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After the Indianapolis fire: an argument
Kenneth Rudeen
June 22, 1964
Reforms in the 500 are certain to include better fuel tanks and limits on their size, but gasoline is unlikely to be prohibited despite some stiff opposition. The track might be widened somewhat to ease pileup dangers
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June 22, 1964

After The Indianapolis Fire: An Argument

Reforms in the 500 are certain to include better fuel tanks and limits on their size, but gasoline is unlikely to be prohibited despite some stiff opposition. The track might be widened somewhat to ease pileup dangers

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As Indianapolis began to grapple last week with the problem of averting disastrous fires of the kind that killed Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald on Memorial Day, these things became likely:

1) New, extremely rigorous design and construction standards will be applied to fuel tanks.

2) Gasoline, the fuel feeding the MacDonald-Sachs fire, probably will not be barred, despite some Indy men who believe it unduly hazardous.

3) A maximum capacity for fuel tanks will be set—possibly one size for gasoline tanks and another, larger, size for alcohol tanks because of alcohol's low mileage.

4) The track itself may be widened, to give overtaking drivers a better chance of avoiding an out-of-control car such as the one driven by MacDonald. Sachs was the third Indy fatality in 10 years in a multiple-car accident not of the victim's own making. Trouble ahead also claimed Bill Vukovich in 1955 and Pat O'Connor in 1958.

As a special committee headed by Kenneth Grimm, secretary to Speedway Owner Tony Hulman, started exploring these and other possibilities—the committee is to make formal recommendations in September—a clearer picture of the MacDonald accident was emerging. First of all, Mickey Thompson, builder of MacDonald's Ford-engined car, scotched an Associated Press story estimating the gasoline load at a fantastic 100 gallons (some 600 pounds in a car weighing about 1,200 dry). "We carried 45 gallons," said Thompson, a fact verified by Ray McMahan, the chief Mobil fuel specialist at Indy. Thompson said the gas was in a single rubber tank extending most of the distance between the front and rear wheels on the driver's left. MacDonald had practiced with a nearly full tank, so unfamiliarity with his car's handling in that condition was not a factor.

But it was apparent that he had been doing some very enterprising driving in his less than two laps of actual racing. He had started in 14th position, from the middle of the fifth row. He "lost it"—went into an out-of-control slide—immediately after a daring swoop past Troy Ruttman, the 1952 500 winner, in the middle of the northwest, or No. 4, turn. By then he had moved all the way up to seventh or eighth place, and as he passed Ruttman he was, according to official speedway observers, on the flat apron part of the track below the white line marking the edge of the banking.

After a long, high-speed slide—he must have been doing 140 mph as it began—MacDonald hit the low concrete inner track wall approximately head on. The car slammed around backward, scraping along the wall. The fuel tank ruptured—precisely how is not known—and either sparks generated by the wall-scraping or the heat of the exhaust pipes or some other part of the car ignited a massive spray of gas.

MacDonald's flaming car bounced backward into the middle of the track. Along came Sachs. As other veterans have done in such situations, Sachs may have chosen to accelerate hard as his best means of escape. If so, he hit MacDonald flush on the left side under full power, ramming directly into that fuel tank. Accounts differ as to how much fuel—also gasoline—Sachs had aboard in aluminum cells on either side of his cockpit—but 30 gallons were left after the fire was put out. His tanks did not explode. There was a small crossover tank above his legs that ruptured and spewed fire, and some gas apparently was drawn from the main tanks.

Stationed around the speedway was a massive fire-fighting and rescue apparatus including more than 200 men, nine crash trucks—pickups with both CO[2] and dry-powder extinguishers—four pumper fire trucks of the kind found in any city, and scores of extinguishers, both powder and CO2.

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