At the Indianapolis Speedway and in theaters across the land a vast, unprecedented audience tensed for the start of the 48th 500-mile race. It had assembled—some 260,000 persons at the Speedway, another half a million before theater television screens—to witness a decisive struggle between the traditional Indy roadsters and swift, insurgent rear-engine cars. But less than five minutes after the start an exploding smashup snuffed out the life of one driver and fatally injured another, and from that moment on the race was not to the swift and car styles did not matter. It became, grimly and awesomely, a 500-mile race of men brave enough to stay in it and see it through.
In the end the winner was A.J. Foyt, of all the drivers the man most unshakably immune to the clash of cars and the smoke of death. He won driving calmly, icily at a record average speed of 147.35 mph through an atmosphere of high tension that made this year's race—more than any other in 500 history—a spectacle of the magnificent and macabre.
Foyt's brilliant triumph was shadowed by the casualties of the day. A Speedway rookie, Dave MacDonald, and a veteran, Eddie Sachs, lay dead. Smooth old professionals, among them the 1963 winner, Rufus Parnell Jones, were sidelined with injuries and burns. Twenty-one drivers were out of the race in a somber accumulation of crashes and engine and tire failures; Gasoline Alley was a clutter of broken cars and on the track a bleak testament to the dead remained—the powdery white residue of fire-extinguishing foam.
The race raised questions that would certainly alter future 500s, the most crucial concerning the relative hazards of gasoline as opposed to alcohol fuel. And it left the dispute over car design still unsettled.
June 7, 1964
It was Foyt's unbending nerve that brought him out of it the winner. His final challenger—once Jones was put out of the race by a freakish pit-stop accident—was Rodger Ward, that steady old fox of the backstretch, usually a nerveless driver, but so rattled by the chain of accidents that he lost his chance for victory by making a series of vital mistakes and five pit stops, "two more than we needed."
"I thought I wasn't getting the fuel to the engine properly," said Ward after the race, wearily rubbing track grime from his face and looking his 43 years. "But I was running the fuel mixture too rich and burning it away. The first time I found I was out of fuel I couldn't believe it. The car was capable of winning—the car should have won—but the driver didn't do a good job."
In winning, Foyt earned $153,650 prize money, the richest purse in 500 history, and took a long lead toward his fourth national driving championship. He also became, against the backdrop of the day's tragedy, the leading spokesman of racing's old guard, those who cling to Indy's traditional Offenhauser-powered, alcohol-burning, front-engine roadsters.
"I am sorry those guys died," said Foyt. "We are all sorry they died. That is racing.
"But I am afraid of those rear-engine cars. I am scared of having all that gasoline around me in that type of chassis. Why, damn it, you are sitting on gasoline, you have gasoline on each side of you. Well, I can carry just as much fuel in my front-engine car—my so-called antique car—with a much greater safety margin."
Foyt had not been the only one concerned about the safety margin. At the customary meeting of all drivers the day before the race, Chief Steward Harlan Fengler had made it a special point. "Gentlemen, please," he said, "remember that you will be starting the race with heavy loads of fuel, and your cars will handle differently than when they are light. Be careful out there."
But on race morning, under a charcoal-gray sky and with a chill wind blowing across the Indiana plain, thoughts of the dangers of racing were submerged in a scene of festival gaiety. A band blared, celebrities paraded, a burst of colored balloons rose from the infield. Then, two minutes after the start of the race, some five minutes after Speedway President Anton Hulman had barked out his traditional "Gentlemen, start your engines," the fantastic series of accidents began.
Scotland's Jimmy Clark, his face taped for protection against the wind, jumped impressively into the lead from his pole position. His Lotus-Ford is so low-hanging that it looks like a water bug skimming along the track, and on the first lap—at a record 149.775 mph—he had pulled in front of the pack by some 200 yards. On the second lap he came whining past in a blur of British racing green at 154.613 mph. Behind him came disaster.
Twenty-six-year-old Dave MacDonald, a fine sports car man racing his first 500 in a Ford-engined car built by speed merchant Mickey Thompson, suddenly veered out of control rounding the last turn before the homestretch. He caromed like a deadly billiard shot off the low walls on both sides of the track, and flame exploded around him in a puff of orange. In the seconds that followed the race became a fiery tangle. Six other cars were caught in the path of fire MacDonald had painted across the track. Some made it through. Eddie Sachs, who had said before the race, "You will find me out there in the middle of things," did not. His Ford-engined American Red Ball Special slammed into MacDonald and spun away. An explosion made an enormous whoosh. Sachs was crushed against his steering wheel by the violence of the collision and was apparently already dead when fire engulfed his car. A huge, ragged pillar of black smoke rose above the wreckage.
Not far away Driver Ronnie Duman, his clothing afire, popped out of his burning Offenhauser, leaped a retaining wall and rolled on the grass to extinguish the flames. Bobby Unser in a Novi Ferguson, Johnny Rutherford in an Offenhauser and Chuck Stevenson in an Offenhauser threaded their way to safety.
The race was stopped, the first time ever due to an accident (rain interrupted the 1926 500). In the next hour, while work crews cleaned the track, the drivers regrouped on the track opposite the principal grandstand.
Over the public address system came the somber announcement: Sachs was dead. The crowd stood, uncovered and fell silent in a long moment of tribute. The drivers froze in a tableau of bright-colored uniforms. An hour and 45 minutes after MacDonald's fateful slide, the race began again.
But now, chillingly, the atmosphere had changed. The long-awaited battle between old and new, between Offenhauser and Ford, did not seem so important. The surviving cars lined up single file for the restart in the order in which they had been running. Foyt, in fifth place, pulled on red golfing gloves, banging his fists together like a boxer to tighten them across his knuckles. He rested coolly in his cockpit, three sticks of gum taped on top of the driveshaft housing, just below his left arm where he could reach them handily. At the head of the line Clark looked around at the crowd, at his crew. He fidgeted with his helmet, finally climbed into the Lotus.
