During the 1956 race Johnny Thomson's car had "locked up" on the main straightaway and broadsided through the pit area, breaking the leg of a mechanic working on the Trio Brass Special. This and Vukie's tragic accident of the previous year, still fresh in the minds of Speedway officials, emphasized the need for additional safety precautions.
The famous Pagoda had reached retirement age and more tunnels were needed to accommodate the steadily increasing crowd of spectators.
All were matters of extreme urgency, and more than a million dollars would be needed to make the necessary improvements.
Tony Hulman didn't hesitate. By May of 1957 a new four-lane tunnel under the track had replaced the old footbridge and its concrete abutments on the backstretch. A complete new pit area, 1,322 feet long and recessed behind a protective concrete retaining wall, had been built along the inside edge of the main straightaway. A new control tower, as high as a seven-story building, looked down on the starting line, flanked by 14,000 new Tower Terrace seats.
Now the stage for the annual 500-mile race was one of magnificent permanence, in keeping with its prestige as the world's greatest sports spectacle.
A change also had been made in the engine specifications for the 1957 race, with the hope a slight reduction in maximum piston displacement51 would curb the trend toward ever-increasing speed. This required all entrants to install either a new cylinder block or a new crankshaft in their 1956 cars if they wished to avoid the cost of an entire new engine.
As practice got under way on May 1, however, most of the talk in Gasoline Alley involved a new car of radical design built by George Salih.
After serving as chief mechanic on Lee Wallard's winning car in 1951, Salih had been among the first to realize the tremendous importance of chassis development. It seemed very unlikely anyone would build a new engine capable of outperforming the reliable four-cylinder Meyer-Drake units from the combined standpoints of horsepower, torque and durability. Nevertheless, greater speed still was possible by improving a car's handling qualities so that it could negotiate the corners quicker with increased safety.
One requirement in attaining that objective, Salih reasoned, would be an even lower center of gravity than had been built into the early roadsters; and he had started his experiments by modifying a conventional Meyer-Drake engine so that it would operate on its side—instead of in an upright position.
With that problem solved, he had invested every dollar at his disposal in the creation of a streamlined race car with the engine mounted only 18 degrees from horizontal, and the top of the hood only 21 inches above the ground. Sam Hanks, who had earned starting positions in 12 previous Indianapolis races, would drive it.
Railbirds waited impatiently for Sam to cut a fast one during the early practice days, but he was in no hurry to press his luck. "I've got to get better acquainted with this little beauty first," he told them.
And the wisdom of that attitude was emphasized by repeated spins by other drivers striving desperately to duplicate their speeds of the previous year with the smaller 1957 engines. Five cars spun in rapid succession during a single practice session on May 12, and Keith Andrews crashed to his death three days later while test-hopping a new American car which Nino Farina had intended to drive in the race.
Hanks still was experimenting with the shock absorber valving of his new car, which was named the Belond Exhaust Special, when time trials got under way May 18. He remained unperturbed while all starting positions in the first three rows were being filled, with Pat O'Connor on the pole.
It was a week later before Hanks made his own official run at a comfortable 142.812 miles an hour.
"We didn't come here to set any qualifying records," he told the crowd during an interview over the public address system. "But we'll be ready to run with the best of 'em race day."
Interest in the International Classic reached a new high with the formation of 500 Festival Associates, Inc., by the business and civic leaders of Indianapolis. Although these same men always had given the event enthusiastic support, their individual accomplishments had been negligible in comparison with the concerted demonstration of pageantry and color which intelligent organization made possible during the 1957 race weekend.
The Mayor's Breakfast, the Governor's Ball, a spectacular parade, and in later years the $50,000 Festival Golf Tourney, provided a gala atmosphere unsurpassed anywhere in the world.
The 1957 "500" was that kind of a race, too: fast, furious, a record breaker in every respect—and completely free of serious accidents. O'Connor and Ruttman traded the lead back and forth during the first 11 laps as the pressure from behind continued to mount. On the next trip around the course Russo shot the nose of the Novi in front of both rivals, with Hanks in close pursuit but not yet ready to challenge for the No. 1 spot.
Instead of seeking an immediate showdown, Sam devoted the next 20 laps to a thorough study of the manner in which Russo accelerated out of each turn and charged toward the next corner.
When Hanks finally was ready to make his bid, he rocketed out of the No. 2 corner at full throttle on lap 36. He grabbed a lead of almost two car lengths on the backstretch before Russo could increase the rpm's of the more powerful, but slower accelerating, Novi engine and start closing the gap.
Inch by inch, the Novi pulled closer and finally moved abreast of the smaller Belond car. Hanks, however, was in the groove, and the backstretch wasn't long enough for the Novi to regain the lead before Russo had to ease his throttle pressure to take the No. 3 turn. Another attempt to pass Hanks on the main straightaway was unsuccessful, and Russo continued to lose ground slowly.
