All during the Indiana springtime—in the unsettled weeks leading up to the 50th edition of the Indianapolis 500—there was every prospect of a high-winding, heart-stopping race. The reasons were basic: the cars were faster and the purse bigger (upward of $700,000) than ever before. Even so, no one quite expected, or could have forecast, how forcefully this 500 would establish itself as unique. Only seconds—and a few hundred yards—after the race started, an explosive smashup filled the air with flying tires and chunks of disintegrating cars. Only seconds after the race ended there was confusion over who had actually won it. And in between there was as crazy mixed-up an afternoon as racing has seen.
Thirty-three cars started in crisp Memorial Day sunshine, rolling out in glittering parade before a crowd estimated at 330,000. Only seven cars finished the race. At least nobody was killed—which was a wonder and the only clear, unconfused fact of the day.
To England's Graham Hill, the former Grand Prix world champion (who was called a rookie at Indy because this was his first 500), went the winner's trophy and the victor's kiss from the speedway queen—in fact, kiss after kiss after kiss, for Hill was in rare osculatory form. But Scotland's Jimmy Clark, the defending 500 champion—and, indeed, the current world champion—had reason to believe that the trophy and the kisses belonged to him. The only thing that kept him from pulling into the victory circle was the fact that Hill was already there.
The official results of the race are not posted until 8:00 a.m. on the following day. Anyone with a protest must make it at that time—or, in any case, by 8:30. The betting Monday afternoon was that it would take Andy Granatelli, the rotund, volatile man who is Clark's sponsor, no more than five minutes to utter several thousand words of protest. During the last laps of the race Granatelli's pit crew was signaling to Clark that he was the leader. When the checkered flag came down first for Hill and only second for Clark, the Granatelli pit was as rich in enraged gesture and outraged grimace as Terry-Thomas foiled again.
The germ of the dispute was an announced shift in the lead from Clark's fellow Scot and another Grand Prix driver, Jackie Stewart, to Graham Hill, when Stewart's car stopped dead out on the track. Granatelli's boys clearly thought that Clark was then the leader. Their stand was based on personal unofficial charts of the race kept in their pit. In their view, Hill had been credited with one lap more than he had actually run. If that were true, Clark would indeed have been the leader.
But as evening came and Granatelli gave the situation more thought, he became less emphatic. No longer did he plan to enter a fiery protest at the first opportunity. Instead, he said, he wanted to review the official speedway records and compare them with his own before making a final judgment. Hill, who certainly was not in a mood to protest anything, said only, "I haven't a clear view" of the dispute (meaning he was busy driving and not counting laps).
As for the other drivers, they were thankful just to have lived through the start. The 500 began with bands and beautiful girls. Just before the traditional call of: "Gentlemen, start your engines!" a tentful of colored balloons billowed up into the air. Then came the field of sleek and fantastically expensive cars growling along behind Benson Ford, who drove the Mercury pace car. At 90 miles an hour he swerved aside to turn them loose, and everyone hit the throttles. The first two rows flashed past the stands. Suddenly, in a blur, while the cars at the end of the field were still getting the green starting flag, the massive accident was triggered at the approach to the No. 1 turn.
The track became a jungle of spinning cars. Tires and hunks of axle and engine flew like shrapnel through the air—part of the debris falling among the spectators. Within seconds car after car was wiped out.
"We all accelerated," said Driver Arnie Knepper, who was in the mess and whose car was smashed to junk in a flash. "Then I saw a car up in the air and there were bits of wheels, radius rods, bits of metal. I almost made it. Then a car landed on me. A 1,400-pound auto can be pretty heavy when it's asittin' on yer head."
Clark, starting the race from the middle of the front row, was clear and safely on his way as the shrapnel settled. But Hill, looming up from the fifth row, rolled smack through the crash scene.