Proving an adage of the Speedway, hard-nosed Indianapolis drivers fought through a month of unprecedented misery as they struggled to master a new and tricky breed of racing car
May 30, 1965

A little bit of James Bond is all right for lightweight hero worship, but for the genuine he-man it is an Indianapolis race driver every time (see cover). They are a raffish crew, hard, glinting and tough. They look at life with iron eyes, and they are the secret envy of every male who ever sat behind a steering wheel. It is a wonder in this age of status that there is not an aftershave lotion called Old Gasoline Alley.

The drivers come to Indiana every season at this time—to the Memorial Day 500 mile race—from racetracks across the country. They wheel around the Speedway in low-hung, $40,000 cars with sponsor decals plastered all over everything but their foreheads. They are graduates of 500 Prep; all lesser tracks are finishing schools for Indy. And they are men of solid, not fancy, names. Like Rufus Parnelli Jones. A name with a good American ring to it. And Rodger, A.J., Dan, Billy and Bobby.

One of them, who asked not to be identified (actually, he didn't ask—it was more like a threat), said, "Know who these men are? They are the Porthos, Athos and whoever the hell that other guy was—of today."

In the space of a few hours next Monday, preceded by an explosion of balloons over the track and a lot of parading about of bands and celebrities, the best 33 of these drivers will wedge themselves into their cars and blast around the track in a roaring, gaudy spectacle. There will be an ocean of people—more than 275,000 of them in grandstands or surging and flowing through the infield—and so much fried chicken and beer, so many bareback dresses, straw hats and suspenders, that even Meredith Willson, that chronicler of American corn, would be impressed.

It is fortunate that all this naive exuberance is on the spectator side of the track. By the time a race driver makes it to Indy, most of the gee whiz has been hammered out of him. The race next week will be immensely complicated, even for a man raised among the engine blocks and, for that reason, more perilous than any so far. From the inside looking out, in the 74 garages along the Alley, the 500 is a time both of tight stomachs and a pounding urgency to go faster.

In the weeks since the Speedway opened for practice May 1, it has been a place of turmoil and trouble for drivers of the new rear-engined cars. A. J. Foyt, the pole man, is the favorite to win the 500, but he already has had one crack-up in practice in his Lotus-Ford, and has had some nerve-stretching tire-wear problems. Many another rear-engined car has kissed the track wall. Even so famous a champion as Rodger Ward not only crashed but in the end failed to qualify. And there is an ominous feeling that the track will be littered with engine and suspension parts during the race itself.

The decline and fall of the traditional roadster at Indy actually began several years ago, when Australian Jack Brabham came to town in 1961 in a rakish new chassis, with a puny little engine in the rear, and took it neatly around the track at 145 miles an hour. In the years since, the silhouettes of the Indy cars have come to resemble that low, bullet-like pioneer, and chassis builders of every stripe have had a crack at designing them.

This is not to say the traditional Meyer-Drake Offenhauser roadster is entirely dead. Chances seem good it will never be dead. Some people still wear spats. Certainly the Offy engine is alive, though it, too, has moved to the rear. One cannot lightly dismiss an Offy tuned to 450 hp—there are such creatures in this year's race—and neatly fitted into a 1,250-pound framework.

This design ferment has attracted attention all around the racing world, and especially in Dearborn, Mich., where Ford Motor Company is turning out a fearsome, 495-hp V-8 engine, a racing creation that, when tuned exactly right, sounds as if it is in pain. Now at Indy, 17 of the 33 cars in the lineup have such Ford power plants, and 28 cars are equipped with rear-mounted engines. Just three of the oldtime roadsters will start the race.

At stake in all this expensive hoo-ha is fame and fortune of a special American kind. The purse will exceed $500,000. The driver who wins will get a $200,000 slice of this and a shower of lucrative product endorsements for everything from spark plugs to wrinkle-proof suits. The losers start by paying $1,000 per car just to register them; the total cost of defeat can soar well above $40,000.

But when all the glittering equipment comes rolling around the No. 4 turn Monday, and the pace car skitters out of the way for the starting flag, money will not matter. At that moment, everything depends upon the skill and courage of the drivers.

That is the moment when Jones's Law takes effect. Parnelli Jones asserts: "This is no sport for gentlemen. You can't be too nice a guy. Every time somebody gets near you, you can't just move over and let him go. You got to stand up in the seat and drive her a little harder."

Says Rodger Ward: "If anyone gets out in front of you, you try and pass the son of a bitch."

These creeds antedate the new engines by a number of hard years. Both Ward and Jones formed them racing on dirt tracks, on backwoods ovals, at nickel-and-dime county fairgrounds across the country—a free-wheeling sort of education. They are dappled with scars. Ward has a cleft chin that was not original equipment. He slashed his face badly, tearing out several hundred yards of racetrack fence around a midget track. His car was upside down at the time. Jones has a scar over his left eye; his arms and shoulders are covered with patches of shiny skin where burns have healed. Their lives are etched into their bodies and their faces.

