Three-times the Midwest hot rod champion (1948, 1950 and 1951) and third-ranking AAA stock car driver of 1955, the diversified Rathmann was one of the first oval track specialists to dabble in sports car racing, taking part in the Sebring 12 Hours three times (sharing the 12th place-finishing and class-winning Corvette with Dick Doane in 1958) and racing several times at Nassau. He was even down to drive the Tec-Mec Maserati at the inaugural Formula 1 Grand Prix of the United States at Sebring in 1959 although he ended up not competing. He twice ran in the Carrera Panamericana, sharing an Oldsmobile in 1952 with Frank "Rebel" Mundy, and he even took part in the Miami-Nassau powerboat race one year, sustaining a broken foot along the way while trying to fix a mechanical problem.
An entrepreneur from his earliest days, Rathmann graduated from a paper route to running a hot rod shop while still in his teens. A muffler shop in Chicago was followed by a speed shop in Miami, a used car business and eventually a huge Cadillac and Chevrolet dealership in Melbourne, Fla., the latter being contingent upon his retirement, an agreement upon which he "fudged" for at least two more years.
There was also a very successful go-kart business which produced the highly sought-after Rathmann Xterminator and even an adventuresome episode of his life in which he held the rights toretrieving centuries-old treasure chests, firearms and cannons from sunken pirate ships off the coast of Florida.
Close friends with all of the early astronauts, Rathmann actually pulled off a most unlikely coup by having one of them discreetly affix a Rathmann car dealership decal to the famous golf cart which was driven on the surface of the moon! Yet another venture was the G.C.R. Corporation team which contested the USAC championship series in 1966 and 1967, the "G" being for Gus Grissom, the "C" for Gordon Cooper and "R" for Rathmann.
One of the fascinating character traits of Rathmann was that he always seemed so nonchalant in the winner's circle, even at Indianapolis and Monza where he'd be poker-faced and stoic, standing up in the cockpit with loosened helmet straps dangling around his neck and barely smiling as he waved one hand at just above waist level.
It was a misleading illusion.
In fact, this very down-to-earth and unpretentious individual happened to be a fun-loving, chronic practical joker who seemed up for just about any mischievous adventure. A very modest man, he was most gracious to the fans, benched-raced with the best of them and told stories laced with a most infectious giggle. Questions about his own career were usually passed off with brief and rather evasive responses as he preferred instead to tell stories about his colleagues, tears of mirth rolling his cheeks as he relayed the details of yet another prank.
But Rathmann was a serious racer, and he loved the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. To him, the month of May at the track was "everything," the other 11 months always being filled with plenty of activities, but with the focus clearly on the next migration to IMS. In spite of his deep competitive spirit, he was a great sportsman who was close with many of his contemporaries, photographs taken in the aftermath of the 1957 and 1959 Indianapolis races indicating that he obviously had great affection for both Hanks and Ward, who had narrowly defeated him.
Ill health in recent years had prevented Rathmann from making his annual pilgrimage to his beloved Speedway where, for many years he had matched his golfing skills with Ward, Lloyd Ruby, Parnelli Jones, James Garner and others. Six times the Pace Car driver for the "500," Rathmann's final appearance in the city of Indianapolis came at the Convention Center in February 2009 for the Speedway's Centennial Era Gala, where he was the oldest and earliest of the 19 Indianapolis 500 winners on hand.
Rathmann is survived by wife Kay, sons Jimmy and Jay, stepsons Zack and Tosh Pence, five grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
In place of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to:
William Childs Hospice House, 381 Medplex Parkway, Palm Bay, FL 32907