Both stopped for tires and fuel before completing 50 laps, permitting Johnny Thomson to lead the field briefly, but Hanks was back in front on lap 54. His second stop for tires was made on the 111th lap, and he was eight seconds behind Jim Rathmann when the Belond Special was rolling again.
To offset the slow pit work52 of his crew, Hanks drove with a relentless consistency equaled by only a few of the really great drivers. Stop watches showed he was negotiating each turn eight or nine hundredths of a second faster than Rathmann. Thus he was gaining one-third of a second—about 70 feet—on each trip around the course.
And on the 135th lap Hanks regained command. He widened the margin to five seconds before Rathmann made his third pit stop on lap 151.
Hanks made his own final stop four laps later. This time each member of his crew handled his assignment faultlessly. They failed by three seconds to match the 31-second service given Rathmann, but Hanks was rolling again without losing the lead. Rathmann never stopped charging, but he couldn't quite equal Sam's speed through the corners, and the tiny fractions lost on each turn amounted to 21-1/2 seconds at the finish.
Almost overcome by emotion, with tears and sweat streaking his oil-stained cheeks, Hanks became the first winner since Ray Harroun in 1911 to announce his retirement in Victory Lane.
When asked if he intended to return in 1958 he replied: "Certainly I'll be back next year—but strictly as a spectator. I've been dreaming about winning this race for seventeen years. Now that I've succeeded, I can't think of a better time to hang up my goggles."
Selection of a driver to replace Hanks at the wheel of the Salih car in 1958 was no problem. In 1956, when Hanks had driven the Jones & Maley Special to second place for Salih, Jimmy Bryan had visited the Salih garage immediately after the race.
"When the 'old man' quits," Bryan had said, nodding in Hank's direction, "I'd like to drive for you."
Early in the fall of 1957, Salih checked with Hanks to make sure Sam had not changed his mind about retiring. Bryan, meanwhile, had earned an enviable reputation as "king of the dirt tracks" and won the Race of Two Worlds at Monza (Italy) with a 500-mile average of 160.067 miles an hour. Jimmy was a natural selection as Hank's successor in the cockpit, and he welcomed the opportunity.
The success of Salih's design had resulted in the construction of three cars of similar styling, and the 1958 event shaped up as a showdown test between the horizontal engine and vertical engine.
Among the prominent members of the racing fraternity who adopted a wait-and-see attitude toward the Salih design was A. J. Watson, chief mechanic on the winning cars of 1955 and 1956. Watson also had built the John Zink Special in which Troy Ruttman had set the pace for several laps at the start of the '57 event, and he had confidence in its performance. With the proper weight distribution, reasoned Watson, a car with an upright engine should be able to get through the turns as fast as one with a horizontal engine.
Ruttman had renewed his successful 1952 alliance with J. C. Agajanian for the 1958 race. But his 1957 car had been thoroughly prepared for another attempt, and Watson also had built two new ones during the winter months, both with upright engines. One, purchased by Lee Elkins of Kalamazoo Sports Inc. and named the McNamara Special, had Dick Rathmann as driver. The other was entered as a second John Zink Special with Jimmy Reece at the wheel. Ed Elisian, driving the car assigned to Ruttman the previous year, would be Reece's teammate.
Elisian made no secret of his principal goal in life—to duplicate the feats of his idol, Bill Vukovich, at Indianapolis. He had as much courage as any man in competition; and he seemed to enjoy showing it at every opportunity on his practice laps during the month of May. While his rivals were beginning the slow process of working up to racing speed, Elisian turned one lap at the phenomenal average of 139.6 miles an hour only a few hours after the track was opened for practice on May 1.
It was seven days before anyone topped that performance, and Elisian almost immediately provided his rivals with a new target of 142.4.
Eleven drivers reached the 140 bracket on May 8, and Dick Rathmann erased Elisian's unofficial mark with one lap at better than 144.
On the following afternoon Elisian was clocked at 145.725.
On May 16, when railbirds timed Rathmann at 147, the news hardly had traveled as far as the garage area before Elisian was back on the track at full throttle. This memorable run lasted until he clocked a 148.148 lap.
The same psychological warfare was carried into the official time trials on May 17, with the two principals dividing honors almost equally.
Despite a slight breeze, Dick Rathmann set a new four-lap qualifying record of 145.974 to win the No. 1 starting spot.
Elisian shared the spotlight by averaging 145.926 on his four trips and reaching 146.508 on his fastest effort for a new official one-lap mark.
The outcome of this dramatic high-speed duel was complicated further when Reece captured the No. 3 position in the starting line-up with an average of 145.513, giving Watson's cars all three front-row berths.
