Black Noon: The Year They Stopped The Indy 500

Art Garner
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Towers of black smoke rise from the front straight as the tragedy unfolds.

An edited excerpt from Black Noon: The Year They Stopped the Indy 500 by Art Garner, by arrangement with Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press. Copyright © 2014 by Art Garner.

There are few events with more pomp and pageantry than the running of the Indy 500, or as it was officially called in 1964, the “International 500 Mile Sweepstakes.” It is part Memorial Day celebration, part three-ring circus, and part Shakespearean drama.

That was never truer than in ’64. Fans in increasing numbers had turned out throughout the month, drawn by the climbing speeds of the new rear-engine “funny cars” and the “dinosaur” roadsters. A record crowd was assured, with all 150,000 seats sold and another 125,000 people expected to jam the infield. More than 250,000 tickets had been sold to watch the first closed-circuit broadcast of the race, playing at 101 locations in 60 cities across the country. And 100 million more would be listening around the world to the radio broadcast.

The race-day crowd would, for the first time, push estimated attendance at the Speedway to more than one million for the month. In comparison, fewer than half of the Major League Baseball teams drew more than a million people during the entire 1964 season.

Rookie Dave MacDonald took a cab to the track from his downtown hotel, riding in the front seat while his wife, Sherry, sat in back with team owner Mickey Thompson and his wife, Judy. Mickey had finally made it back to the hotel after working on the cars most of the night. Judy thought Dave seemed pretty normal, although “gung ho, fired up for the race.”

MacDonald was an unknown to most of those headed to the track, having risen from running Southern California drag strips just four years earlier to helping win the national sports car championship for Carroll Shelby’s Cobra in 1963 by lapping a field of international stars at Riverside. Afterward he had agreed to drive one of Thompson’s radical and ill-handling “pancake” cars in the Indy 500—against the advice of Shelby and others, who felt both MacDonald and the cars needed more seasoning. Blessed with surfer-boy good looks, off the track MacDonald was the quiet father of two young children; introverted, “almost timid,” according to friends.

As usual, Mickey did most of the talking on the cab ride.

“Relax, you’ve got a long, long way to go,” he repeatedly told MacDonald. “Take it easy, especially at the start. This race is 500 miles long. You can’t win it on the first lap.”

Even though he was staying across the street from the Speedway at the Holiday Inn, Eddie Sachs was one of the last drivers to arrive in Gasoline Alley. He and his wife Nance attended a special Memorial Day mass, as they typically did before the 500, and Eddie had stopped to talk to members of the congregation and fans. While many drivers went to elaborate measures to avoid fans on race day, Sachs relished it.

He was a fan favorite, known as the Clown Prince of Racing. With the Beatles all the rage, he’d donned a wig and a guitar on pit road, delighting the crowd. He had limited natural ability, having twice failed his rookie test at Indy. But he also captured the 500 pole two years in a row (1960 and ’61) and came within three laps of winning the race in ’61, before a pit stop handed the victory to A. J. Foyt. A reformed playboy who had settled down with his second wife and newborn son, Sachs promised his family he’d retire from racing—as soon as he won the 500.

Sherry MacDonald couldn’t believe her good fortune. After arriving at the track, the men headed for Gasoline Alley. Since women weren’t allowed in the garage area, they walked around briefly before finding their seats. Most of the families and VIPs were seated in the Tower Terrace behind the pits, but Sherry’s tickets were in paddock seating, directly across the track from the pits. Which was fine with Judy Thompson. The other wives had given her the cold shoulder the past two years. Best of all, the seats were directly across from where Dave’s car was positioned on the track. He spotted Sherry almost immediately, and they exchanged waves before he was pulled away for prerace activities.

Foyt checked on his car in the middle of the second row and saw Parnelli Jones alongside. Indy’s two most popular drivers and their roadsters were surrounded by rear-engine race cars.

“Looks like we’re about to see the end of the dinosaur,” Foyt said.

Jones nodded. “We might just have to run over a car or two if we expect to win.”

