Prominent builders of race cars—such as Frank Kurtis, Eddie Kuzma, Quinn Epperly, and Lujie Lesovsky—received immediate orders for almost a dozen new cars with horizontal engines. A. J. Watson remained unperturbed.
"I still haven't seen anything which leads me to believe they're any faster than the best of the upright cars," he told sports writers. "If it hadn't been for the first-lap accident this year, I doubt anyone would have overtaken the front-row starters. Proper weight distribution is the important factor, and I believe that can be obtained as easily with an upright engine as with a horizontal engine."
The result of the second Race of Two Worlds at Monza a month later strengthened his faith in that belief. The younger of the Rathmann brothers, Jim, drove one of Watson's creations in the Italian event and won impressively. At the finish he was 92 seconds ahead of Bryan in the Salih car.
For the 1959 Indianapolis Classic, Watson built two new cars with upright engines. They weighed 1,625 pounds. With an additional 380 pounds of fuel and oil—and the car resting on four separate scales—the weight was distributed as follows: 710 pounds on the left rear, 460 pounds on the right rear, 435 pounds on the right front and 400 pounds on the left front.
He sold one of the new cars to Bob Wilke and agreed to serve as chief mechanic for driver Rodger Ward. The other, purchased by Lindsey Hopkins, had Jim Rathmann in the cockpit with Jack Beckley as chief mechanic.
Bryan was ready to try for a repeat victory in the Salih car. Another prominent veteran, ranked as a strong contender, was Johnny Thomson in a new Racing Associates Special with a horizontal engine.
Juan Fangio, the world champion by virtue of his many victories in European Grand Prix events, shared the spotlight during the early part of May. After numerous practice laps, however, he abandoned his intentions to seek a starting position. "Even with the finest equipment, it would be a difficult task," he said. "The better cars already are assigned to other drivers."
Thomson won the pole position on the first day of time trials, setting a new single lap record of 146.532 while averaging 145.908. All of the other favorites except Bryan also qualified easily, and he finally made the starting line-up after being plagued by mechanical troubles. The engine of his car was scattered all over the garage floor on the night before the race as Salih searched in vain for the "missing" two or three miles an hour which had been lost since the 1958 event.
An entirely different atmosphere pervaded the garages of Thomson, Ward, and Rathmann. All three were supremely confident of victory, and Ward didn't hesitate an instant when asked his opinion of the outcome.
"I wouldn't settle for second-place money if they offered to give it to me right now," he declared.
Starting in the No. 6 spot, he took first place away from Thomson on the fifth lap, then dueled with Rathmann for the lead. Pat Flaherty charged through the field on his 31st trip around the course to make it a four-car battle.
Bryan, left at the post on the parade lap, retired from the race with a broken cam housing after completing only one lap.
Following the first series of pit stops, Thomson again assumed command. But tire wear forced him to make a second stop at 84 laps. When Rathmann also changed tires again on his 92nd lap, Ward's rubber still was good enough for 11 fast laps at 142 miles an hour. That surge gave him a 61-second edge on Thomson and a lead of 84 seconds over Rathmann.
Ward was able to make his own stop for fuel and tires without relinquishing the lead. His crew did the job in 23 seconds, and his third scheduled stop on the 168th lap was almost as fast. He was in motion again with his nearest rival still trailing by more than a half lap. Rathmann could do no better than close the gap to 23 seconds at the finish. Thomson salvaged third place despite a fourth pit stop for tires.
Victory Lane again was a scene of wild jubilation.
Asked if he was tired, Ward said, "I never felt better in my life. I'm just happy, happy, happy."
He kissed his wife Jo, Hollywood star Erin O'Brien, and the little black dog Skippy, which Mrs. Ward took to every race as Rodger's mascot.
Between huge gulps of milk from a quart bottle, the winner paid tribute to Watson's genius. "There may be better drivers, but there are no better cars," he said. "I plan to run in almost all of the championship races during the remainder of the season, and I'll be back at Indianapolis next year to try to win the '500' again."
Then, after posing for the inevitable "one more" photo, Rodger and Jo climbed into the back seat of the pace car and made another trip around the course with Tony Hulman and Sam Hanks to receive the plaudits of the crowd.
At the victory dinner on the following evening, Ward pocketed $106,850 of the $338,000 prize fund. Rathmann received $39,800 for finishing second, the same position he had gained on two previous occasions; and he wondered how long he would have to compete in order to hit the jackpot.
