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After the Indianapolis fire: an argument

June 22, 1964
June 22, 1964

Table of Contents
June 22, 1964

Cover
Tables of Contents
King David
Sweet Torture
Voice Of World Tennis
People
Motor Sports
Baseball
Boating
Lost Heroes
Acknowledgments
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

After the Indianapolis fire: an argument

Reforms in the 500 are certain to include better fuel tanks and limits on their size, but gasoline is unlikely to be prohibited despite some stiff opposition. The track might be widened somewhat to ease pileup dangers

By Kenneth Rudeen

As Indianapolis began to grapple last week with the problem of averting disastrous fires of the kind that killed Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald on Memorial Day, these things became likely:

This is an article from the June 22, 1964 issue Original Layout

1) New, extremely rigorous design and construction standards will be applied to fuel tanks.

2) Gasoline, the fuel feeding the MacDonald-Sachs fire, probably will not be barred, despite some Indy men who believe it unduly hazardous.

3) A maximum capacity for fuel tanks will be set—possibly one size for gasoline tanks and another, larger, size for alcohol tanks because of alcohol's low mileage.

4) The track itself may be widened, to give overtaking drivers a better chance of avoiding an out-of-control car such as the one driven by MacDonald. Sachs was the third Indy fatality in 10 years in a multiple-car accident not of the victim's own making. Trouble ahead also claimed Bill Vukovich in 1955 and Pat O'Connor in 1958.

As a special committee headed by Kenneth Grimm, secretary to Speedway Owner Tony Hulman, started exploring these and other possibilities—the committee is to make formal recommendations in September—a clearer picture of the MacDonald accident was emerging. First of all, Mickey Thompson, builder of MacDonald's Ford-engined car, scotched an Associated Press story estimating the gasoline load at a fantastic 100 gallons (some 600 pounds in a car weighing about 1,200 dry). "We carried 45 gallons," said Thompson, a fact verified by Ray McMahan, the chief Mobil fuel specialist at Indy. Thompson said the gas was in a single rubber tank extending most of the distance between the front and rear wheels on the driver's left. MacDonald had practiced with a nearly full tank, so unfamiliarity with his car's handling in that condition was not a factor.

But it was apparent that he had been doing some very enterprising driving in his less than two laps of actual racing. He had started in 14th position, from the middle of the fifth row. He "lost it"—went into an out-of-control slide—immediately after a daring swoop past Troy Ruttman, the 1952 500 winner, in the middle of the northwest, or No. 4, turn. By then he had moved all the way up to seventh or eighth place, and as he passed Ruttman he was, according to official speedway observers, on the flat apron part of the track below the white line marking the edge of the banking.

After a long, high-speed slide—he must have been doing 140 mph as it began—MacDonald hit the low concrete inner track wall approximately head on. The car slammed around backward, scraping along the wall. The fuel tank ruptured—precisely how is not known—and either sparks generated by the wall-scraping or the heat of the exhaust pipes or some other part of the car ignited a massive spray of gas.

MacDonald's flaming car bounced backward into the middle of the track. Along came Sachs. As other veterans have done in such situations, Sachs may have chosen to accelerate hard as his best means of escape. If so, he hit MacDonald flush on the left side under full power, ramming directly into that fuel tank. Accounts differ as to how much fuel—also gasoline—Sachs had aboard in aluminum cells on either side of his cockpit—but 30 gallons were left after the fire was put out. His tanks did not explode. There was a small crossover tank above his legs that ruptured and spewed fire, and some gas apparently was drawn from the main tanks.

Stationed around the speedway was a massive fire-fighting and rescue apparatus including more than 200 men, nine crash trucks—pickups with both CO[2] and dry-powder extinguishers—four pumper fire trucks of the kind found in any city, and scores of extinguishers, both powder and CO2.

One crash truck was rolling toward the scene from the infield between turns 3 and 4 before the fire started; the crew had spotted MacDonald's incipient slide. Another crash truck was just off the track at the disaster point. Cleon Reynolds, Indy's fire-protection chief, stationed more than half a mile away at the foot of the pits, started running to the fire when he saw it billow up. He says it took him perhaps four minutes to arrive and that by that time MacDonald had been removed and was on his way to the hospital. Rescuers had reached Sachs very early, he said, and had found him crushed in the wreckage and beyond any possible help.

Ultimately all the crash and fire trucks were used. The fire was an ugly, stubborn one, taking about 30 minutes to put out. Lime was spread on the track to absorb pools of unburned gas and oil.

Reynolds said he thought his men had done an excellent job. He doubted whether any additional equipment would have been of much value, such as asbestos suits of the kind used on aircraft carriers (and, indeed, in years past at Indy). Some drivers, however, were furious that not all of the lime had been swept up before the race was restarted. For three laps, said one, clouds of lime stirred up by the cars made his vision "opaque" for 50 or 60 yards.