Parnelli, 31, is a man chiseled out of cold rock. He is tough, direct, calm, unshakable. Ward is 44 and built along the lines of an Indiana Rotarian. But the cherubic look is deceptive; he is another flinty one. He won the 500 in 1959 and 1962 and in the last six years has never finished lower than fourth. He drives with great craft; unhappily, for the first time in 15 years, that craft will be missing from the starting lineup.

Jones won the 500 in 1963 amid controversy over the oil his car had spilled on the track. When the late Eddie Sachs complained about this the next day, Parnelli punched Sachs in the mouth. The incident, not unusual among race drivers, was subsequently woven into the Jones legend. A few days ago at the track, Jones crashed his car in practice, badly twisting the frame and knocking himself unconscious. When he awoke to a circle of worried faces he winked and asked for a cigarette.

Ward's early career could have been scripted for a Mickey Rooney movie. In fact, there was a Rooney movie on racing, a bad one, that was suspiciously parallel. In the immediate postwar years. Ward was a midget car driver, wavy-haired and rakish. He came into the big time at Indy with the reputation of a lover of bright lights and a man who had wiped out more miles of racetrack fence than anyone around. "There was a time," he says now, "when I was called Rodger the Dodger. It was cruel. But it was not without a certain justice."

In the 1955 race, just as Ward was gaining recognition at the speedway, his roadster skidded out of control. In the chain-reaction smashup that followed, the Indy superstar Bill Vukovich hurtled over the backstretch fence and was killed. An official investigation cleared Ward.

"Fifty-five was a difficult year," he says. "We had a little dirt-track car, and it wasn't a bad car. It was the one that Troy Ruttman had won in. But the front axle had a crack in it. And it had a few little surface cracks. We thought we had them welded up.

"We practiced all May, and I never could get the car to where it felt substantial to me. I almost got out of it two or three times. But you hate to give up on these things. It would go into a corner—the racetrack was rough in those days—and it would get off the ground. And the thing just wouldn't...well, in the race it broke and it caused this accident. Frankly, it should never have been in the race."

This year the Autolite people produced a movie on Ward's life and reformation, with Rodger uncomfortably handling the narration. The film is in color, and Rodger's early wildness is compressed into a montage of neon nightclub signs and chorus girls. In recreating the Vukovich tragedy, they shot a heavily filtered scene that shows Ward sitting alone at night in the empty Indy grandstand. This was a painful experience for Ward, who remembers the time all too well. The night after the smash-up, sitting in the stands, "was the longest of my life," he says now.

A conversation between Ward and Jones is enough to make a mouth breather out of anyone listening in. They sit in Gasoline Alley, a desk between them, a row of diet-cola bottles lined up in formation on top. Dead soldiers. Cola is as strong as the drink gets during May for Jones, as strong as it ever gets for Ward, who gave up liquor and cigarettes years ago. They play gin rummy at $6 a hand, genially cursing each other.

"In 1961, the first year I came to Indianapolis," says Jones, "If I'd had the experience I really believe I could have run off and hid, I was going so well. I really did lead the race for 27 laps. Then they had this accident on the front straightaway, and they came out and cleaned it off. But evidently they left a little piece of metal on the track. Whatever it was flew up and hit me in the left eyebrow...."

"That's when you got blood in your eyes."

"Well, yeah. It filled my goggles."

"But you didn't stop racing."

"Oh, no. I just sat there and emptied out my goggles a couple of times." Jones makes an emptying gesture, as if lifting the bottom of a pair of goggles away from his cheeks. "It was like I was looking through a glass of tomato juice."

The talk went on to last year's race. It had started in disaster. On the first lap an explosive smashup had snuffed out the lives of rookie Dave MacDonald and the popular and gifted Sachs. Ward and Jones threaded their way through the wreckage and, after a somber pause with bared heads to honor the racing dead, they continued racing.

"I reacted poorly," Ward says. "I lost my edge because of the accident. When the race started everything went just exactly the way I thought it was going to and I felt great. After the accident and the restart I felt about as much like going back there as...."

Ward finished in second spot—behind A. J. Foyt—in spite of taking five time-eating pit stops; he had turned his fuel valve to the wrong position and it had stuck. But in the 55th lap Jones and Foyt were engaged in a dazzling, hub-to-hub duel, with Jones a little ahead when he pulled into the pits for fuel. When he started out his car was on fire.

"I heard an explosion," says Jones. "The gas tank lid blew off. I had been drinking a cup of water. I turned the cup over the edge of the cockpit. The water hit the tail pipe about the same time as the explosion. I thought the water had cracked the pipe because I could hear the rumble of fire, and I thought the fire was coming out of the engine. The car was still rolling. And burning to beat hell.

