chipped vertebra.
These things are logical enough. What bemused many was the ghostly quality of Rathmann's climb up the ladder. Four owners—of the cars driven by Bryan (a brilliant third), Russo (fourth), Andy Linden (fifth) and Bob Veith (ninth)—were so bemused that they tossed the biggest collective protest in the history of the Speedway. They withdrew their protests when the timing officials reviewed the official double-check system of scoring.
Rathmann's pit crew, reinforced this year by the Daytona Beach stock car mechanic Smokey Yunick, did its work 26 seconds faster than the Hanks men. Finally, Rathmann had the lightest car (1,600 pounds), built by California's Quincy Epperly, who also turned out the body for Hanks's car. It had a unique one-piece fuel-tank tail which held 83 gallons, more than any car except the Novi.
Epperly thought the car just might do 500 miles on one pit stop, on a nice cool day that wouldn't cause too many tire changes. It staggers the imagination to think what Rathmann might achieve on that day.
THE TOP 10 FINISHERS
DRIVER AND CAR NUMBER
Sam Hanks, Pacific Palisades, Calif. (9)
Belond Exhaust Special
Jim Rathmann, Miami, Fla. (26)
Jim Bryan, Phoenix, Ariz. (1)
Dean Van Lines Special
Paul Russo, Gardena, Calif. (54)
Andy Linden, Indianapolis (73)
McNamara Veedol Special
Johnny Boyd, Fresno, Calif. (6)
Bowes Seal Fast Special
Marshall Teague, Daytona Beach (48)
Pat O'Connor, North Vernon, Ind. (12)
Bob Veith, Oakland, Calif. (7)
Bob Estes Special
Gene Hartley, Indianapolis (22)
Massaglia Hotels Special