We’re making our traditional May trip east this week, a trip we’ve made almost every year since 1954. Thirty-three people who were a long ways from being born then will be racing to see who wins the 100th Indianapolis 500.
If you’re looking for some of the usual political analysis that usually occupies this space, forget it today. If you don’t care about humankind’s eternal quest to be faster than someone else, move along. As Lt. Frank Drebin of Police Squad fame used to say, “There’s nothing to see here.” There’s more to life than politics. One of those things is racin’.
We’re always looking for Missouri story angles when we cover the 500 for the Missourinet. This is the story of a Missouri angle and a Speedway mystery.
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is America’s oldest track built for the racing of automobiles. People were racing cars a decade or more before the first race track in the world to be called a Speedway held its first races in 1909. But those races were held on roads and streets or on tracks originally intended for racing horses.
The first Indianapolis 500 was in 1911, a time when Ray Harroun’s Marmon Wasp was considered the height of high-tech racing because he installed a rear-view mirror so he wouldn’t have to carry the weight of a riding mechanic who would tell him who was behind him, and because it had a tapered aerodynamic tail with a little fin on the back.
Races weren’t held in 1918 and 1942-45 because of wars. Otherwise, a 500-mile race has been part of Memorial Day for generations of Americans.
One of the cars in the Speedway museum is Jim Rathmann’s winning Ken-Paul Special from 1960. At least that’s what the sign in front of it says.
It’s a design referred to as a roadster, a car with an engine that’s offset with the driveline running alongside the driver on the left side, not beneath him. It let the cars corner better and have a lower center of gravity than the designs of 1911 that extended into the early 1950s. It was built by A. J. Watson, one of the wizards of race-car construction in that era. It carries the number 4.
But is this really the car that won what has been called “the greatest two-man duel in 500 history?”
The 1960 race saw the lead change 29 times, mostly in the second half of the 200-lap race. That record stood until modern aerodynamics and uniform chassis design led to 34 lead changes in 2012, and broken in 2013 when there were 68.
Rodger Ward, the 1959 winner, led twenty of the first 95 laps. Rathmann led 33. Pole-winner Eddie Sachs, 1952 champion Troy Ruttman, and Johnny Thompson split the other 42. But from the time Rathmann moved back into the lead on the 96th lap, it was just him and Ward.
Rathmann and Ward swapped the lead fifteen times before Ward had to slow down with three laps left because he saw that he had worn his tires down to the cord. He finished second, about thirteen seconds back. Ward won the race a second time in 1962 and remains one of three drivers in 500 history who finished in the top three six races in a row.
That was an era when the saying, “There are old race drivers and there are bold race drivers but there are no old, bold race drivers” as all too true. Before that year was out, Johnny Thompson, Jimmy Bryan, and Al Herman—all starters in the race—were killed in racing crashes. Tony Bettenhausen died in a practice crash at the Speedway not quite a year later. Shorty Templeman was killed in 1962. Don Branson was killed in 1966. And Eddie Sachs was killed with rookie Dave McDonald in the horrendous first-lap crash of 1964.
And 1964 brings us to the second part of the story.
St. Louis was celebrating its bicentennial that year and one of the cars in the race was Wally Weir’s Mobilgas Special driven to eighth place by Bob Harkey.
The car is now owned by race car collector Bob McConnell of Urbana, Ohio, who has restored it to its 1964 appearance, complete with the “St. Louis Bicentennial 1764-1964” logo on the right side of the engine cover.
He claims this is the car Jim Rathmann drove to victory in that epic duel with Rodger Ward. Rathman drove the same car in 1961 and practiced with an inverted airfoil mounted over the cockpit in an early experiment to increase downforce.
But the wing proved impractical and was discarded for the race. Rathmann also had it in the 1962 race. Webster Groves (Mo.) driver Paul Russo couldn’t get it up to speed in 1963. Harkey’s drive in it in 1964 was the last year it made the 500.
By then the roadster era was fading away as rear-engine cars took over. Many of the roadsters were heavily modified to race as supermodified cars in the northeast at places like Sandusky, Ohio and Oswego, New York. Eventually those designs became outmoded and many of the old roadsters were junked. Several, however, have been put back together and restored. And that’s the case with the Watson roadster that McConnell had at the Speedway last year. He says the Speedway museum knows about his car and his claim of its lineage.
He was looking for Harkey to drop by to visit the car when we dropped by first.
A couple of things to note: The tires on this car are not the kind of tires used in the races in the 1960s. Those tires had little or no tread and they changed a great deal from this car’s first race in 1960 until its last race in 1964.