“Well, buddy boy,” Foyt replied, “if those guys in their funny cars can’t keep ahead, we might just have to do that. We’ll just stand on it and vroom.”

Jones had waited as long as possible before coming out to the grid. Quieter than normal on race morning, he was content to let Foyt chatter away. Inside he was churning with excitement.

“Just like a bottle of champagne—full of bubbles,” he told Dick Mittman for a column in the Indianapolis Times. “The one thing you don’t feel is fear. It is no more dangerous than a lot of smaller races. All the drivers here are seasoned professionals, and we know exactly what they are going to do. If they have any peculiarities in their driving, we know what they are and allow for them.”

Foyt was walking up and down the grid, waving and playing to the cheering fans, stopping to pose for photos and chatting with other drivers, often needling them about something, the mental race already underway. When he spotted Sachs, he headed in the direction of the driver who had nearly beaten him in ’61.

Putting his arm around Sachs, Foyt nodded toward the Thompson race car in the row ahead of him. Foyt reminded Sachs of the newspaper article earlier in the month in which MacDonald expressed his concern about the track’s walls. “That’s the guy you’re followin’ out there today, Eddie,” Foyt said, laughing and patting Sachs on the chest. Then he was gone, searching for his next target.

The cheers following the National Anthem were brief as the first somber notes of “Taps” sounded. Then it was Vic Damone’s turn. As the band began to play “Back Home Again in Indiana,” Damone broke into song, occasionally glancing at the sheet music he held for the words.

Back in the sixth row, Sachs was late arriving to his car [a Halibrand Shrike]. As soon as Damone started singing, Sachs’s eyes welled and tears started down his face. It happened every year, and he’d long since given up any attempt to control his emotions.

“I become all filled up with joy on the inside, and I cry so much I can’t even put my goggles on for fear I’ll get water in them,” Sachs said of his prerace tears. “I cry because I can be part of this great race. Me, Eddie Sachs, just a little guy from Allentown, P-A, who’s worked his way to the absolute top of his profession. I might even emerge the victor and reach the very highest point in my career. Why, it’s right within my grasp.”

Finally it was time for track owner Tony Hulman to utter the four “most famous words in racing.” Even now, ten years after first starting the race, it wasn’t easy for Hulman. Originally he had rushed and jumbled the call. His Midwestern accent turned “start” into “starch.” But after working with the radio crew he’d learned to slow the cadence, hitting one word at a time with growing emphasis. Just in case, he kept the words written on a sheet of paper.

Resplendent, as always, in a lightweight spring suit and tie, with aviator-type sunglasses, Hulman stood up in the back of the pace car and turned toward the cluster of reporters. He grabbed the track PA microphone in one hand and the radio broadcast mic in the other. He didn’t need the sheet of paper. He nailed it.

“Gentlemen . . . Start . . . Your . . . Engines!”

MacDonald waved to his wife as the field began to pull away, as Sherry dug into her purse to pull out a camera. Trembling and unable to hold it, let alone focus the camera, she handed it to Judy Thompson.

Sachs and many of the drivers waved to the crowd as they completed the parade lap. As MacDonald went by the start/finish line, he blew a kiss in the direction of where Sherry was sitting.

The Ford Mustang pace car held a steady 90 mph as it drove through the fourth turn and toward the start/finish line. Although the speed for the pace car was increased for the ’64 race, many drivers still felt it was too slow, given the top speed of the racers.

Once the pace car pulled into the pits, pole sitter Jimmy Clark kept the speed slow. The Lotus team was confident that its lightweight, V-8-powered cars provided a significant advantage on the starts and restarts, so the slower the pace, the bigger Clark’s advantage.

As a result, it was a tightly packed eleven rows of three approaching the start. Compared to the typically ragged start of today’s race, with the field often stretching from the start/finish line back through turn 4, the thirty-three cars in 1964 were grouped between the flag stand and the entrance to pit road as Pat Vidan, wearing a white sport coat and perched on the pit wall, unfurled the green flag.

Clark timed the start perfectly, and he jumped to a one-, two-, and then three-car-length lead as the field streamed past the starter. Starting fourth, but on the inside of the second row, Jones was doing his best to stay with the dark-green Lotus. Foyt also dropped low, trying to follow Jones.

