The 1959 Indianapolis 500 Part 1 – Practice

Post By Race Review Online Historian – Jim Smith

The grandstands are empty and they will remain so into the near future. There is uncertainty as to when our favorite sport will be able to fill those grandstands. Normally at this time of the year we would be eagerly looking forward to the opening of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May.

This year the track would have opened on May 8th with practice for the IndyCar: GMR Grand Prix and concluded on May 24th with the 104th running of The Indianapolis 500. The month of May would consist of just 13 days. 

In 1959 the track opened on May 1st and concluded on May 30th with the 43rd International 500 Mile Sweepstakes as it was called back then. That month of May consisted of thirty one days.

In 1959 I was about to finish my freshman year of High School and I would be attending my first Indianapolis 500. To the casual race fan the Indianapolis 500 and race day is the whole story. To the real race fan the quest to race in the “500” takes place in the month preceding the race. I would like to tell the story of the 1959 Indianapolis 500 in three parts. First, practice leading up to the four days of qualifications. Second, the four days of qualifications, leading up to the race and third, the race itself.

There were 61 race cars and 59 drivers on the entry list. There were 20 rookies entered of which 5 made the race. There were 3 former winners with 1950 winner, Johnnie Parsons, announcing his retirement from championship racing on May 17th. That left 1956 winner, Pat Flaherty, and 1958 winner, Jimmy Bryan, as the only previous winners in the race.

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1959 race winner Rodger Ward poses in the pace car

On May 1st at 9:00 A.M. the words “Attention in the Garage and Pit area’s the track is now open for practice” and the month of May was begun. There would be fifteen days of practice leading up to the first day of qualifications on May 16th.  

For many years the first person on the track was not a race driver, but a mechanic associated with one of the race cars. In 1959 a mechanic named Joe Scopa, who worked on the Bryant Heating Special, was the first person on the track. Back then it was not unusual for some of the mechanics to take the race cars out for some slow shake down laps. This was allowed only when very few race cars were on the track and mechanic ran at slow speeds.

On this day there was a surprise driver to take to the track. It was Speedway owner Tony Hulman who drove three laps in son-in law Elmer George’s race car. His best lap was said to be 80 mph.

Elmer George was married to Tony Hulman’s daughter Mari Hulman George and he is the father of Tony George, a past Speedway President and still a board member. Mari was the car owner for Elmer George called the HOW Special.

The first race driver on the track was Rodger Ward and he worked up to the fastest speed of the day at 139.3 mph. The first few days after the opening of the track traditionally saw very few cars take to the track and only four more cars took to the track that day.

May 2nd saw Rodger Ward again posting the fastest lap of the day at 142.5 mph. Tragedy struck late in the afternoon around 4:00 P.M. when Jerry Unser, the older brother of Al and Bobby Unser, lost control coming out of turn 4. He hit the inside wall with the car rupturing the fuel tank and bursting into flames. The car continued across the track and hit the outside wall still on fire. When the fire was extinguished the safety crew removed Jerry from the car. He was still conscious and talking to the safety crew while they were removing him from the car, but it was obvious that he was severely burned.

Back then many drivers drove wearing long sleeved driver uniforms, but many others drove without a driver’s uniform and on hot days drove wearing only a tee shirt or other types short sleeve shirts. After Jerry Unser’s wreck USAC officials announced that any race driver driving in a USAC sanctioned event must wear a long sleeved drivers uniform dipped in a fire retardant solution.

Sadly, on May 17th Jerry Unser died from his burns and then on May 19th rookie Bob Cortner died from injuries when his car hit the outside wall in turn 3. It was believed that a gust of wind caught him while entering the turn and drove him down into the grass. It was observed that in that situation he should have followed the cardinal rule of  “ locking everything up and turning left”. Instead, he tried to save the car and when the rear wheels found traction the car shot into the wall head-on. It has long been said that if you turn right at Indianapolis you become a statistic.

The remaining practice days were filled with action with gusty winds and intermittent rain showers thrown into the mix. There were more spins and wall bangers, but no more fatalities. The drama continued to build each day leading up to that first week end of qualifications. Many dreams were dashed when some drivers failed to pass their rookie tests and others were told they need more high speed experience before returning to the track in the future. For the rest it was business as usual trying to find more speed before   the first weekend of qualifications. 

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