If Samuel Goldwyn does not base a movie on last Saturday's Indianapolis 500-mile race it will not be for want of heart-warming ingredients. Here was the story of a clean-cut American husband who won the nation's biggest automobile race as thousands—indeed, scores of thousands—cheered, who kissed his dog Skippy, his wife Jo and a sweet-as-cream starlet named Erin O'Brien in the flush of victory, who gave thanks to God for his success and celebrated on tap water from a paper cup, for our hero is a man who neither drinks nor smokes, a man whose only vice, we are told, is gin rummy.
The winner, 38-year-old Rodger Ward of Los Angeles, traveled the "500" at a record speed of 135.857 mph on a day with enough suspense, heartache and derring-do in it for two or three scenarios.
Ward's victory was all the sweeter for its lack of advance fanfare. Everyone knew him to be a highly skilled driver, but his main prior achievement at Indianapolis had been to get off with a cut nose after flipping end over end in his part of the four-car accident in which Bill Vukovich was killed in 1955. This year the trumpets blew not for Ward but for little Johnny Thomson, who won the pole with a car painted pink; for Jim Rathmann, whose recent victories at Monza and Daytona Beach established him as the fastest driver in the world; for Jim Bryan, the defending "500" champion.
Every year the "500" and its month-long prelude of practice runs and qualifying trials infects the participants—drivers, mechanics, car owners—with a curious mixture of hope and dread. The stakes have become very high—$338,150 in prizes this year—the dangers very great and the participants very fatalistic.
The racing cars have become so special that the slightest mechanical fault, if not detected in time, can wipe out a staggering investment in money and labor. Pit stops have become so crucial that any time-saving gimmick is worth a try. This year will be remembered as the one in which the air jack was introduced—a system using compressed nitrogen to raise a car for wheel changing by means of four steel legs that descend from the chassis. The purpose of this device is to save approximately six seconds during a pit stop.
The onrush of specialization, the intense competition, the awareness of danger, all have conspired to make the month of May a not very merry one for the Indy people. Last month was no exception. First of all, Driver Jerry Unser was fatally burned in practice. Then a rookie driver, Bob Cortner, was killed in practice. The only foreign entry, the Eldorado Maserati that Stirling Moss drove in last year's Monza "500," failed to qualify. So did the celebrated Novis. George Salih (SI, May 25), whose ground-breaking car won in 1957 and 1958, making the flat, or "sidewinder," engine position popular, had the appallingly bad luck to have the oil pump fail and the engine seize up on the last day before the last weekend for qualifying. Desperate, all-through-the-night work revived the car and Bryan finally qualified it. But Salih's bad luck had only just begun, as we shall see.
Despite the calamities, the lure of Indianapolis seems to grow stronger, if anything, by the year. Salih probably explained it as well as anyone when he said, "It gets in the blood."
By starting time, a crowd believed to be the largest ever for a "500," about 200,000 (official attendance figures are never released by the speedway), had gathered under a threatening sky at the old Brickyard. Mindful of the poor starts of the past two years, in which the 33 entrants attempted to form up on the track after single filing out from the pits, Speedway President Tony Hulman started the field in the traditional way, with all the cars in formation on the homestretch, as he gave his command, "Gentlemen, start your engines."
It was an admirable start—for all but George Salih & Co. As the field rolled away, Salih's crew was still pushing the famous yellow car over the bricks. Bryan could not disengage the clutch. The crew pushed the car onto the pit apron, out of the way of the racers, and worked frantically to get it moving. One pace lap went by, then the second and last one. Now the race was on, with Johnny Thomson sprinting into the lead, and still Bryan was stalled. Not until two laps had been completed did he join the race, only to retire with a badly smoking car three laps later.
"We never did get the clutch fully disengaged," Salih said afterward with a fatalistic shrug. "I think we just weren't supposed to run this year."