Watson was a busy man during the winter months of 1959-60, building four new upright engine cars for as many different owners. One was for Wilke, with Ward as driver and Watson as chief mechanic. Two wealthy Texans, Ken Lacey and Paul Rich, purchased the second one and signed Jim Rathmann as driver. The others went to S-R Racing Enterprises for Driver Len Sutton and to J. C. Agajanian for Lloyd Ruby, a rookie.
Two mechanics used Watson's plans to build similar cars for Eddie Sachs and Al Herman. Tony Bettenhausen, Troy Ruttman, and Chuck Stevenson inherited three Watson cars built in previous years, and Rookie Jim Hurtubise drew the assignment on the Travelon Trailer Special, built from Watson's patterns in the spring of 1959.
Salih constructed a new and lighter version of his original horizontal engine car for Bryan and entered it as the Metal Cal Special.
Eleven other cars with horizontal engines also earned starting positions in the 33-car line-up for the 1960 race. But from the beginning of practice on May 1 it was a Watson year. The only serious threat to his upright design came from the Racing Associates entry—a horizontal engine car driven by Johnny Thomson—and it couldn't quite get the job done.
The emotional Sachs, who once washed dishes in the Speedway's garage area restaurant to be near the cars and drivers, keyed himself for a supreme effort on the first time trial day. He averaged a record-breaking 146.592 and completed one lap at 147.251 to clinch the pole position. Tears were streaming down his cheeks as he coasted back to the line to the applause of the fans. It was almost two minutes before he could express his feelings.
"Nancy [Mrs. Sachs] always has said I'm a sentimentalist, and now I know I really am," he declared, dabbing at his eyes with a handkerchief provided by a crew member. "I can't stand all of this excitement.
"But I do want to remind you that my car owner is Al Dean of Dean Van Lines," he added, beginning to regain his customary glibness, "and I guess this record makes us the fastest-moving outfit in the world."
Rathmann and Ward captured the other front-row spots.
Thomson, whose qualifying attempt was delayed 24 hours by engine trouble, fell twenty-five hundredths of a second short of equaling the new four-lap mark, but Hurtubise raised the record higher in a Watson-built car one week later with the most phenomenal performance ever turned in by a first-year driver.
Hurtubise had been attracting much attention in practice, going into the turns a little higher than his more experienced rivals and cutting toward the inner edge of the track on a slightly wider arc. This brought him down to the white line farther into the turn than drivers following the usual groove, making it unnecessary for him to reduce speed quite as much. And he could accelerate faster out of the turn.
Hurtubise, practicing the maneuver as religiously as an Olympic skater working on school figures, had been clocked repeatedly at better than 146 miles an hour. As he donned helmet and goggles for the start of his official qualification attempt, he reminded his crew of their agreement. "Call me in with an arm signal if I'm not running better than 144," he told them. "But don't put anything on the board53 because I don't plan to pay any attention to it."
Evading a direct answer to questions concerning a new record, he said: "I'll run as fast as I can, certainly. If I set a new record, fine. But the main thing I want to do is to make sure of a starting position on race day."
Unofficial clockers looked at their stop watches with amazement as Hurtubise completed the first lap at a speed of 148.002. The second was even faster, and the third was timed in 60.16 seconds for an almost unbelievable average of 149.601.
An improvement of only sixteen hundredths of a second on his final trip around the track would make the long-dreamed-of 150-mile-an-hour lap a reality, and his foot was still firm on the throttle. It looked as if he'd made it as the nose of his car came into view on the No. 4 turn. The rear end, however, started to slide out toward the wall. In order to get the car pointed in the right direction again, he had to lift for a fraction of a tick of the watch. But his speed on that lap, too, was better than 149, and he finished with a new four-lap record of 149.056.
Only then did his jubilant crew display the board, on which they had chalked a huge "49" at the completion of his second lap.
"I felt certain I was doing better than 147," he declared, "but I didn't think I was traveling that fast."
Fellow drivers commented on the wide arc he made, particularly on the No. 1 and No. 3 turns.
"Everybody has his own style," said Hurtubise. "Even if you appear to be following the same groove, there are some little differences in your patterns. Mine just happens to be more noticeable. Anyone who goes that fast will use a lot of race track, too."
Sachs, who had been watching the performance from a vantage point inside the first turn, had sprinted for the starting line to offer his congratulations to the new record holder immediately after hearing the second-lap figures.
