Once upon a time a young Californian named George Salih put together a Ford automobile almost entirely with parts taken from junked cars, at a total cost of $4.80. In those Depression days of fantastic price wars he could buy gasoline for as little as 2½¢ a gallon and drive all day on an 8¢ supply.
In 1957, with prices and his sights a good deal higher, Salih went $18,000 into hock to build a radical new car for the Indianapolis 500-mile race. Nobody had seen anything like it; the Offenhauser engine lay on its right side, at an angle of only 18° from the horizontal.
Salih (rhymes with rally) tried to peddle the car for $20,000, with a trailer and his services as race mechanic thrown in, but he had no luck, even though "one man walked back and forth for several days, looking at it, with a check in his hand."
And so George Frank Salih kept the car and won the "500," with Sam Hanks driving it at a record average speed of 135.601 mph. Then he won it again last year with Jim Bryan driving, at 133.791 mph, and he is attempting to win it again this May 30 with big Jim in the cockpit once more.
All told, counting a second place in the Monza "500" last year, the car has won $224,000 and has stamped Salih as the most influential Indianapolis design man of the day, for no fewer than 16 of this year's 61 entries have the Salih-inspired "sidewinder" engine position.
If success has greatly improved Salih's credit rating, it has failed so far to make him a tranquil man at Indianapolis time. Meticulous to a fault, he packed the customary half-pint jar of aspirin tablets along with his wrenches against the annual month-long grind of testing, qualifying and, finally, racing at the speedway. Salih is as calm as the next man and calmer than most—no cooler head will be found in the pits next week on Memorial Day—but the expensive prerace game of musical chairs called time trials would make even Perry Como jumpy.
When the first qualifying day arrived—last Saturday—a glance at the speedway's wind-whipped banners and at the thermometer quashed talk of the sensational speeds so freely predicted the day before. A hot, still day would have been ideal. Drivers hate wind as much as bullfighters do and need a warm racing surface for the best traction and best speeds. The going would be tricky on this windy, chilly day.
ONE FATAL ACCIDENT
No driver needed to be reminded that the track could invoke the harshest punishment for any bad judgement or bad luck.
One unlucky driver, 26-year-old Jerry Unser, had already been fatally burned in an accident that occurred during early practice—after amazingly escaping with minor injuries when his car went over the concrete retaining wall in last year's terrible first-lap mass accident.
Additionally, everyone was acutely aware that racing has just endured one of its worst years for driver fatalities, both here and abroad. Speedway President Tony Hulman moved to restore the old "500" start after two unhappy experiments with an alternative method. The United States Auto Club, sanctioning organization for the "500," made roll bars mandatory on all 1959 entries. After the Unser accident it was required that all drivers wear flameproof coveralls.
It is doubtful, however, that Saturday's competitors were mulling over particular accidents or antidotes, even after the 1958 big car driving champion, the irrepressible veteran Tony Bettenhausen, flipped his car a few minutes before the trials were to begin. Probably saved by his roll bar, Bettenhausen was pulled from the wreckage unhurt. He calculated that it was the 28th time he had been upside down in a racing accident, and he allowed that as long as he could count the accidents he was all right. The other drivers inquired anxiously about Bettenhausen until told he was uninjured, and then went about their business.
Three episodes stood out among Saturday's accomplishments: the comeback of an old campaigner, a duel between the brothers Rathmann and a sweet victory for a gritty little Scotsman in a peignoir-pink car.
The old campaigner was Duane Carter, 46, veteran of eight "500s" when he retired after the 1955 race to become director of competition for the new USAC. Replaced this year by Henry Banks, Carter signed on in the black and gold racer entered jointly by Henry (Smokey) Yunick, a salty Daytona Beach racing mechanic; Arthur B. Lathrop, an Indianapolis lawyer; and Lathrop's partner in racing, D. Coleman Glover, a businessman from Moline, Ill. Carter lined up first to qualify and accepted a speed that was commendable, considering his layoff, but slowest of the day—142.795 mph for the four laps.
The Rathmanns are brave, swift and determined drivers. Each of them has a splendid mount—Jim, a new car built by the California wizard A. J. Watson; Dick, the Watson he placed on the pole last year at a record speed of 145.974. Jim had just rounded out a big year at Daytona Beach in April by doubly assuring himself of the title of world's fastest driver. Having won the Monza "500" at a record of 166.72 mph, he won again at Daytona, with an astonishing speed of 170.261. His lap of 147.06 mph at Indy was fastest of all in practice for the "500." Scrapping for the pole at the Brickyard, the Rathmanns shrugged off initial runs that weren't up to expectations and then sizzled around at speeds that put Jim in third place for the day and Dick fourth.
