Over the coming months in RACER magazine and on RACER.com, we're counting down to the 100th Anniversary Indianapolis 500 with a series of fascinating insights on “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
This week, we take a look at probably the best Indianapolis 500 of all time – the 1960 race.
A CLASSIC DUEL AND MORE BESIDES: THE 1960 INDIANAPOLIS 500
The 44th running of the Indianapolis 500 in 1960 had it all: an epic comeback by the defending champ, a spectacular duel for the lead between two drivers at the height of their power, a record number of lead changes that still stands today and a dramatic final twist in the plot.
After three hours and 36 minutes of unforgettable action, Jim Rathmann was the guy making his first and only visit to Victory Lane. He'd been runner-up three times in the previous eight years and might well have become just another footnote in Indy history. But breaking his nearly-man “curse” in the most intense race the Speedway's packed stands had ever witnessed earned him a place in Brickyard lore for all the right reasons.
The man he'd had to out-race, out-think and out-luck that day was Rodger Ward, a reformed wild man who'd go on to be the benchmark at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway until the close of the roadster era in the mid '60s.
Ward's first “500” in 1951 set the tone for most of the following decade, with the brash, former hot-rodder's “win or blow it up trying” approach bringing early retirement. Six more DNFs would follow in the next seven starts.
But a change in Ward's approach to racing – and life in general – after meditating long and hard on Bill Vukovich's fatal 1955 crash resulted in his reinvention as a well-dressed, well-spoken “elder statesman” who'd finally worked out how to bring a car home at Indy.
In '59, after starting sixth in his Leader Card Special Watson-Offy, Ward quickly charged to the front and was never headed after the 85-lap mark. The man he led home by some 23 seconds was Rathmann, ruing his third time as “first of the losers.”
A year later, Rathmann's Watson-Offy would start from the middle of the front row, sandwiched by pole-winner Eddie Sachs' Ewing-Offy and Ward's similar Watson.
Heavy race day spectator traffic had meant all three men arrived at the track with just minutes to spare, Ward hitching a ride in the Conkle Funeral Home ambulance after jogging down Georgetown Road…
Despite the pre-race scramble, when the race began, (ABOVE LEFT) Ward and Sachs were immediately fighting for the lead, with Rathmann right behind.
Troy Ruttman, too, edged ahead a couple times in the race's opening stages, with Johnny Thomson also getting in on the act and leading the train for 10 laps.
Between them, the lead quintet had swapped the top spot some 15 times in the first 100 laps, but the most memorable racing of an extraordinary afternoon was still to come – not that Ward might have thought so when disaster struck at the first of his scheduled pit stops.
He stalled exiting and was stationary for more than a minute in total until the starter was passed over the wall and his car cranked back into life again. Finally back on track, he was nearly 40 seconds behind the leaders, but spent the next hour methodically and calmly chipping away at the gap – something it's difficult to picture the impetuous Ward of those earlier Indy 500s doing…
He retook the lead from Rathmann on lap 123 – the 16th change – but his charge had put extra stress on his tires and Ward knew a different, gentler approach would be needed if he was to celebrate consecutive “500” victories.
In the days before pits-to-car radio, the driver was his own strategist, and Ward made it his business to learn the strengths and quirks of his fellow competitors. Knowing Rathmann was a driver who'd race hard for the lead, but tended to ease off just a little once he had it, he decided to let him dictate the ultimate pace and handed back the lead on lap 128.
All was fine for the next few laps, until Ward's pit board informed him that Thomson was closing in – fast – at which point he knew he'd have to race Rathmann hard again. Picking up the pace, he retook the lead on lap 142 (lead change No. 18) and triggered the greatest, most prolonged duel the Speedway has ever witnessed (ABOVE RIGHT). As Ward knew he would, Rathmann played it a lot tougher when he was battling for the lead, and the duo traded the top spot another 10 times in the 52 exhilarating laps that followed.
Behind the lead pair, with his engine sounding terminally rough as the laps counted down, Thomson was forced to back off, eventually settling for fifth. But his chase of the leaders had already sealed Ward's fate.
Ward had taken the lead yet again on lap 194 and, despite the enforced increase in pace, still believed he had a little something in reserve for the final dash to the checkers. That all changed on lap 196 when he glanced at his right front tire and noticed the white cords beginning to show through (LEFT, Ward's tire shows the wear and tear after the race).
At this late stage, a stop was out of the question. But from the thousands of miles he'd accumulated as a Firestone tester, Ward knew the tire would last if only he backed off a little – which he did, setting up lead change No. 29 and allowing Rathmann, who was also starting to see the first sign of cords, to roar by into a lead he'd stretch out to 12.67sec at the finish and celebrate in Victory Lane (BELOW).
That final dramatic twist had put the seal on a race straight out of a Hollywood movie script.
At the following night's victory banquet, master of ceremonies and former driver Fred Agabashian jokingly suggested Ward and Rathmann should be named co-winners. But after so many near misses, Rathmann (BELOW LEFT, pictured receiving his winnings of $110,000 from Speedway owner Tony Hulman) wasn't about to let anybody share in his hard-earned moment of triumph.
Had Ward clung on for the win, it would have been Rathmann's fourth runner-up finish – giving him a niche in the record books he doubtless wouldn't have wished for.
Richard Rathmann was born in Los Angeles in 1928 and, like Ward, learned his craft in the local hot rod scene. In his eagerness to get out there and race, aged just 16, he resorted to swapping identities with his older brother, James. Hence, Richard became “Jim” and James, who would take the pole for the 1958 Indy 500, became “Dick.”
At his first Indy 500 in 1949, Jim claimed to be 24, but was in fact 21. He qualified 21st and finished 11th, and went on to become a fine paved track racer, with second at Indy in 1952 and '57, as well as '59.
Prior to finally winning the “500,” Rathmann's biggest triumph wasn't in the U.S., but at the 500 Miglia di Monza, also known as the Race of Two Worlds, in Monza, Italy. Held in 1957 and '58, the race pitted USAC National Championship cars and drivers against Formula 1 teams on Monza's 2.64-mile banked oval.
Jimmy Bryan won in '57, but it was Rathmann who totally dominated the following year, winning all three 63-lap heats and beating the likes of Bryan, Ward and Sachs from the USAC contingent, along with the factory Ferrari team, featuring Phil Hill, Luigi Musso and Mike Hawthorn, and an experimental, USAC-style Maserati driven by Stirling Moss.
Rathmann is also noteworthy for winning the first and only USAC National Championship race at Daytona International Speedway, having covered the first 100 miles at a ridiculously fast 170.261mph. Turning those speeds, the USAC cars were considered way too fast for the Florida tri-oval and would not return.
Rathmann retired from racing in 1964 to concentrate on his growing business interests in Florida, where he owned a huge Cadillac and Oldsmobile dealership in Melbourne, Fla. Living on the Space Coast, he became friends with many of the early astronauts, including Gus Grissom and Alan Shepherd, and supplied many with Corvettes and other less sporty GM products.
Rathmann continues to live in Florida where, aged 82, he's the oldest living Indianapolis 500 winner.
NEXT TIME, we look at the debut races of some of the Brickyard's biggest heroes.
• For tickets to the 100th Anniversary Indianapolis 500 on May 29, 2011, CLICK HERE.
For more insight on the history and heritage of the Indianapolis 500, check out legendary Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian Donald Davidson's blog HERE on Indianapolismotorspeedway.com.
To get up close to racing history, visit the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's Hall of Fame Museum. Find out more HERE.
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