A MATTER OF SECONDS

There were only 23 of them between Winner Rodger Ward and Runner-up Jim Rathmann over Indy's 500 miles, a race which provided an abundance of thrills and few mishaps
June 07, 1959

If Samuel Goldwyn does not base a movie on last Saturday's Indianapolis 500-mile race it will not be for want of heart-warming ingredients. Here was the story of a clean-cut American husband who won the nation's biggest automobile race as thousands—indeed, scores of thousands—cheered, who kissed his dog Skippy, his wife Jo and a sweet-as-cream starlet named Erin O'Brien in the flush of victory, who gave thanks to God for his success and celebrated on tap water from a paper cup, for our hero is a man who neither drinks nor smokes, a man whose only vice, we are told, is gin rummy.

The winner, 38-year-old Rodger Ward of Los Angeles, traveled the "500" at a record speed of 135.857 mph on a day with enough suspense, heartache and derring-do in it for two or three scenarios.

Ward's victory was all the sweeter for its lack of advance fanfare. Everyone knew him to be a highly skilled driver, but his main prior achievement at Indianapolis had been to get off with a cut nose after flipping end over end in his part of the four-car accident in which Bill Vukovich was killed in 1955. This year the trumpets blew not for Ward but for little Johnny Thomson, who won the pole with a car painted pink; for Jim Rathmann, whose recent victories at Monza and Daytona Beach established him as the fastest driver in the world; for Jim Bryan, the defending "500" champion.

Every year the "500" and its month-long prelude of practice runs and qualifying trials infects the participants—drivers, mechanics, car owners—with a curious mixture of hope and dread. The stakes have become very high—$338,150 in prizes this year—the dangers very great and the participants very fatalistic.

The racing cars have become so special that the slightest mechanical fault, if not detected in time, can wipe out a staggering investment in money and labor. Pit stops have become so crucial that any time-saving gimmick is worth a try. This year will be remembered as the one in which the air jack was introduced—a system using compressed nitrogen to raise a car for wheel changing by means of four steel legs that descend from the chassis. The purpose of this device is to save approximately six seconds during a pit stop.

The onrush of specialization, the intense competition, the awareness of danger, all have conspired to make the month of May a not very merry one for the Indy people. Last month was no exception. First of all, Driver Jerry Unser was fatally burned in practice. Then a rookie driver, Bob Cortner, was killed in practice. The only foreign entry, the Eldorado Maserati that Stirling Moss drove in last year's Monza "500," failed to qualify. So did the celebrated Novis. George Salih (SI, May 25), whose ground-breaking car won in 1957 and 1958, making the flat, or "sidewinder," engine position popular, had the appallingly bad luck to have the oil pump fail and the engine seize up on the last day before the last weekend for qualifying. Desperate, all-through-the-night work revived the car and Bryan finally qualified it. But Salih's bad luck had only just begun, as we shall see.

Despite the calamities, the lure of Indianapolis seems to grow stronger, if anything, by the year. Salih probably explained it as well as anyone when he said, "It gets in the blood."

By starting time, a crowd believed to be the largest ever for a "500," about 200,000 (official attendance figures are never released by the speedway), had gathered under a threatening sky at the old Brickyard. Mindful of the poor starts of the past two years, in which the 33 entrants attempted to form up on the track after single filing out from the pits, Speedway President Tony Hulman started the field in the traditional way, with all the cars in formation on the homestretch, as he gave his command, "Gentlemen, start your engines."

It was an admirable start—for all but George Salih & Co. As the field rolled away, Salih's crew was still pushing the famous yellow car over the bricks. Bryan could not disengage the clutch. The crew pushed the car onto the pit apron, out of the way of the racers, and worked frantically to get it moving. One pace lap went by, then the second and last one. Now the race was on, with Johnny Thomson sprinting into the lead, and still Bryan was stalled. Not until two laps had been completed did he join the race, only to retire with a badly smoking car three laps later.

"We never did get the clutch fully disengaged," Salih said afterward with a fatalistic shrug. "I think we just weren't supposed to run this year."

Out on the track Rodger Ward was making a stirring run at Thomson's machine, and behind him came some of the fiercest chargers at the speedway: Dick Rathmann, Eddie Sachs, Dick's brother Jim and indestructible old Tony Bettenhausen, 42, survivor of more perils than Pauline and winner of the National Driving Championship in 1958.

Away back in 18th place at the start, Pat Flaherty, the 1956 "500" winner, amazingly began to maneuver through traffic with all of his old verve. Scarcely a week before, some had doubted that he would be able to qualify. This was to be his Indianapolis comeback after almost two years of convalescence from a racing accident. When asked why he was returning, he had grimly replied, "For the money." Car Owner Jack Zink, for whom Flaherty won in 1956, noticed during practice that the slender, red-haired Irishman with the shamrock on his helmet could not seem to go quickly when alone on the track but was altogether a different driver in competition.

As Ward squeezed past Thomson into the lead on the fifth lap Flaherty scrapped and clawed his way to sixth place. He dodged adroitly as Sachs spun into the infield in the first turn on the eighth lap and then careened across the track into the wall and back again to the infield. As Jim Rathmann moved up to dispute the lead with Ward, Flaherty hurtled onward. Having disposed of Ward temporarily, Rathmann found a demon at his heels, for Flaherty's Irish was up and he wanted to be nowhere but ahead.