The Rathmann boys were puzzled and chagrined that they had not been able to outdo the pink blur driven by our Scotsman, Johnny Thomson. As for Thomson, he was a bit embarrassed that he hadn't driven as smoothly as he would have liked to. The car owners, those men Lathrop and Glover again, put aside that nonsense and were properly ecstatic. Lathrop had been walking on air for days, marveling that things were working out nicely after much misery in past years, murmuring, "Everything seems to be clicking," knocking on all nearby wood. Lathrop, by the way, is perhaps the only Indianapolis car owner who ever contemplated teaching philosophy. Thomson, a Massachusetts-bred veteran with a down-East twang and plenty of philosophy in his right foot, eventually won the pole at a speed of 145.908 mph and set a one-lap record of 146.532 mph on the way. His car is a new and very special sidewinder built by Lujie Lesovsky of Los Angeles. The engine is laid over to the left, not the right.
In the midst of all the commotion the builder of the most famous sidewinder of them all was pacing, timing, adjusting, conferring—but George Salih finally sent the beautifully finished, bright yellow No. 6 back to the garage. Bryan had not approached a really competitive speed; they would try again the next day. Down the line, another driving star, Pat Flaherty, entered for the first time since his 1956 victory and subsequent accident, was having no better a day, despite the lucky green shamrock on his helmet.
"Sometimes it scares me," Salih had said not long before, "to think of the risks I took to build this car. I was working as foreman of one of the Meyer & Drake shops, where the Offy engines are built. I used to doodle race cars on napkins, bits of paper, anything. Every time I'd doodle, the car would come out looking like this one. The more I studied the shape it was taking, the better it looked. Finally it became an obsession with me. Actually, I had to lay the engine over to fit the shape of the car I wanted."
(Hanks and Bryan, of course, proved the functional soundness of the design—lower center of gravity, smaller frontal area—in their victories.)
"I'm not a gambler in the usual sense of the word, but I'll gamble on anything that will test my skill or faith," Salih will tell you. "I had enough confidence in myself to go pretty deeply into debt to build the car. Luckily my wife went along with the gamble."
An old hand at Indianapolis, having been chief mechanic in the Lee Wallard victory in 1951, Salih assembled a topflight pit crew and soon became renowned for the split-second precision of his pit stops. Sloppy pit work can lose the race; smart action during the three customary stops to refuel and change tires can win it. Last year Salih & Co. averaged just 30 seconds for each stop—an amazing performance.
After returning from Monza last summer Salih decided to shoot for a still better pit-stop performance. Ever since 1955 he had been developing a novel air-jack system he believed would make it possible. This became part of Salih's $7,000 "tune-up" for the needle-nosed car, called the Belond-AP Muffler Special after its sponsors. (Sponsors of Indianapolis cars pay the owners $2,000 and upward for the publicity value; first-rate cars can command more than $5,000.)
It was some tune-up. Working in a small shop adjoining his home in Whittier, Calif., Salih stripped the car. The frame was put in a furnace to be restressed. Paint was removed from body panels, plating from plated parts. All engine parts except block and crankcase were replaced, as were all other elements of the "strain line,'' the parts involved in the transmission of motive power to the rear wheels. All critical parts were tested for flaws. The engine was rebuilt and tuned to deliver about 380 to 385 hp, 10 to 15 hp more than last year.
Aside from modifying the steering geometry and suspension, Salih made only one significant change in the chassis, but it is a corker. This is an arrangement of four slender but sturdy steel legs, which descend through the underpan when compressed nitrogen is released into a tube at the side of the car. Making the usual hand jacks unnecessary, the air jack (really nitrogen jack) lifts the car for tire changing in eight-tenths of a second. Ever the perfectionist, Salih figures the gimmick will save him four to seven precious seconds at each pit stop. Bettenhausen's car, incidentally, had a similar but fractionally slower setup.
Ready at last to try for an unprecedented third straight victory, Salih organized his crew—part of it to assemble later, as needed—and arrived when the gates of the speedway opened May 1.
This is the mother and father of all veteran crews and it exudes experience. For Co-Mechanic Howard Gilbert, one of the most gifted men at the Brickyard, next week's race will be his 12th "500"; his race mission is to change the left rear tire. For Earl (Frenchy) Sirois his 40th "500"; he'll handle the nitrogen hose and change the left front tire when necessary. The list continues in the same vein: Co-sponsor Sandy Belond will be refueling his 10th race; Chuck Blanchard, an Eastern Airlines pilot, scoring his ninth; Joe Petrali, right rear wheel, his 19th; Joe Sostilio, right front, his 11th; Jack Ventura, general helper, his 38th. Salih will manage the refueling and plot race strategy.
Through the month Salih and Gilbert have adjusted, readjusted and re-readjusted enough infinitesimal details on the pretty yellow car to give a Swiss watchmaker the screaming meemies.
But you must qualify to race in the "500." As time ran out on the first weekend, George Salih ran a hand through his thinning, graying hair, thoughtfully stroked his lean, weathered face and then walked back to the garage to nibble aspirin and think. His twice-champion car had still not made the lineup, but no one doubted it would.