Because of the physical changes made in the pit area, officials had discarded the tradition of having all cars line up on the main straightaway in starting formation. The new plan, which had been only partially successful in 1957, called for the cars to leave the pits in single file, then move into rows of three behind the pace car on a "parade lap" which preceded the actual pace lap.
But now, in their eagerness to resume the battle for individual supremacy, Dick Rathmann and Elisian both jumped the signal and moved into the first turn ahead of the pace car. Not wanting to be left in the lurch, Reece followed almost immediately.
Halfway through the first parade lap, all three drivers realized they had pulled a boner and reduced speed so that they could be overtaken by the pace car and the other 30 contestants. But the pace car continued at slow speed, expecting the front row to complete its "extra" lap quickly and move into proper position. The result, from the standpoint of race officials, was the most agonizing exhibition of "orderly confusion" ever witnessed at the Speedway.
With the rest of the field on the backstretch, the three front-row cars crossed the starting line in perfect alignment. Chief steward Harlan Fengler waved them on, urging them to overtake the field. At the same time, their pit crews gave them the SLOW sign. The three drivers were so confused they did nothing but maintain their peculiar position.
The field headed by the pace car, completed the parade lap in perfect formation and started the pace lap with the front row still a mile and a half ahead—or a mile behind.
On their next approach to the starting line the exclusive threesome finally got the message to overtake the pack. But before they could comply, the field roared out of the No. 4 turn, and the pace car swerved into the pit entrance.
Whether or not race officials would have been within their rights to have displayed the green flag and started the race with the front row cars out of position, Fengler ordered the green flag withheld long enough to give the three one more chance. The extra lap proceeded under the yellow flag, with the pace car already off the track.
The front row surged into position at the head of the main straightaway—Dick Rathmann and Elisian squeezing through on the inside and Reece on the outside. Starter Bill Vandewater unfurled the green flag and the race was on.
Rathmann beat Elisian into the first turn by inches and held the advantage on the No. 2 turn. Midway down the backstretch, Elisian pulled abreast on the inside.
Like a pair of runaway horses, with no thought of the consequences, they thundered toward the No. 3 corner at full throttle. Each apparently was determined to keep his foot in it until the other backed off for self preservation.
It was Rathmann who lifted first, attempting to drop into the groove behind his rival. But by that time, both were so close to the corner it didn't matter.
Elisian's tires lost their grip, and the rear of his car swung toward the outside wall in a screeching slide. Rathmann, traveling much too fast to swerve inside his skidding opponent, tried to slip between Elisian and the wall. The two cars sideswiped each other and crashed against the concrete barrier simultaneously.
Reece, close behind the two leaders, applied his brakes the instant he realized trouble was inevitable.
Bob Veith rammed Reece from behind and knocked him directly into Pat O'Connor's path. O'Connor's car climbed over one of Reece's wheels and was airborne, landing upside down 50 feet away, and rolling into an upright position "in the groove."
Johnnie Parsons, the other driver who had started in the second row, collided with Veith.
All of the third-row drivers, led by Bryan, managed to swerve safely inside the wreckage. But A. J. Foyt did a complete spin, starting another series of chain-reaction crashes. Jerry Unser's car climbed over the one driven by Paul Goldsmith, sailed over the wall without touching it, and landed outside the track on its wheels.
The northeast turn and the short stretch leading to the No. 4 corner presented an awesome sight.
O'Connor was dead. Eight of the world's finest race cars, valued at more than $250,000, were wrecked too badly to continue. Nine more required immediate repairs in the pits before resuming pursuit of the leaders.
Running at reduced speed under the yellow light, Bryan led the others through 18 laps while emergency crews cleared the track. When the all-clear signal was displayed, Tony Bettenhausen grabbed the No. 1 spot with Eddie Sachs and George Amick also challenging. The lead changed hands 13 times before pit stops were necessary for tires and fuel.
Bryan regained command on lap 66 and remained in front until his second pit stop on lap 105.
Johnny Boyd set the pace in his Bowes Seal Fast Special through lap 125, when he needed tires. He had delayed his second stop until the last moment, hoping to go the remaining distance without requiring additional fuel or rubber.
Bryan succeeded in building up a cushion of 67 seconds by the completion of 150 laps; he was rolling again—with a lead of approximately 150 yards on Boyd—after his third pit stop. Although Boyd challenged repeatedly, Bryan pulled away each time with bursts of speed up to 138 miles an hour despite heavy traffic.
Serious tire wear was inevitable, and Boyd ran out of rubber 19 laps from the finish. Despite fast work by his crew, he dropped back to third place behind Amick.
The pressure was off and Bryan cruised to victory without being threatened again. But the hush of death still was in the air as he braked his car to a stop in Victory Lane.
Jimmy went through the traditional victory routine mechanically. It was several minutes before he could muster a smile for the photographers.
"It was awful!" he exclaimed.
"I never saw anything like it.
"I lived with it for 200 laps."