1959 Indy 500: Part II Qualifications

Post By Race Review Online Historian – Jim Smith

The Indianapolis 500 has been known for years as “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing”.  Qualifications to make the race have been a spectacle of their own. Every emotion known to mankind has been displayed over the years. There has been laughter. There has been sadness. There have been tears of joy as well as sorrow. There has been triumph as well as tragedy and sometimes even death visited the track during qualifications. 

In 1959 it was no different and all those emotions were felt during those four days of qualifications. The entry list consisted of 61 cars and 59 drivers and there was tremendous pressure put on the race teams to make the race, Veteran drivers as well as the rookies felt that pressure. They all agreed that the four lap qualification runs at Indianapolis were the most stressful laps in all of motor sports.

READ: Part 1 of 1959 Indianapolis 500 – Practice

The idea of holding qualifications to determine the starting line up at Indianapolis was introduced in 1915 at the request of the drivers because they disliked the previous system. The first three years the starting order was determined by the order in which the official entries were received by the Speedway. In 1914 the starting positions were determined by a drawing for the starting lineup.

From 1915 to 1939 the distance varied from one lap to twenty five miles. In 1939 a four lap (10 miles) qualification run was designated and remains so today. The official qualification speed was determined by the average speed from those four laps. 

In 1959 the one lap track record of 146.508 was set by Ed Elisian in 1958. The four lap track record of 145.974 was also set in 1958 by Dick Rathmann.

1959 Indy 500 post win photo 

In 1959 there were no electronics except the electric eye located at the start/finish line. There were no large TV screens with their ability to follow the cars around the track. No instant updates of the speeds being recorded by the cars. The only way to calculate speeds were hand held stop watches that were used by all of the race teams. Many fans also possessed them and many fans had two so that they could time consecutive laps. There were timing charts available so that a fan could convert seconds into miles per hour. The only official times were recorded by the track’s timing and scoring officials during qualifications.

The first day of qualifications was May 16th and my dad and I arrived early and parked in Speedway and walked to the track. Approximately 90 thousand fans were in attendance and we feared getting caught in the crowded Speedway infield. 

The Speedway is so large that only a portion of the track can be seen from any one location. Grandstand E in the first turn is a fan favorite for many reasons. For my dad and I it was the closest grandstand to 16th street that we could use to conveniently and quickly return to the car at the end of the day.

We settled in turn one with our stop watches and a copy of the Indianapolis Star newspaper, provided a timing and scoring page in the sports section. My dad used that to keep track of all the official qualification speeds that were announced over the Speedway’s PA system. 

There were 41 cars on the track, the highest number for the month. With a few minutes left in practice defending National Champion Tony Bettenhausen hit the outside wall coming out of turn 2, slid across the track, then went through the inside guardrail and flipped over in the grass. His only injury was a bloody nose. The car was a total wreck.

A total of 15 cars attempted qualification and 12 were successful. Johnny Thomson won the pole driving a pink colored roadster. When teased about the color he said his wife picked the color. His third lap set a new track record of 146.532, but his four lap average of 145.908 was just slightly under the track record.

The second day of qualifications, May 17th was windy with scattered rain showers. Only four cars attempted qualifications and two were successful. Just before qualifications opened the news that Jerry Unser had passed away from burns he suffered from his May 2nd wreck.

A busy week of practice found many drivers changing cars trying to find the right car and driver combination. The third day of qualifications, Saturday May 23rd was cool and windy. It was the second busiest day of the month with 39 cars on the track. There were 18 qualification attempts with 9 being successful. Tony Bettenhausen was back running and qualified safely in the field for his 13th start. It also saw future great A.J. Foyt, qualify for his second race.

The last day of qualifications, Sunday May 24th, there were 36 cars on the track. There was a lot of car hopping and testing trying to reach a safe qualifying speed. There were 27 attempts with 12 successful runs with two of those being bumped. The slowest qualifier was rookie Jim McWithey with a speed of 141.215.

The 33 car field was full when the gun sounded at 6:00 P.M. ending qualifications. The four days of qualification saw 64 attempts with 35 being successful and 2 contenders bumped by faster speeds. The line up consisted of 28 veteran drivers and 5 rookies. There were 11 different race car chassis, but the only engine was the four cylinder Offenhauser. The Offy had dominated the Indianapolis 500 since the mid 1930’s. It was the winning power plant in 1935, 1937, 1941 and 1947 thru 1958.

With the end of qualifications the race teams had two days to tear down their cars for inspection and have them ready for their final practice period on Wednesday May 27th. Unlike today there was no Carb Day and its associated festivities. There was a three hour practice period that was closed to the public.  Only 22 of the 33 cars practiced and many crew chiefs complained that two days was not enough time to prepare their cars for that practice period. Next up is May 30th, Race Day!!!!!


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