But it was the presence of gasoline that excited the most outspoken wrath—and in turn equally outspoken defense of its use. The most influential anti-gas men were Bob Wilke, owner of Rodger Ward's second-place Watson-built, Ford-powered racer, and Andy Granatelli, owner of the three Novis. Ward's was the only one of seven Ford-engined cars that burned alcohol rather than the gas specified by Ford. All the Offenhauser-powered cars and the Novis burned an alcohol blend.

The stand of the anti-gas wing, which included Mechanics George Bignotti (for A. J. Foyt), Clint Brawner and Herb Porter, was that gas ignited more readily than alcohol, burned hotter, was harder to put out and thus should be ruled out. In their collective opinion, a number of drivers who had been rescued from alcohol fires would have been inextricable if they had been in gas fires.

They cited the pit fire in this year's 500 from which Parnelli Jones escaped by diving from his car and, more urgently, the fiery crackup a week after the 500, in a race for the same cars at Milwaukee, from which Driver Jim Hurtubise was pulled out, albeit with critical burns. They did not, however, mention the inferno in which Tony Bettenhausen died in practice for the 1961 race.

Wilke did not attend the Indy meeting at which the Grimm committee was formed. Beforehand, however, he ripped off his own eight-point reform program, in which barring gas was a cardinal element. He would also, among other things, start speedway rookies like MacDonald at the rear of the field (unlikely); limit fuel capacity to 45 gallons; ban the explosive, oxygen-bearing nitrate additives some mechanics blend with alcohol; establish a minimum weight of 1,200 pounds for racing cars (at last week's meeting a minimum of 1,100 was officially recommended); and put all pit fuel tanks underground.

Everyone is agreed as to the desirability of stronger, more impact-resistant fuel tanks, but a large part of the racing world, routinely employing gas as fuel, vigorously opposes Wilke et al. on their anti-gas thesis. Alcohol was commonly burned in Grand Prix cars until 1958, when the International Automobile Federation, the governing body for road racing, specifically prohibited it and named gas as the only admissible fuel. That rule was made to bring racing cars into closer relation with ordinary passenger cars, which do not, of course, burn alcohol. Arguments as to the relative dangers of gas and alcohol in racing were considered at the time.

"There is a built-in danger to Indianapolis," said Australia's Jack Brabham, builder in England of the Brabham Grand Prix cars and driver of a rear-engine Indy Brabham-Offy, "and talking about fuels is overlooking the main point. Taking petrol out of the cars is not going to make the race any safer. Alcohol may be a little harder to ignite and a little easier to put out, perhaps 10%, but fuel is not the problem at all. That doesn't even come into it. The trouble with Indianapolis is that the drivers, traveling at up to 190 miles an hour on a close-in circuit, cannot get out of the way when an accident happens.

"What is needed is a look at the course and the capacity of the motor cars. If they reduced the engine capacity they wouldn't need to carry so much fuel, and that would be a move in the right direction."

(Another official Indy recommendation last week, to be decided in September, was the reduction of the 4.2-liter-engine maximum to 3 liters, to be effective in 1967 and to coincide with Grand Prix engine rules becoming operative a season earlier. This had been considered long before the 500 fire. It is an important step warmly welcomed by international-minded U.S. racing fans, but is related to the fuel controversy only by accident of timing.)

Said Britain's John Cooper, builder of the Cooper cars, in one of which Brabham touched off the rear-engine revolution at Indy back in 1961: "It's absolutely useless racing on alcohol. You've got to run on the same fuel as lorries and cars to make sense of this game."

Bill France, boss of NASCAR—one of whose driving stars, Fireball Roberts, was badly burned in a gasoline fire in a recent racing accident—agreed with Brabham and Cooper (see SCORECARD). NASCAR stock cars burn gas, and will continue to do so. Their fuel loads are limited by rule to 22 gallons. "Personally," said France, "I don't see any major differences as far as ignitable fuels are concerned. They're all volatile."

And at last week's Indy hearing, engineers for two petroleum companies supplying 500 fuel testified that they could not label gasoline more dangerous in racing than alcohol. On the evidence, it appears unlikely that the Wilke faction will succeed in having gas prohibited at Indy. What is certain is that Grimm's committee will look into the aircraft industry's huge body of research on tank construction and protection and propose stringent new Indy regulations. Widening the track, which has had the same 50-feet-wide straights since it was built in 1909 for 75-mph racers, is clearly desirable but presents technical difficulties and at the moment must be considered uncertain.

ILLUSTRATIONSOURCE of 500 fire was this 45-gallon rubber gasoline tank on Dave MacDonald's Thompson-Ford. Fire started when car spun into wall, became an inferno when Eddie Sachs rammed tank.