Coast to coast and overseas last week crowds assembled to watch the best drivers in the world in some of the classic races of the motor-sport year. In Europe the focus was the brilliant, 15-mile virtuoso course at N√ºrburgring in southern Germany; in this country the crowd magnets were the 500-mile races at Trenton, N.J., Riverside, Calif., shorter races in Connecticut, Kansas and on Long Island—and, of course, the traditional Memorial Day "500" in Indianapolis. And Indianapolis, which confronted Americans with pictures like the one above, overshadowed them all in the attention it properly received.
Some editorial writers and columnists rushed into print to condemn the "500" out of hand. The emotional outburst of the Boston Herald's Bill Cunningham characterized the spectators as "nearly 200,000 morons, who mostly must be studying to be ghouls." Less hysterically, the New York Herald Tribune saw a parallel with bullfighting. Racing satisfies some human urge, the newspaper went on, "but is it worth all this needless human carnage?" The Herald Tribune did not seem to think so.
Aside from this question of the race's reason for being, there is the question of Ed Elisian's part in the accident (see page 18). There is no doubt that his attempt to pass the leader, Dick Rathmann, in the first lap directly led to the subsequent disaster. The question has been raised whether Elisian's action was foolhardy. The real question is: Should he have been allowed on the track at all? His prerace reputation among fellow drivers and observers (SI, May 26) came to "singularly erratic and unsuccessful." Last January the United States Automobile Club, responsible for licensing drivers on the big-car circuit, suspended Elisian from racing because of a flock of unpaid bills, including gambling debts—but the suspension was lifted to give Ed a chance to earn and pay off. In short, Elisian was in the race under an imperative compulsion to get out front and win lap money, even if he could not ultimately win the race. The USAC could well review its driver eligibility rules.
The larger question remains. This magazine has consistently opposed automobile racing where spectators are endangered, especially city-to-city and within-a-city road racing. We may be thankful that spectators were not harmed in the "500." Indeed, its record for spectator safety is good.
June 8, 1958
Racing drivers, on the other hand, risk injury and death, and in the last analysis that is the moral ground on which Indianapolis must be judged. We believe they have the right, by tradition and present custom and by the genuine, nonghoulish pleasure they give, to run their professional risks for their professional rewards.
Mankind has learned most of what it values most highly through trial and error. It is hoped that the errors of Friday will prove constructive. Speedway Owner Tony Hulman quickly promised to devise a new and safer method of starting the field after this year's chaotic start. And surely even the roughest, toughest driver cannot now doubt the wisdom of the precept that had been emphasized by Tony Hulman and others for so many years: The race cannot be won in the first lap, but it can be tragically lost.