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Bob Ottum
June 08, 1964
Doughty A.J. Foyt (below) won his second Indianapolis 500 on iron nerve and matchless skill after a fiery calamity that took the lives of two drivers; the ill luck was persistent, reducing the field to a brave few
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June 08, 1964

The Magnificent And The Macabre

Doughty A.J. Foyt (below) won his second Indianapolis 500 on iron nerve and matchless skill after a fiery calamity that took the lives of two drivers; the ill luck was persistent, reducing the field to a brave few

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At the Indianapolis Speedway and in theaters across the land a vast, unprecedented audience tensed for the start of the 48th 500-mile race. It had assembled—some 260,000 persons at the Speedway, another half a million before theater television screens—to witness a decisive struggle between the traditional Indy roadsters and swift, insurgent rear-engine cars. But less than five minutes after the start an exploding smashup snuffed out the life of one driver and fatally injured another, and from that moment on the race was not to the swift and car styles did not matter. It became, grimly and awesomely, a 500-mile race of men brave enough to stay in it and see it through.

In the end the winner was A.J. Foyt, of all the drivers the man most unshakably immune to the clash of cars and the smoke of death. He won driving calmly, icily at a record average speed of 147.35 mph through an atmosphere of high tension that made this year's race—more than any other in 500 history—a spectacle of the magnificent and macabre.

Foyt's brilliant triumph was shadowed by the casualties of the day. A Speedway rookie, Dave MacDonald, and a veteran, Eddie Sachs, lay dead. Smooth old professionals, among them the 1963 winner, Rufus Parnell Jones, were sidelined with injuries and burns. Twenty-one drivers were out of the race in a somber accumulation of crashes and engine and tire failures; Gasoline Alley was a clutter of broken cars and on the track a bleak testament to the dead remained—the powdery white residue of fire-extinguishing foam.

The race raised questions that would certainly alter future 500s, the most crucial concerning the relative hazards of gasoline as opposed to alcohol fuel. And it left the dispute over car design still unsettled.

It was Foyt's unbending nerve that brought him out of it the winner. His final challenger—once Jones was put out of the race by a freakish pit-stop accident—was Rodger Ward, that steady old fox of the backstretch, usually a nerveless driver, but so rattled by the chain of accidents that he lost his chance for victory by making a series of vital mistakes and five pit stops, "two more than we needed."

"I thought I wasn't getting the fuel to the engine properly," said Ward after the race, wearily rubbing track grime from his face and looking his 43 years. "But I was running the fuel mixture too rich and burning it away. The first time I found I was out of fuel I couldn't believe it. The car was capable of winning—the car should have won—but the driver didn't do a good job."

In winning, Foyt earned $153,650 prize money, the richest purse in 500 history, and took a long lead toward his fourth national driving championship. He also became, against the backdrop of the day's tragedy, the leading spokesman of racing's old guard, those who cling to Indy's traditional Offenhauser-powered, alcohol-burning, front-engine roadsters.

"I am sorry those guys died," said Foyt. "We are all sorry they died. That is racing.

"But I am afraid of those rear-engine cars. I am scared of having all that gasoline around me in that type of chassis. Why, damn it, you are sitting on gasoline, you have gasoline on each side of you. Well, I can carry just as much fuel in my front-engine car—my so-called antique car—with a much greater safety margin."

Foyt had not been the only one concerned about the safety margin. At the customary meeting of all drivers the day before the race, Chief Steward Harlan Fengler had made it a special point. "Gentlemen, please," he said, "remember that you will be starting the race with heavy loads of fuel, and your cars will handle differently than when they are light. Be careful out there."

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