The engines sounded again, and after the inspection lap by the pace car, Clark sprinted ahead once more. Bobby Marshman made a great rush at him in a 1963 Lotus-Ford that was the track's fastest in practice. He took the lead and poured it on, pulling away from Clark with astonishing ease. Behind Clark came Ward and next was Dan Gurney's Lotus-Ford. Those four Fords in front looked unbeatable as Jones and Foyt struggled in fifth and sixth place to uphold the old guard. On this day, however, nothing was sure or certain.
With only 40 of the race's 200 laps run, Marshman was out with a ruptured oil pan. A few minutes later Dave MacDonald died in Indianapolis' Methodist Hospital. Then Clark's car came down the homestretch with its left rear wheel cocked up at a crazy angle, sparks spewing from suspension parts dragging on the track. He fought to control the car for a hair-raising 600 yards and finally wrestled it safely into the infield.
Ward fell back, Gurney too, and suddenly the Fords had all but had it. Foyt and Jones were locked in a stirring, savage wheel-to-wheel duel for first place. This lasted seven laps, then ended abruptly as Parnelli pitted for fuel. His cheering section waited with a placard: "Parnelli, yes. Lotus, no."
Suddenly, unexplainably (Had fuel spilled on his hot exhaust pipe? Had a spark ignited the tank when the filler cap was closed?), Jones's car was afire. The flames rolled out from under the chassis as he pulled away, and he looked back over his shoulder into a sheet of fire. He bailed out and the car turned into a torch, slamming into the pit wall while crewmen scrambled away.
It was now 1:35 p.m., 55 laps were in, and Foyt had the lead for good. Ward once closed to within 12 seconds, but his subsequent pit stops put him out of the fight. Foyt was more than a lap ahead at the end. Then came Ward, Lloyd Ruby in an Offy and rookie Johnny White in an Offy. The first four had all broken Jones's 1963 record of 143.137 mph.
The rush of the slipstream around Foyt had frayed a hole in the right elbow of his racing uniform and his lips were cracked and raw. "You guys," he rasped to reporters in his garage, "didn't come right out and say it—but you sort of hinted I would lose. You thought this so-called antique front-engine roadster couldn't hack it against the high-powered Fords, against the rear-engine cars." He shrugged. "We just didn't think the Fords would make it. We couldn't believe it. We were right."
There was backstage drama as well. On the night before the race, his chief mechanic, George Bignotti, had been forced to install a new engine in Foyt's car after the other had developed a strain during practice. And, gambling on not changing tires (Foyt, on Firestones, was the first winner ever to drive the race on one set), Bignotti removed the front air-jacks from the car to lighten it.
Indy Champion Foyt looked at his car and the garland of roses perched crazily over the cockpit. "We are," he mused, "thinking about something real drastic for next year. We are going to go into streamlining. Maybe something with an enclosed cockpit. I can't tell you more about it because I don't know myself what it will look like, but...."
Said Bill Ansted, Indianapolis auto parts millionaire and Foyt's sponsor: "We will, of course, buy him anything he wants for next year."
Firestone was in the same mood. Within an hour after the race was over, company officials were standing by with a new contract to test tires. The mercurial Texan, a Goodyear tester through the past year, had switched on the first day of qualifying from Goodyears to Fire-stones, then half-switched back and wore a Goodyear driving uniform in the race. He vowed not to accept Firestone's $7,500 in prize money if he won the race. "We have made out the check," said a Firestone official. "Whether or not he accepts it is up to him."
The race had other startling aspects. Ford, in lending its powerful new overhead camshaft engines to private car owners for the race, had kept a tight rein, specifying that they must run on gasoline during the actual race. Ford, in fact, had forbidden the crews to tear the engines down and had provided a supply of fresh, new ones from Detroit as replacements. All seven Fords in the race, said company spokesmen, had raced on gasoline as ordered. Not so, said A.J. Watson, the builder of Rodger Ward's car and his chief mechanic. He had, he said, closed his garage doors to Ford's engineers one night and converted the engine to alcohol. Ward had burned alcohol during the race.
As for the Lotus-Fords, fuel was not the problem. The engines ran beautifully on gas. Marshman's trouble was oil. Both Clark and Gurney were put out by mishaps with their Dunlop tires. The tread began to peel from Clark's left rear tire, and the resulting vibration, Lotus Builder Colin Chapman said, caused the suspension to fail. Gurney complained that a tire sounded "funny," had it replaced and finally was called in for keeps on Chapman's orders.
The stage thus was set for another year of ferment at Indy: design changes were in the offing, a fight over fuel was shaping up and the tire companies were squaring away to fight anew.
This year of transition had been the bad one. At breakfast in the driver-mechanic cafeteria under the grandstand, Mickey Thompson had talked of his plans for Dave MacDonald and the Sears Allstate Specials. "Why, we'll even put out a line of Dave MacDonald T shirts," said Mickey, "and sell them through Sears catalogues. And Dave MacDonald toy racing cars. You know: stuff like that to make the kid some extra money."
And at nightfall, rumpled, unwashed—still in his suit with the wind-ripped elbow—winner A.J. Foyt stood talking earnestly in Gasoline Alley. "Looky here," he said. "You can't let this get you down, about those guys getting killed. You got to carry on in racing. Maybe you haven't noticed it about me—but I haven't got any close friends in racing. You can't let anyone get too close to you in this game. If they get killed it breaks your heart. And if you are going to race you have got to race alone."