Let baseball have its M squad. As the Indianapolis "500" revealed last week, auto racing has its own wonder-working W corps. Despite the incalculable odds, the Messrs. Wilke, Watson and Ward, aided by a junior varsity consisting of the Messrs. Hirashima and Sutton, swept Indy's first two places and collected $169,000 of the record-breaking $426,202 purse.
The assault had its origin back in 1952 when Bob Wilke, a Milwaukee paper manufacturer and racing enthusiast, first decided to give the "500" a whirl. Wilke is not an impulsive, man. He wanted A. J. Watson, Indy's top builder-mechanic, and none other to design his racers and manage his Leader Card team, and he waited seven years for Watson to become available.
It was in 1959 that Wilke made his first start, with the smooth, plucky veteran, Rodger Ward, driving a Watson roadster and A. J. himself bossing the pit work—and that year the three Ws won. In 1960 Ward was second; last year, third. For 1962 Wilke ordered a new Watson racer for Ward. He had already hired Takao (Chickie) Hirashima, a Nisei renowned for his meticulous engine work, to assist A. J. and take charge of a back-up car to be driven by Oregon's Len Sutton.
No fewer than 17 Watson roadsters were in the 33-car starting field last week as a typically huge Indianapolis crowd—numbering perhaps 250,000—looked on. When the engines were silent again, 3½ hours later, the W corps added up its amazing score:
June 10, 1962
1) A flawless performance by the 41-year-old Ward in his 12th "500," which he led from the 126th to the 200th and final lap (except briefly during a pit stop) to establish a new speed record of 140.293 mph and earn his customary 40%, or nearly $50,000, of the $124,515 winner's prize.
2) An equally sure drive by Sutton, who was content to finish 11 seconds behind Ward without ever risking Wilke's ire by attempting to dice with him.
3) Errorless pit work by A. J.'s polished crews, which expended just one minute, all told, on Ward's three stops and only 61 seconds on Sutton's.
4) Additional testimony to Watson's master touch as a builder, as Watson cars placed one-two-three and took three other positions in the first 10.
5) A choice $68,969 share of the purse for Wilke as his owner's dividend.
Plaudits for Rodger
But to the public at large the day was Ward's, and swarms of fans overran his Gasoline Alley garage when the race was over. "How about the old man?" chortled the winner, sweat-streaked and grimy, as a friend pushed through to him. "I guess I'll keep right on racing as long as I can go this fast this safely."
From this one should not assume, however, that Ward and his teammate simply ran away with the "500." For a time it seemed that two other drivers might outsprint them. The most dangerous threat was posed, as expected, by Rufus Parnell Jones (SI, May 28). In qualifying trials Parnelli had dashed to the first and only 150-mph laps ever officially clocked at Indy. Last week he immediately opened a long, lovely lead, which began to assume runaway proportions—the full length of the homestretch—before he first pitted, after 59 laps. He quickly regained first place. Then he lost the brakes of his Watson racer.
Here is what happened: One section of stainless steel brake-fluid tubing extended close beneath the hot exhaust pipe, adjacent to the engine. Engine vibrations were violent enough to rock the pipe against the brake line. A leak erupted, and out went all the fluid.
Parnelli, like some other Indy drivers, does not use his brakes in normal racing. He relies on engine braking to slow for the speedway's four turns. But without brakes he would have to drive more circumspectly in traffic. Worst of all, how could he stop in the pits?
Jones flashed through the pits once to signal trouble. The spectators within viewing range were perplexed by this until, after 125 laps, still nursing a slender but dwindling lead over Ward, he rolled into the pits for real—and rolled, and rolled and rolled. Crewmen dashed wildly to meet and try to stop him. One of them lunged for the car's rear bumper tubing, caught hold and personally braked the car to a halt with his derriere. But the perils of Parnelli contained yet one more installment. Obliged to pit again, he coolly rolled over two of the replacement tires lying ready for him, trying to come to a halt, and finally crunched into the wall of the next pit. Victory was out of the question by then and Parnelli ultimately finished seventh.
Ward might also have been challenged at the end by the 1961 winner, A. J. Foyt, who was cleanly second to Parnelli early along. But alas, poor Foyt. He lost a wheel in the first turn and found himself passing another car backward at 130 mph. Luckily he ground to a safe stop in the infield.
As for the Buick-engined racer driven by Dan Gurney, it was a promising failure. Gurney displayed style and daring while ranging from eighth to 12th place, but after 96 laps the drive train gave way and the car was out.
Even so, Parnelli's car owner, J. C. Agajanian, said afterward that he was considering switching from the big Offenhauser-engined roadsters to a lightweight car along the Buick's lines. Don't count on it, though. After last week, it would seem that A. J. Watson, high priest of Indy orthodoxy, could go back to wooden-spoked wheels, throw in an antique mechanic's riding seat for good measure and still win the "500" in a breeze. Technical progress will remain moribund at Indianapolis until the prophets of change back their racers with something like A. J.'s unbelievably thorough mechanical preparation and superbly rehearsed pit work.