"Then I stood up and went over head first. And I just did a kind of somersault through the air. I know the reason I did that was to clear the rear tire. Of course, at that point I didn't care if the car ran over me or not, because I was mighty hot inside of it. In fact, I was burning. And I think the worst shock of all was the letdown. You know, even though I was burned and I was hurting, it broke my heart not to be running.

"I was leading the race when I had come in and I had a chance to win—that kind of an attitude—and then, all of a sudden, just that quick, it's all over. No warning or anything. All of a sudden you catch on fire and it's over that quick."

Jones, heavily bandaged, doped against pain, listened to the rest of the race on the hospital radio, over his doctor's protests.

This May has been the worst ever for Jones, Ward and a few other Speedway iron men. Foyt's troubles have been nothing beside those of Parnelli and Rodger. Qualifying well, Jones rolled into a second-row spot—then wrecked his Lotus-Ford in a tune-up run and was himself knocked out. There was some doubt last weekend that either car or driver would be fit to race. Ward, as events ultimately proved, had the worst problem of all.

"Boy, I hate being out there all alone with everything hung out," says Ward. "You know, you sit there waiting to qualify and some little thing happens. Pretty soon you are so nervous and jerky that you lose your coordination. The older a man gets, the more difficult it becomes. Life becomes precious. You take fewer chances. Qualifying is the most dangerous part of the 500.

"In a race it is easier for me because I know I've got a lot of laps to use the other guy's mistakes to my favor. In the race I can run the last laps as fast as I can run the first."

Qualifying runs, while hairy, are solo dashes. The race itself brings a violent interplay of men and cars, and demands a gift for strategy. The Speedway is 2½ miles around, with four quarter-mile corners. At each end are two one-eighth mile "short straights." The two main straightaways are five-eighths of a mile each. When the course was laid out, back in the days of high, spoke-wheeled Marmons and Nationals, top speeds were only 100 mph or so. Now the cars are hitting up to 187 miles an hour on the straights and 144 miles an hour through the curves. Indy engines—no matter what their make or if they are front or rear-bred models—run the race in one gear. There is no downshifting to reduce speed for the turns or shifting up coming out of them. The Indy drivers touch their brakes as little as possible. They drive on the thin edge of control.

"To win," says Jones, "you must have the finest combination of car, driver and pit crew. If there is a small part lacking in the combination, you lose."

"In my opinion," says Ward, "Parnelli is the best in the business at putting the parts together. He works harder on setting his car up and makes fewer mistakes in judgment than any other driver. Nothing he does is rash. He is a great driver and a smart driver; he makes his car work for him."

"In the race," says Jones, "you got to follow the groove. You come down the straightaway, going all out, hugging that outside wall—the wall near the grandstands. You enter the turn high and gradually drop her down toward the inside, then gradually move back to the outside again on the straightaway. What you're doing is trying to straighten the track out as much as possible."

Jones and Ward are agreed that racing's real business is done deep within those quarter-mile corners. "When you are trying to outbrave a man through a turn you don't just drive out of the groove," says Jones. "You lay back just a little bit on them entering the turn, and then you build up your rpms. You're accelerating as much as you can. As much as you dare. You figure they won't have the guts to keep their foot on the gas as long as you. They'll back off. And then you get the momentum on them. You come out of the turn faster than they do.

"A lot of people see one car pass another on the straightaway, and they think maybe he's got more horsepower or he's running faster. It isn't always true. It's because he was able to come off the turn faster."

"When I won in '62," says Ward, "I've got everybody in the field beat—except Jones. And there ain't any way in the world I can beat him. I can race Foyt on his own terms and beat him. It was simply because he had gotten angry at George Bignotti, his mechanic, and he had decided to set up his own chassis for the race. He was having some handling problems. While Foyt and I are wrestling for second and third positions, Jones is just flat going SHOOM.

"Foyt would outrun me on the straightaway so bad—and then I would just drive all over him in the corners. Foyt is such a great driver that even when he had adjusted himself out of business he was still overcoming it with his driving ability. This is what makes him so great. He has such fabulous determination. When it ain't working, old A.J. just grits his teeth and drives it a little harder.

"I am running as fast as I can to hold Foyt and all the time Jones is getting away from me. Then...."

"I lost my brakes," Jones interrupts. "And I've got gin here, you— —."

"You lost some of your brakes anyway."

"How much can you lose? I drove over a spare wheel in the pits and then into the pit wall to get her stopped."

Jones, known as a man who likes to get a jump ahead of the field without delay, goes on: "The way I look at it, if you can drive away from the other guys early in the race when all the equipment is sharp—get a 15-or 20-second lead—you know you can win and you can drive your own race. Anyway, I'd rather lead a race and look impressive than run in the back and not be noticed all day."