"Boy oh boy, that was really something," he exclaimed. "I clocked you at better than 138 miles an hour through the turn, and I still don't know how you managed to do it. I probably would have been bitter and mighty unhappy if you had broken my record by only two or three hundredths of a second. But you smashed it to pieces, and I'm glad I was here to see you do it. Now we can all start shooting for 150."
The stage was set for the greatest speed battle of all time, and the 1960 race lived up to expectations. Ward, Rathmann, Sachs, and Ruttman all led briefly as they charged through traffic at an average of 143 miles an hour during the first 40 laps.
Ward—regarded as a master at making fast smooth pit stops—paused for tires after 43 trips around the course, confident of being back in the lead after all of his rivals had made their stops. The work required only 22 seconds. But in his haste to get under way again, he killed his engine. No crew ever used one of the portable starting devices more efficiently, but Rathmann had a 31-second advantage before Ward was able to regain racing speed.
Thomson challenged Rathmann and delayed his second pit stop long enough to take the lead briefly when Rathmann paused for his second set of tire after 86 laps. Ward, rocketing out of each turn in an effort to make up for his costly bobble, had succeeded in whittling 11 precious seconds off his deficit when he made his second stop on lap 89.
Fifteen-second service, as compared to the 21 seconds required by Rathmann's crew, pulled Ward within 14 seconds of the leader at the halfway point (100 laps), and he continued to close the gap relentlessly.
He trailed by only eight seconds at 110 laps, by no more than 100 feet at 120 laps, and he sucked Rathmann under in convincing fashion on the 123rd trip around the course.
Confident of victory now that he had battled his way back to first place, Ward eased the pressure on his throttle, set a steady pace of 141.5 miles an hour, and hoped Rathmann wouldn't challenge again until the later stages of the contest.
But Jim had a fairly accurate idea of the terrific tire wear Ward had risked to come from behind so quickly. Tires capable of going 500 miles on the Speedway at 135 miles an hour are good for only 300 miles at 140 mph and approximately 150 miles at 143 mph. By maintaining a fast pace, Jim reasoned, it might be possible to force Ward into an extra pit stop following the scheduled third stops each driver still faced. With that thought in mind, he thundered to the front again on the 128th lap.
Ward, also conscious of the tire situation, swung in behind him, and the two cars ran nose-to-tail through the 140th lap. Only 150 miles remained, and the tire problem no longer seemed important: both drivers now could make their third pit stops at almost any time and be virtually assured of sufficient rubber to finish.
Earlier in the month, when a rival driver had chided him about failing to win the pole position, Rathmann had said, "It's hard for me to run fast when I'm out on the track all alone. I go better when I'm chasing somebody, or somebody's chasing me." Now he was "going better."
Figuring he might as well collect more of the $150-a-lap bonus money, Ward seized the lead again on the 142nd lap, then streaked into the pit for the last time at the end of his 147th trip. With his own tires badly frayed, Rathmann elected to stop too.
As the spectators realized what was happening, they jumped to their feet with a terrific roar of excitement. Never before had two leaders, running neck-and-neck at such a late stage of the race, made simultaneous pit stops.
The outcome of the long struggle, with more than $100,000 going to the winner, could be decided in the next few seconds as rival pit crews answered the most important challenge they had ever faced.
Ward braked to a stop first in front of his pit near the starting line, while Rathmann's crew waited for their driver some 280 feet farther along the pit wall.
Ellis Roark of Ward's crew handled the air hose, which did two things when the connection was made: it raised the car off the ground by activating the pneumatic jacks built into the frame, and it locked the brakes54 so that the wheels would not spin when crew members started to knock off the wing nuts.
A quick inspection disclosed such slight wear to the left front tire that replacement was not necessary, and Roark cleaned Ward's windshield while waiting for the signal to release the air Jack mechanism. Don Burden, Art Lamey, and Don Koda changed the other three tires. Watson handled the refueling equipment, and Ward was rolling again in 20 seconds.
Rathmann's crew, directed by Chickie Hirashima and "Smokey" Yunick, and including Bruce Crowder, Ron Caplin, Al Keller, Bob Bubenik, and J. B. Wilson, took 21 seconds. The wheels of Jim's car were just beginning to turn as Ward passed him with a full-throttle charge toward the pit driveway exit.
By the time both cars had accelerated to racing speed, Ward was 200 feet ahead. Rathmann shot past him four laps later, and Ward had to use all of his will power to restrain himself from retaking the lead immediately. Instead, he clung right to Jim's tail for 11 laps, setting the stage for what he hoped would be a final and conclusive exhibition of his superiority.
