Post By Race Review Online Historian – Jim Smith
The month of May in Indianapolis is like no other month of the year. Auto racing enthusiasts consider the Indianapolis 500 an institution and the time spent leading up to the race itself is known as “The Month of May”. What was the month of May like in 1959? It was one of the more interesting months.
It is important to realize that the Indianapolis 500 has been built on tradition as well as innovation. Both were displayed in 1959. I would like to discuss some of each and tell the story of how the month evolved. The points of discussion will be of a random nature with a few stories mixed in as well.
In 1959 the city of Indianapolis had no interstate system and U.S. 40 (Washington St.) was the only major highway going through the city. The challenge of getting the heavy pedestrian and vehicular traffic in and out of the Speedwayarea as quickly and safely as possible was the same then asit is today.
Grandstands C, F and H on the front stretch andgrandstand D in the south short chute were still the old wooden grandstands. There were no stands located at the north end of the Speedway. Looking north grandstand H was the last grandstand on the front stretch.
The front stretch was still all brick with the rest of the track being asphalt. The race cars as well as the drivers took a tremendous pounding from the bricks. Both had to be strong and rugged to last for 500 miles. There was talk of replacing the bricks with asphalt, and a lot of purists objected, but they were finally replaced after the 1961 race. Today only the yard of bricks located at the star/finish remain.
A new innovation in 1959 was the famous scoring pylonconstructed at the south end of the pit area.
There was no yellow shirted safety patrol in 1959. Thesafety patrol wore dark blue shirts and wore pith helmets. Their job then as it is today was to insure the safety and welfare of everyone on the Speedway grounds.
Women were not allowed in the garage area or the pit area. Unlike today the officials were very strict about who was allowed in both. A person had to be 21 and only racing personnel and the racing press with proper credentials were allowed.
Jim Rathmann told a funny story about a prank he and Troy Ruttman, the 1952 winner, pulled on the security guards. He doesn’t tell what year it was, but it was before women were allowed in the garage area.
He and Ruttman decided to visit the garage area one evening. Before driving in to the Speedway Rathmann, who was bald, put on a blond wig and was sighted by the guards. When they arrived at the garage Rathmann hid the wig. When the guards arrived at the garage they asked the two men about the blond female. They both denied seeingany blond female. The guards searched the garage area and finally gave up when they couldn’t find the blond female. When they decided to leave Rathmann put the wig back on and they both laughed as they passed the guards on the way out.
There were no radios so all communication between the driver and the crew was done by hand signals and sign boards. During practice a crewman would walk out to pit wall by the track and hold up a sign board to communicate with the driver. On race day one crewmen from each race team was stationed at the pit wall. His assignment was to pass along information to the driver during the race.
Racing fuel was not restricted in 1959. Most fuel mixturesconsisted of gasoline, methanol (wood alcohol), benzol, acetone and nitromethane. How they were blended was a decision made by the crew chief. He had his own closely guarded secret fuel mixture. An element of mystery surrounded those fuel mixtures because the crew chiefs were unwilling to share their secrets. There were two main objectives. The first was to create more power for qualifications. The second was to improve fuel mileage for the race. One concern was engine reliability. The other wasnot to destroy an engine by using the wrong mixture.
Time spent in the pits has always been a challenge for the race teams. In 1959 the introduction of air jacks helped speed up the pit stops. Attaching an air hose to the race car was much quicker than using a manual jack. It also freed up a pit crew member to perform other duties during a pit stop.
In 1959 popular Tony Bettenhausen was one of the sports all time great drivers. At the time he had won two national championships and 20 national championship wins. He never won a 500, but at 42 years old, he was still considered a strong contender to win any race he entered. He had competed in 12 Indianapolis 500’s and had completed 3,947.5 racing miles. He qualified for his 13thstart on the second weekend of qualifications following his wreck on the first day of qualifications.
Rodger Ward was one of the favorites to win the race all month. He had a positive attitude and he was driving for the great A.J. Watson as his crew chief. He had a great career going but ran into a run of bad luck in 1954 and 1955.
In 1954 at the Duquoin Championship Race another car bounced off the outside wall into Rodger’s car and sent it into the pits killing Clay Smith, one of the outstanding mechanics of the time, and injured many others.
In 1955 at the Indianapolis 500 his car broke an axle and flipped going down the back stretch and started a four car crash that claimed the life of the great two time winner, Bill Vukovich. Many thought that he should give up auto racing. He was quoted as saying “if I owned a duck it would drown”.
LIt took courage but his luck changed and in 1957 he returned to his winning ways and his confidence returned.With the bad luck behind him he was now a contender to win his first Indianapolis 500.
A crowd favorite has always been the NOVI. Mention the name and the race fans back then got excited. The engine itself was a super charged V8 that put out well over 600 horse power. By contrast the Offy’s of the day put out a little over 400 horse power. They were extremely loud and had a high pitched roar of their own. Their appearance always guaranteed a strong crowd reaction. They have always been plagued by bad luck and 1959 was no exception. They had extreme engine issues and never produced enough speed to make the race.
A final observation. All of the race tires were supplied by Firestone. While sitting in the first turn of the Speedway I heard an interesting sound. When the drivers were on the edge of adhesion in the turn there was a high pitched whistle emitted from the tires. I found out later that it was called the “Song of Firestone”. If a driver went over that edge then a loss of control was the end result.