"I like to be noticed," says Rodger, "and I like to lead, and nobody is going to get 15 seconds on me if I can help it. It depends on the situation. Last year I figured it was fine if Jimmy Clark had the lead because I was certain he was going to have trouble with his tires. I didn't want Bobby Marshman to lead. I knew he could get away.

"There's a lot of psychology to winning a race here. Once in a while you can even talk a guy out of something. You never talk Jones or Foyt out of anything, but with others it's possible. Say some driver is running a little faster than you in practice. So you walk down to the turn and watch him, where he can see you. When he comes in you say, 'Does that s.o.b. always do that in a turn?'

"He says, 'What do you mean?' He says, 'Boy, it was lovely.' But he's thinking, 'Does it really look that bad?'

"The first couple of years I came here guys tried to psyche me. Even today they try it. Tony Bettenhausen was the greatest. He could jump in anybody's race car and go two miles an hour faster. Absolutely. I mean, you've been driving your heart out. You know your race car isn't working just the way you like, and you aren't happy, but maybe it isn't all that bad, you're just having a little trouble, and Tony takes it out and goes two miles an hour faster. He'd come in and say, 'Boy, she's all right.' You'd think, my God, how can you beat him? There was a time when Tony not only told you what he was going to do in a race—he told you when he was going to do it. He told you he was going to drive by you on the fifth lap—you started looking for him at four and a half; he was there."

As the turmoil increased last week at Indy, there was little time for gin rummy. In some of the Gasoline Alley garages, recent arrivals to the Ford camp were not technically hip to the new engines or the new chassis in which they were placed. Drivers accustomed to the old Indy roadster found the new cars tricky to handle. Nearly everybody seemed fated to bump the wall at some time or other—veterans and rookies, Indy iron men and visitors from Grand Prix racing.

Even Old Fox Ward was in trouble, as irksome as in any of his 15 years at the Brickyard. First, while others were doing motorized bank shots off the Speedway walls, he had trouble working up a head of qualifying speed. He began wheeling at 156 miles an hour, fast enough to get into the lineup, not fast enough to get into it as far up front as he would have liked. Ward wrote off two of his three allowed qualifying runs.

Last Saturday, after passing out cigars around the pits in honor of a new son, he came back again for another try. On the last of three warmup laps—rolling in to take the green flag—the car suddenly lurched into the wall, scraping a 20-foot swath, and spun in a 510-foot slide into the wall opposite. The result: the left front wheel was ripped off, and crewmen worked through the night to get the car back together. The only injuries to Ward were to his chances to maintain his role as a perennial 500 threat.

Ward's bad week ended with exactly 15 minutes left on the qualifying clock. No one could quite believe he would not make it. He did one lap, two, three, four. His average speed was announced: 153.623 mph. Ward was one-tenth of a mile an hour too slow to make the lineup for the 49th Indianapolis 500. It had been a month of distress for all but a lucky few. For Ward, it was catastrophic.

Among the iron men, the longtime code at Indy has been: wearers of white collars, sports-car drivers or Grand Prix drivers need not apply. Few do. In recent years, only American Dan Gurney, a road racer of considerable reputation, and Scotland's Jimmy Clark, the 1963 world driving champion, have really made it big at the Speedway. They are accepted because they drive well and they drive furiously. They accept Indy without trying to dress it up.

Rookie Mario Andretti, 25, is the new boy in town, best of a crop of 11 rookies who will be racing. To Speedway old-timers he is a sensation. In the space of one week he passed his driver test, then broke two track records in qualifying at 158.849 miles an hour. So far, he hasn't made any mistakes. Well, one mistake. He claims he is 5 feet 6. Maybe he is—on his tiptoes.

"It's fast here," says Mario. "But it took on a pattern right away. The Speedway and I, we felt like we belonged together right from the start. But I'll tell you—it feels like you're hurtling along out there. You know you're going when you're on this track."

Indy is a call to battle that lures the tough ones every year. Rufus, Rodger, A.J., Dan and the others. "I get so charged up for this race," says Ward, "that I start thinking about it in January. By the time Tony Hulman says, 'Gentlemen, start your engines,' I feel like I am 9 feet tall."

Not Rufus Parnelli Jones. He feels 5 feet 10, which happens to be his exact height. He looks at it all with a cold, unemotional eye. "This doesn't excite me too much," he says. "I think the reason it doesn't is that you practice every day and the people are here all the time. Of course, on race day there are a few more people. But by that time you are ready to be on your own. You are not keyed up. I'm not."

Keyed or unkeyed, as the case may be, 33 brave and determined men will be on the starting grid next Monday morning. It will be a doozy of a race.


Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)