It might seem extremely dangerous to have the fuel filler cap so close to the exhaust pipe on the left side. It was and that’s why one of the duties of a member of the pit crew as to slide an insulated cover over the exhaust pipe before the fuel hose was plugged in. This car ran on methanol, a fuel that burns invisibly, so that insulated cover over the exhaust pipe was critical to safety.
The 1964 race is remembered as the last race in which gasoline-powered cars competed. That was the year that McDonald’s gasoline-powered car crashed coming out of the fourth turn on the first lap and caught fire. It bounced into the path of Eddie Sachs’ gasoline-fueled car and the collision caused a second, larger explosion. Both drivers were killed. The race was stopped for the first time in its history. Several other cars were damaged beyond repair and some of the other drivers suffered burns as they drove through the wreck site. Parnelli Jones, who had won the race in 1963, bailed out of his methanol-fueled car later on pit road after a pit stop because it had caught fire. Methanol became the fuel of choice for this kind of racing after that tragic 500. Racers now run on pure ethanol.
We talked to Speedway Historian Donald Davidson about the 4s—McConnell’s St. Louis Bicentennial car and the Speedway Museum’s Ken-Paul Special. It’s a difficult issue, he told us, without coming down on either side. It’s been a half-century since this Speedway devotee watched Jim Rathmann and Bob Harkey drive Watson roadsters with the number 4 on their noses. A lot can happen to cars in those years.
The provenance of restored racing cars is not always easy to track. By the time they’re available for restoration, they’ve been wrecked, modified, stuck on tops of buildings as advertising, left to gather dust in a shed—you name it. They are basket cases sometimes—and the basket is missing a lot of parts, as Bob McConnell explained in his interview. Restoration sometimes means fabricating new pieces or finding parts from other wrecks that once were on a car like the one you’re restoring. Both claims to the Rathmann car might have some legitimacy. And we join Donald not taking sides.
It’s good to be able to go into the museum and see so many of the cars we remember when they were the hottest, fastest things flashing past us with great roars, driven by legends and heroes. But it’s also kind of melancholy because of those memories and the quietness of race cars on display. Not to get overly-dramatic about it, but it’s kind of the difference between seeing a living lion and standing next to a stuffed one.
Then there are people like Bob McConnell who not only restore racers such as Harkey’s St. Louis Bicentennial car, but run them. Part of the celebration of the Speedway’s centennial era has been its invitation to people like McConnell to bring their restored racers back to the track, not only to display them, but to fire them up and get them back on the oval—and perhaps running in triple digits again—as you heard, he doesn’t know how fast they go because there’s no speedometer, but they don’t just cruise around. They’re back for 2016. Unfortunately, Harkey won’t be. He died last January.
We understand the Speedway is going to fire up the Marmon Wasp for the 100th race and have it bellow its way around the track again. Neither it nor any of those old cars will ever push the limits of mechanical operation and human mortality as they once did. But to see them, to hear them on the race track within hours of when today’s cars do push the limits does quicken the heart.
Ray Harroun’s Marmon Wasp averaged about 74.6 miles an hour in 1911. Look at some pictures of the cars people drove on the streets in 1911 and with a straight face say you’d be glad to drive one of those down a road at 75 mph today for even a couple of minutes, let alone for almost seven hours at an AVERAGE of 75. On 1911 tires.
In 1954, when these eyes watched cars at Indianapolis for the first time, they beheld the first official lap run at 140 miles an hour on pole day. One lap on the two-and-a-half-mile track by Jack McGrath at 141.033 (we remember things like that). Bill Vukovich won the race that year at 130.840. Three years ago these same eyes, with bifocals now, watched Tony Kanaan go 500 miles at 187.433, the current record. Whatever you might think about automobile racing, what the men and women on that track in this era are doing is astonishing, as astonishing as what their predecessors did.
Each era is filled with those astonishing performances. We’re going back this week to savor the history and the history that will be made.
This year’s car with the number 4 is driven by Buddy Lazier who won the race twenty years ago. His 1996 car is in the museum, too.
It will take about as long to travel from Jefferson City to Indianapolis as it took Ray Harroun to win the first 500. And then on race day, somebody will cover the distance between a western suburb of Kansas City to Indianapolis is less than three hours.
(photo credits: Bob Priddy; Indianapolis Motor Speedway; thisdayinmotorsportshistory.blogspot.com; Indianapolis Motor Speedway)