No doubt about it, the Indy 500 is the grandest event in sport—and the grimmest. For Memorial Day, 1973 the orchestrators of "the greatest spectacle in racing" unwittingly combined two normally antithetical elements, fire and rain, to produce a week of horror and frustration. By the time it was over the body count had reached 16, with one crewman dead, two drivers critically burned and 13 spectators hospitalized for injuries ranging from grave to merely painful. Somewhere along the way the race also produced a winner, Gordon Johncock in a red STP Eagle-Offy. But his well-earned triumph was overshadowed by the pall of destruction that surrounded it.
It was obvious last Monday that the full 500 miles could not be run that day, yet Indy officialdom is nothing if not persistent. The high winds and drenching rains that had made such a mess of the whole month of practice and qualifying seemed to have redoubled in strength on Memorial Day. Great roiling waves of rain clouds swept up from the south, soaking the just and the unjust alike, then stood aside for a few minutes as if to raise false hopes that the race might be run.
All through that long, waterlogged day the spectators waited—a third of a million miserable speed freaks, most of them wet, some of them falling-down drunk, all of them hopeful for a start. The management's customary blend of prerace activities included this year a caravan of off-white Cadillac convertibles carrying 23 ex-POWs who drew the heartiest, schmalziest applause of the afternoon. To many of the former prisoners the scenes that were soon to come would be reminiscent of a low-level bombing raid over Hanoi, replete with napalm and shrapnel.
After four hours of delay and countless laps by the track's tow trucks, whose tires helped to dry the asphalt, Speedway President Tony Hulman finally uttered the magic words, "Gentlemen, Start Your Engines," and the 33-car pack pulled put for the shortest race in Indy's 57-year history. This was the fastest field ever, averaging 192.329 mph, which came to 8.674 mph faster than was produced by last year's contingent. That speed alone had plenty of racing people nervous. The cars, with their wide wings and treadless tires, stir up turbulence and are tricky to control. The deaths of Jim Malloy and Art Pollard during qualifying practice runs last year and this had yet to be explained. Both cars had veered sharply to the right while cornering, leaving no skid marks on their way into the fatal outside wall. At speeds of some 200 mph, a car covers the length of a football field in one second. There is no "collection time," no time to react to danger when something goes wrong.
Add to those mechanical fears the fact that Indy drivers are a high-strung, hard-charging bunch to begin with, and that they had been waiting to race for most of a long, stomach-eroding day, and all the elements of tragedy were in place. The only thing required was a fouled-up start, and since there had already been four of those in the last eight years, the odds were in favor of fire on top of rain.
As the cars came past the jam-packed main-straight grandstand for the parade lap, it was evident that plenty of drivers in the rear of the pack, plus a few in the front, were assuming that this would be a sprint race. If only 101 laps were completed, rather than the customary 200, the race would be official and there would be a winner. The pack was strung out unevenly, with only the front row of pole sitter Johnny Rutherford, Bobby Unser and Mark Donohue, last year's winner, in anything resembling good order. That ragged formation did not improve on the pace lap that followed. Yet Harlan Fengler, the Indy Establishment's aged chief steward, gave the go-ahead to pace car driver Jim Rathmann to pull off. Pat Vidan, the elderly acrobat of the starting platform, did his dance with the green flag and the race was on...
...and off again just a few hundred feet farther down the track. In the sixth row the youngest driver in the field, David (Salt) Walther, age 25, suddenly veered sharply to the right—nobody knows exactly why. He climbed the left front wheel of another car and smashed into the wall and the wire debris fence. His car exploded in an orange fireball, spewing flames and metal into the crowd that stood wide-eyed just a few feet from the wall. The volatile methanol fuel—75 gallons of it—gushed forth and flared like a flamethrower as Walther's car bounced back onto the track, pinwheeling down through the onrushing pack like some kind of fiery new weapon of war. In a display of reactive driving unparalleled in Indy history, most of the 17 cars running with or behind Walther managed to avoid the spinning wreck. Those that hit it did so with glancing blows.
The front of Walther's car was clipped off by the impact as neatly as if by a can opener. That probably saved his life, for it ruptured the fuel bladder, and the centrifugal force of the spin then emptied the methanol before it could incinerate the driver. "If it had been confined to the car," said a teammate later, "he would have been cooked like a marshmallow."
As it was, Walther lay upside down in the coffinlike tub with his feet protruding during most of the spin and for long moments after it came to rest, flames licking his legs, body and face. He was conscious when the rescue squad finally cut him loose, and there had been no flame inhalation of the sort that killed Art Pollard two weeks earlier. Still, Walther suffered third-degree burns over 25% of his body. Twelve cars were damaged in the wreck, but the other drivers suffered only minor injuries at worst.
Nonetheless, there was outrage. "These are supposedly the best drivers in the world," said England's David Hobbs, who had flanked Walther on the grid and escaped the horror only by instant reflex, "yet they can't even make it down the bloody straightaway!"