Part IV Of The 1959 Indy 500 – Race Day

Post By Race Review Online Historian – Jim Smith

If this were an ordinary year qualifications for the 104th Indianapolis 500 would have concluded this past weekend and my family would be planning for the race on Sunday May 24th. Since the race has been postponed until August, I would like to share my memories from my first Indianapolis 500.

Early on race morning my mom dropped my dad and I off in downtown Indianapolis and we rode an express bus to the Speedway. We got off the bus at 16th and Main Street in Speedway. They would pick us up at the same spot after the race.

My first memory getting off the bus was the large crowd that early in the morning. We walked to the track and went in the main entrance at 16th and Georgetown road. We walked to grandstand C and went to our seats. It was around 9:00 A.M. and there was already a lot of activity. 

More: Part 1 Of The 1959 Indy 500 – Practice

More: Part II Of The 1959 Indy 500 – Qualifications

More: Part III Of The 1959 Indy 500

The cars were in their respective pits and the drivers were being interviewed over the worlds largest public address system. The Purdue marching band has marching down the front stretch in front of the grandstands. Engines were being warmed up in the pit area and suddenly I realized I was going to watch my first Indianapolis 500. It was a dream come true.

Every since I can remember I have loved race cars and my family listened to the Indianapolis 500 radio broadcasts every year. My dream was always to attend the Indianapolis 500. 

At 10:00 A.M. the cars are ordered into position on the track while the Purdue band played the traditional “On the Banks of the Wabash”. The cars being pushed into position was an exciting moment. 

The crowd continued to fill the grandstands. The Speedway never announces the official attendance, but it was estimated to be the largest crowd ever. It was said to be 180,000 to 200,000.

The crowd rises for the playing of The National Anthem. After The National Anthem, it is time to honor those in the military who have made the ultimate sacrifice by the playing of TAPS. A few minutes later “Back Home Again in Indiana” is sung by the Purdue Varsity Glee Club. At the end of the song thousands of balloons are released into the sky.

It’s now time for Tony Hulman to speak those traditional words. GENTLEMAN, START YOUR ENGINES! As the engines were started a tremendous roar erupts on the front stretch from not only the engines, but from the crowd as well.  After a few minutes the pace car pulled away and all the cars are following the pace car except for one.

It is the 1958 Indianapolis 500 winner Jimmy Bryan’s yellow Belond car. It won’t start and the crew has to push it towards turn one and onto the pit apron. It finally starts, but he only completes one lap and that is the end of his race.

The car won the 1957 500 with Sam Hanks driving and repeated in 1958 with Jimmy Bryan driving it to victory. It was the first time a car would carry two drivers to separate wins at the 500 in back to back years.

The remaining 32 car field came to the green flag with a deafening roar made by those Offenhauser engines coming up to speed. The race is on!!!!! At that moment I knew I would be an Indianapolis 500 fan forever.

Starting from the pole, Johnny Thomson led the field into turn one and leads the first lap. He is followed by Rodger Ward who takes the lead on the 5th lap. On the 8th lap Eddie Sachs brings out the first yellow flag when he spins in turn one. Everybody misses the spinning car. Sachs gets re-started and continues racing.

Only four drivers lead the race. Thomson laps 1 through 4, Ward leads laps 5 through 12, Jim Rathmann lap 13, Ward laps 14 through 18, Rathmann laps 19 through 30, Pat Flaherty, the 1956 500 winner, up from his 18th starting position leads laps 31 through 45, Thomson laps 46 through 85 and Ward the rest of the race.

Five accidents occurred during the race. The first was the already mentioned Eddie Sachs who got re-started and finished 17th completing 182 laps.

The second on the 34th lap was for Len Sutton when he hit the outside wall exiting turn one when a sway bar broke causing him to lose control. He was unhurt.

The third was on lap 45 when four cars tangled in turn 3. Chuck Weyant spun and was hit by Mike Magill, who then hit the outside wall and flipped upside down. Red Amick and Jud Larson made contact with each other trying to avoid the accident and both spun into the infield.

Magill was the only driver injured and he was taken to Methodist Hospital with head and neck injuries. The newly mandated roll bar was credited with saving his life.

The irony of the accident was all the cars had a 7 in their car number. Larson 7, Weyant 47, Magill 77 and Amick 87.

The fourth was on lap 121 when Ray Crawford hit the outside wall in turn 3. He suffered three broken ribs.

The final accident happened right in front of my dad and I on lap 162 when Pat Flaherty hit the inside wall, crossed the track and hit the outside wall and crossed the track again and hit the inside wall at the pit entrance. Flaherty later admitted getting fatigued and losing control. He was unhurt.

Ward won the race at a new race record average speed of 135.857 mph. The old record of 135.601 was set by Sam Hanks in 1957. He finished 23 seconds over Jim Rathmann who finished second for the second year in a row and for the third time in his career.

A total of 16 cars finished the 200 laps and unlike today the race continued to run with the 16th place car, driven by Jim McWithey, finishing his 200th lap some 12 minutes after Ward took the checkered flag.

The total purse was $338,100 with $106,850 going to the winner, with last place paying $3405. That total included $30,000 in lap prizes, $57.600 in accessory prizes and Speedway prizes of $250,500.

Future great A.J. Foyt finished 10th racing in his second 500. He was the youngest driver in the field at 24 years of age.

We left the track with our ears ringing from the engine noise we experienced from almost four hours of racing. We arrived at 16th and Main Street and joined a huge crowd waiting to get on a bus and return to downtown Indianapolis.

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