Two drivers died in Saturday's Indianapolis 500-mile race. At the scene and watching all over the country on theater television were more witnesses than at any previous racing disaster. The world's press took copious notice. As in the case of every highly visible, widely publicized racing fatality, there were cries that the sport should be abolished.
In the past this magazine has taken the stand that automobile racing is an honorable sport despite its inherent risks—always with the proviso that it can and should be made less hazardous tomorrow than it was yesterday. We do not, however, foresee a time when safety will be absolutely guaranteed. Totally safe racing means no racing, just as totally safe highways mean no driving upon them. We have held that reasonable men of their own volition may choose to hazard their lives in racing for the satisfactions they seek: fame, wealth, the rigors of competition.
But, most emphatically, the lessons to be drawn from racing accidents must not be ignored. What were the lessons of Indianapolis? Motor Sports Columnist George Moore, writing in the Indianapolis Star, declared that the gasoline carried in the cars of the drivers who died constituted an unusual hazard. Their cars, like five others in the race, were powered by Ford engines. All but one of the Fords used gasoline. That one, which Rodger Ward drove to second place, burned alcohol—the fuel more commonly used at Indy—as did the rest of the field.
Gasoline, wrote Moore, is more "volatile" than alcohol. Of the alcohol fire that injured Parnelli Jones in the pits he asserted: "If Jones's tank had been full of gasoline, it would have looked like the atom bomb." Milwaukee's Bob Wilke, owner of Ward's racer, was of the same mind. His distrust of gasoline, he said, was in part responsible for his employing alcohol—against Ford's wishes.
There were, however, strong dissents. Engineers for at least two major oil companies said it would be impossible to conclude that one fuel or the other was more dangerous in racing. Ford Engineer A. J. Scussel said the question was academic: "The kind of fire you are caught in does not lessen the degree of horror." He continued: " Indianapolis is a testing ground for us. Passenger cars do not burn alcohol. It follows that we must use gasoline when we try out engine concepts in racing if we are to learn anything of value."
While the fuel question is being threshed out, it is apparent that Indianapolis officials must apply new and stringent safeguards to any fuel. Many of the Indy cars had abnormally large tanks this year and were thus more unwieldy than ever in the opening laps, when full tanks are always a worry. A maximum size for tanks should perhaps be set. There was haste and carelessness with fuel in the pits. That cannot be tolerated. No doubt fuel tanks should be made stronger, should be better insulated and more resistant to shock.
But how can one eliminate accident? That, after all, is what really started the terrible events at Indianapolis. One car went out of control, involving others. In most such cases there is no fire, no fatality. On Saturday there were both.
The closed-circuit theater television of this year's 500, the first such telecast, had some obvious imperfections: Charlie Brockman's not-always-precise commentary was at times several laps behind the track's excellent public-address system, and the picture, like all theater TV, seemed a dull brown.