A Practically Perfect Race At Indy

Jim Rathmann's '500' was the fastest ever. Only one driver was hurt, but a makeshift stand toppled to mar the day
Jim Rathmann's '500' was the fastest ever. Only one driver was hurt, but a makeshift stand toppled to mar the day
June 05, 1960

It's a good bet that if Tony Hulman, the cheerful and generous racetrack impresario who owns and runs the Indianapolis Speedway, could write the script for his 500-mile race in advance, it would turn out to be a lot like the 1960 version he staged last Monday. In 31-year-old Jim Rathmann he had a new Speedway champion—which is always dramatic and pleasing to the faithful. The speed of the race set new records all the way from start to finish, and Rathmann's final average of 138.632 mph was almost three mph faster than Rodger Ward's record average of last year. There was only one accident of any consequence—Eddie Russo spun and hit the outside wall at the southeast turn on the 87th lap—and Russo's injury was not serious.

Although the Speedway keeps such statistics to itself, it is probable that the paid customers outnumbered any gathering in the past. It would be safe to estimate that as many as 200,000 were present when the bombs went off and the colored balloons went up and Hulman told the 33 drivers: "Gentlemen, start your engines."

It was just a moment later, however, that this nearly ideal "500" was marred by a freak accident. Through the years it has been the custom for many of the tens of thousands who jam the infield to set up makeshift scaffoldings alongside their cars to get a better view of the racing. The more ambitious even sell space on these spidery contraptions, some of them three stories high. While Hulman's pace car was leading the racers on their preliminary parade lap Monday, one of these towers collapsed and dumped a tangle of humanity to the muddy ground below. Two people were killed in the mess and more than 70 were injured, but they could scarcely be considered casualties of racing.

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The race itself was unlike any "500" of recent history in that it was a two-car contest virtually from start to finish. One car, of course, was Rathmann's, the other Ward's. Right up until the last five or six miles the new winner was fighting wheel to wheel with the defending champ for the title. This was a particular treat to watch, for it so often happens during the long grind at Indianapolis that the pace setters, the fastest cars, break under the strain and the prize goes to the steady plugger who just lays back and waits.

But not this year. Rathmann and Ward, each driving one of the four new cars built by A. J. Watson, started side by side in the front row. During the early and middle stages they were seriously pressed by Eddie Sachs in the pole car and Johnny Thomson, a perennial contender, but neither Sachs nor Thomson had a car that could go the distance.

With the race three-quarters over, there was an extraordinary moment. Keep in mind that for 375 miles Rathmann and Ward had been grabbing the lead from one another every few laps like a couple of dogs arguing over a bone. Their speeds were slightly fantastic, with each sometimes turning laps as fast as 145. On the 151st lap, with Ward leading by no more than a car length, both sped into the pits for new tires and fuel.

In just under 20 seconds Ward's car was rolling again, while Rathmann's took two seconds longer. Now the gap was more than 100 yards instead of just inches, but Rathmann caught up and repassed Ward to resume their duel. Sachs by now was out of the race, but Thomson, who had closed to within nine seconds of the leaders, was still very much in it.

Up in the press box, a man who knows what he is talking about thought that a strategic mistake had been made. He pointed out that both Rathmann and Ward had been getting less than 50 laps with their tires and that both might have to make another pit stop. So now it was a matter of which driver could go all the rest of the way without another interruption, and if neither could it would then be Thomson's race.

On they went, Rathmann in his light blue Ken-Paul Special, Ward in his white and red Leader Card 500 Roadster, first one, then the other in the lead. With less than 10 laps left, it was Thomson who failed, pulling into the pits with a smoking engine. Rathmann and Ward hurried on and, as they passed the pits with only three laps to go, Ward started gesticulating frantically to his crew. The next time they came around, Rathmann led by several hundred yards, and it was obvious that the race was his if he could keep going. Ward, with his right rear tire worn down to the cord, had slowed considerably and abandoned the chase. He knew he couldn't keep up with Rathmann, so he decided to settle for a safe second.

As Jim Rathmann, the new Indianapolis champion, drove happily through the pits on his way to Victory Lane, Ward's crew, headed by A. J. Watson himself, stood in a group in their white coveralls and gave him a rousing cheer. Even though Ward had lost, the race confirmed Watson's reputation (SI, May 30) as the reigning genius of the Speedway. For the second straight year the cars he built finished one-two.

When they put the mike in front of him, Jim Rathmann was graciousness itself. "I figured," said the grease-painted winner, "that Rodger had a little more steam than I did, and my right front tire was getting down to the cord, and I didn't know what to do. It was sure a relief."

Graciousness, however, is not the first quality that comes to mind in considering Rathmann. A scowl is the expression most often found on the youthful face of this 31-year-old Californian who is certainly one of the most intense competitors in sport anywhere. Having grown up through racing's farm system of hot rods, stock cars and sprint cars, he first drove at The Brickyard in 1949 and has since put in 4,870 miles there in actual competition.

Oddly, Jim's parents gave him the name of Richard. His brother, also a top driver, who went out of the race early with brake failure, was christened James. Jim took his older brother's name years ago when he was too young to qualify for a racing license, and since then each brother has kept the other's name. Jim (the current Jim) now lives in Miami with his wife Kay and baby Jim, and there runs a speed shop, selling parts for hot rods and other racing cars.

Last Monday was Jim Rathmann's day, but more important than the victory was the manner in which it was achieved. Rathmann and his rivals proved that automobile racing is a sport that doesn't need bloodshed to provide its thrills.

PHOTOART SHAY; ASSOCIATED PRESSTERRIFYING TUMBLE of homemade aluminum-tube tower killed two spectators. Stand was one of many erected by private promoters to exploit the overflow crowd. TWO PHOTOSARTSHAYONLY SECONDS APART, Ward (top left) comes out of pit after 151st lap ahead of Rathmann (4), who is still on jacks. They passed and repassed each other (below, Ward leading) until two laps from finish, when Ward's tires gave out. PHOTOARTSHAYIGNORING GREASE, happy Kay Rathmann kisses her husband in Victory Lane.