At some point in the preliminaries to last week's decisive 100-mile, big-car auto race at Phoenix, the U.S. driving champion was introduced as "Old Bigfoot." Now, there is no reason to believe that the right, or accelerator, foot of James Ernest Bryan is oversize, nor is Bryan, at 30, a graybeard. Still, Old Bigfoot is a pretty good name for Bryan. Mark down the "old" as a typical southern-western way of fleshing out a bald phrase ("That old dog, possum," etc.) and the "bigfoot" as testimony to Bryan's boldness and skill with the loud pedal.
Never did Bryan need the magic of his good right foot more than at Phoenix, his home town, where his struggle to repossess the championship he had won in 1954 and 1956—in doubt until the 11th hour—sent the crowd into a patriotic delirium.
All in all, it was a day to remember, a marvelously clear and balmy day on which two men besides Jim Bryan had a chance for this country's highest professional racing honor: the championship in the 13-race series which begins with the Indianapolis "500" and then travels from coast to coast on both dirt and asphalt tracks.
Bryan, muscular and blue-eyed, very widely regarded as the best dirt-track driver in circulation, third finisher at the Brickyard and first in the stormy Indianapolis-at-Monza "500," came into the vital Phoenix race with 1,450 points. Next stood the red-haired Jim Rathmann, a cool old pro from Miami who was second at Indy, with 1,390. Primarily a pavement driver, Rathmann joined the dirt-trackers in the season's next-to-last race, at Sacramento, when his chance for the title looked promising. Then came little George Amick of Venice, Calif., with 1,380 points.
First place would yield 200 points and second 160; the scoring then would proceed by jumps of 20 to seventh (worth 60 points) and by 10s to 12th (10 points). Bryan knew that to win the championship outright he must place third or second if Amick won the race and second if Rathmann won. Calculating the combinations for Rathmann and Amick had sporting statisticians in a mathematical lather.
By odd coincidence, the three contenders recorded qualifying-heat times which placed them nose-to-tail on the starting grid—Amick on the outside in the third row, Bryan behind him and Rathmann behind Bryan. Poor qualifying heats put Jud Larson of Hickman Mills, Mo., a dangerous competitor in any race, in the last row, after causing considerable anxiety that he would be bumped from the 18-car lineup altogether by faster qualifiers.
Up front were heady Rodger Ward of Los Angeles, winner of three 1957 races, who had the pole, and Johnny Boyd of Fresno, trying once more for the first dirt-track victory ever for a roadster, the kind of racer which has made today's dirt-track cars obsolete on the pavement at Indianapolis. Behind Ward sat Indiana's Pat O'Connor, a lad with the face of a choir boy and the nerve of a bank robber, who had won the pole at Indianapolis.
As a matter of fact, half the starters, with mouths and chins masked by handkerchiefs against the dust, looked ready to dip into the nearest Brinks vault. The one-mile Arizona State Fairgrounds track had been converted overnight from a deep, yielding strip for Thoroughbreds to a hard speedway, but loose dirt remained near the inner and outer rails.
Now the big Offenhauser engines throbbed into action and the 18 drivers rolled through the pace laps—each buckled into a tiny cockpit, clutching a steering wheel that vibrates to the circumference of a baseball bat, seated in front of a tank holding 40-odd gallons of volatile fuel, maneuvering nearly a ton of bucking machinery.