NOSE TO TAIL

Now began one of the great Indianapolis car-to-car duels, a no-quarter match between two of the most resourceful and courageous drivers on earth. Here side by side, there nose to tail, they kept the crowd atiptoe. Flaherty had the lead at the end of the 28th lap, and again after the 31st, and yet again on the 34th, staying out front through the 40th, as the yellow no-passing light went on for a minor accident.

On the 47th lap came a series of accidents involving four cars, and this abruptly changed the complexion of the race. Chuck Weyant spun in the northeast turn, scene of last year's first-lap mass accident, and then was struck from behind by Mike Magill, whose car flipped. Jud Larson and Rookie Red Amick put their cars into the infield to avoid the wreckage and were unable to restart. Magill suffered a concussion and injuries to two vertebrae. The others, fortunately, were unhurt.

This episode, combined with the first flurry of refueling stops, resulted in a startling change in the standings. It had seemed likely that Rathmann and Flaherty would resume their dogfight, and, in fact, they did, but not in the lead. During the 11 minutes and 15 seconds the yellow caution light was on for the Weyant-Magill accident, Thomson and Ward apparently were able to tour at a much faster pace than Flaherty and Rathmann, even while heeding the no-passing rule. This was a matter of sheer chance, determined by the traffic pattern under the caution light. When the race resumed in earnest, Thomson was in the lead with Ward close behind; Flaherty and Rathmann were three-quarters of a lap behind them.

Thomson kept his pink mount ahead of Ward's white one until he pitted again, after 85 laps, and so, with the race nearly half completed, Ward moved into a lead that he would cling to until the finish. He had averaged 138.039 mph, a speed substantially faster than the old record of 135.925 mph for 250 miles.

Indeed, Ward was driving the race of his life. Rathmann, who managed to shake a tiring Flaherty, and Thomson were not dawdling. But Thomson could not get the best from his car after a failure in the linkage by which he hand-controlled his torsion bar preload system. Installed the day before the race, the hand control was intended to permit Thomson to compensate for variations in the car's handling qualities caused by consumption of fuel, among other things. When the linkage failed halfway through the race, an abnormal load was thrown on the right rear wheel. This caused excessive tire wear and forced Thomson to make an extra stop for tires, which eliminated any chance for victory.

Rathmann's car, on the other hand, was performing beautifully. He could not catch the flying Ward, but he came close. When he made his last pit stop, after 149 laps, he was just five seconds behind Ward. The crowd tensed for a rousing tussle to the finish, knowing that Ward, too, must make one last stop.

A TRIUMPHANT GLOVE

Out of the blue, with Ward on his 168th lap and due in the pits, Pat Flaherty crashed into the outside wall opposite the entrance to the pits and shunted across the track into the pit wall. The gallant Irishman apparently was dizzy from exhaustion. A few seconds later Ward flashed into the pits for the third and last of his incredibly rapid stops (the three required only 73 seconds altogether).

Thus Rathmann (who spent a total of 86.4 seconds in the pits) had no opportunity to capitalize on Ward's advantageous pit stop because the caution light had gone on when Flaherty cracked up. Rathmann was forced to throttle down and fall into line. With the green light on again, after six minutes and 25 seconds, Rathmann was now a discouraging 27 seconds behind Ward instead of being directly behind him.

At the end, Ward thrust a black-gloved left hand triumphantly upward and headed toward Victory Lane to buss his wife, his part-terrier, part-dachshund dog and the all-Irish starlet, O'Brien. Rathmann crossed the line 23 seconds later, Thomson 27 seconds after Rathmann.

A good share of the acclaim belonged to the graying California whiz kid, 35-year-old A. J. Watson, who built the first-and second-place cars and set the engines in them bolt upright, contrary to the fashion introduced by George Salih. Last year, three Watson-built cars won the entire front row in qualifying but were removed from contention in the first-lap accident. Both of this year's front runners were fitted with air jacks after the time trials.

In Ward's garage, around his carnation-wreathed car, there was perhaps the soberest victory celebration in the history of the speedway—Ward living it up on water; the car owner, Bob Wilke, swigging soda pop; and Watson guzzling beer.

Ward, a poised and personable man with dark hair and an engaging grin, will undoubtedly be one of the most popular of "500" champions. Standing in the steamy garage, mopping his begrimed face, he patiently answered the questions of a swarm of well-wishers.

No, he had had no trouble to speak of. "You never know how well you're running until you have to know," he said. "Every time I needed a little bit more today, I had it."

No, he did not carry a good-luck charm. "I'm not a real believer in luck. If you believe that the good Lord is looking after you, more than likely He'll take care of you."

PHOTOART SHAYONE, TWO, THREE was the order of finish of Rodger Ward's Leader Card 500 Roadster (top), Jim Rathmann's Simoniz Special (middle) and Johnny Thomson's pole car, the Racing Associates Special.
135.857 mph
PHOTOART SHAY[See caption above.]
135.619 mph
PHOTOART SHAY[See caption above.]
135.340 mph
THREE PHOTOSWINNER WARD'S CAR (LEFT) DEMONSTRATES NEW AIR JACKS AT PIT STOP. DICK RATHMANN IS HELPED TO FEET AFTER JUMPING FROM FLAMING CAR DURING REFUELING. MIKE MAGILL'S CAR IS UPENDED OVER SPINNING CHUCK WEYANT AFTER HITTING HIM

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)