With a masterful display of driving skill and a terrific surge of power, Ward blew him off on the 163rd lap and quickly widened his lead to 150 feet. But Rathmann refused to be content with second place, and messages from his pit crew urged him on at full throttle.
Thomson, completely overlooked in the battle for first place, was charging forward even faster than the two leaders. At the completion of 169 laps Johnny was only nine seconds behind and closing the gap rapidly.
Rathmann drove deeper than ever into the turn on the 170th lap and took a momentary advantage. Ward, also alerted of Thomson's progress, regained the edge on the next trip around the course.
Four laps later, with Ward still in front, the pressure was eased considerably when Thomson rolled to a halt in his pit with his engine smoking badly and operating on only three cylinders. Mechanics Bob Phillips and Herb Porter diagnosed the difficulty without bothering to lift the hood: valve trouble. Phillips turned to the car's owners, Art Lathrop and "Gub" Glover, and said, "How about it, men—do you want to risk blowing an $8,500 engine for an outside chance of finishing third?"
"Go ahead," was the instant reply. Thomson moved back into action knowing he couldn't coax more than an average speed of 135 miles an hour out of his ailing machine.55
Meanwhile, Ward realized that his own position wasn't as secure as it seemed: his terrific speed had caused far greater tire wear than anticipated during the 30 laps since his last pit stop. Hopeful that Rathmann was in the same condition, Ward reduced his speed by approximately two miles an hour.
But Rathmann went to the front again on the 178th lap. Ward ran second for a while: he reasoned that Rathmann, if not pressed too closely, might reduce speed of his own volition; and Ward would conserve rubber for a final surge to the front on the closing laps.
Ward had overlooked one factor, however, and it was brought to his attention sharply as he moved to lap one of the tail-end cars for the fourth or fifth time. The other driver almost lost control, slithering and fishtailing his way through several hundred feet of the No. 3 turn before straightening out.
"That's all it took to show me how stupid a 'smart guy' can be," Ward told his close friends later. "If he—or anyone else—had hit the wall and bounced back into the groove, we probably would have finished the race under the yellow light while emergency crews were clearing the wreckage. I wouldn't have been able to live with myself, giving the race away when I had the faster car. Regardless of tire wear, I had no choice except to regain the lead as quickly as possible and hope that Rathmann's rubber was no better than mine."
For the eighth time since the start of the race, Ward zoomed ahead on the 183rd lap. Rathmann caught him on the 190th trip around, and the most exciting helmet dash in Speedway history approached its dramatic climax with 10 laps to go and the two leaders running almost hub-to-hub. With each lap, the terrific pace became faster and faster: 143.5, 144.7, 145, 145.8. The huge throng of 200,000 was on its feet and cheering wildly.
Rathmann regained the lead. Again Ward thundered back in front.
On the 197th lap Rathmann charged at a speed of 146.128 miles an hour—the fastest lap ever run in traffic on the Indianapolis course.
Ward matched the effort through the No. 3 corner. But the breaker strip in Ward's right front tire suddenly became visible on the short chute leading to the No. 4 turn. Continued high speed would end in almost immediate tire failure and probable disaster. He had no sane choice, other than to accept second place, and he eased the pressure on his throttle to make sure of going the distance.
Thirty seconds later the breaker strip on Rathmann's right rear tire also became exposed. But there no longer was any pressure from behind.
As the three-time runner-up made his first appearance in Victory Lane, Rathmann's first question was, "What happened to Ward? Tires?"
"I guessed as much," he added, after being told his supposition was correct. "He had more steam. I could catch him going into the turns, but he could take me coming out, and he had too much speed for me in the chutes. No matter how hard I came off the corners, he got me any time he wanted to.
"I'm certainly glad I didn't run out of rubber first. But if you want to know how close I came to missing the jackpot again, look at that right rear tire of mine. Neither of us had any idea we would be forced to run so hard all of the way."
Ward, 13 seconds behind at the finish but almost three laps ahead of all other contenders, went straight to his garage to wait for a chance to congratulate Rathmann after the Victory Lane ceremonies.
"It's tough to finish second when you know you have a car fast enough to win," declared Rodger. "But it isn't as bad as going to the hospital instead of collecting $45,000 or more at the Victory Dinner."
Rathmann received $110,000 for winning at the record-breaking average speed of 138.767 miles an hour. The total payoff hit a new high of $369,150—approximately four times as much as the largest purse prior to the start of the Hulman regime 15 years earlier.