The inside line is the fastest way through turn 1. As drivers farther back in the field jostle to reach the inside, however, an opportunity arises to gain places on the outside. Because the outside lane provides less traction, it’s a move exclusively for the experienced and courageous, and the opportunity lasts only until the cars are up to speed.

This was especially true in ’64. The first two rows were off to a clean start, falling neatly in line at the bottom of the track. The same couldn’t be said for the third row, with several cars lagging behind. Jim Hurtubise, starting immediately in front of MacDonald, saw a small gap to the outside and went for it, jumping the row ahead of him. Drivers fighting for position were now running three and four wide as they approached the first turn. The three rookies starting up front, Walt Hansgen, MacDonald, and Ronnie Duman, all moved to the bottom of the track as they’d been advised.

Sachs followed Hurtubise to the outside, moving in front of Johnny Rutherford. Which was fine with Rutherford, making his second 500 start. The night before he had decided to try to follow Sachs during the early laps of the race. The two carried their momentum well into the first turn, surging past the rookies in the process.

Clinging to the inside of the track was Bobby Unser. Of the front-engine cars, only Jones had been faster than Unser’s four-wheel-drive Novi, but because Unser had qualified on the second weekend, he started back in twenty-second. As the field began to bunch up in the first turn, Unser dropped the Novi low, lower than anyone else on the track, until all four wheels were below the white safety line.

Right where he wanted to be. He knew a repeat of his second-lap crash the year before could permanently damage his reputation at the Speedway.

“Don’t have a wreck,” he kept telling himself. “I can beat these guys. Just gotta wait. Be cautious. Don’t have a wreck.”

Clark wasn’t waiting for anything, taking full advantage of the open track, chopping nearly ten seconds from the first-lap record. Both Bobby Marshman and Rodger Ward passed Jones on the back straightaway, and by the second lap Dan Gurney was past Jones and Foyt. The rear-engine Fords were in the first four positions and already pulling away.

Another Ford was on the move, MacDonald repassing Sachs and Rutherford low on the track between the first and second turns as they started lap 2.

“Whoa,” Rutherford thought. “He’s either gonna win this thing or crash.”

Whether it was the slow start that bunched the cars in front of him, a Thompson handling better than expected on a full load of gasoline, or just the surge of adrenaline the green flag creates, MacDonald was flying. He passed three more cars before the fourth turn to move into tenth place. The pace was frantic, Clark setting another record as he completed the second lap, the leaders beginning to spread out.

As Clark approached the first turn, MacDonald exited the fourth and was closing fast on Hansgen, who in turn was closing fast on Hurtubise. The daring move to the outside by Hurtubise at the start allowed him to leapfrog seven spots, but now the two rookies in rear-engine machines were rapidly gaining on him.

MacDonald moved first, edging his car to the left to pass Hansgen. A split-second later Hansgen made the same move on Hurtubise, forcing MacDonald to veer left again.

And then MacDonald lost control of the red Thompson.

Dick Hensley, a fireman stationed along the track’s outside wall, was watching the approaching cars coming out of turn 4.

“MacDonald came through the fourth turn with two other cars,” Hensley said. “As he came off number four, he cut to pass. Then the front end of his car lifted at least one to one-and-a-half feet off the ground. It looked as if the wind just hit him.”

In an instant MacDonald’s car turned a full 180 degrees and was sliding backward and broadside toward the inside wall. He had the front wheels turned in full opposite lock and the brakes jammed in a desperate attempt to slow his car. At the last moment he turned and glanced at the rapidly approaching wall.

Although the rubber bladder holding the Thompson’s gasoline was on the left side of the car and the impact was on the right, the force of the collision tore the neck of the bladder from the refueling cap, shooting a stream of gasoline across the car and onto the hot exhaust pipes. The gasoline immediately ignited, engulfing the car in flames.

The inside wall at MacDonald’s point of impact slanted back toward the track, and his car ricocheted off of it, toward oncoming traffic. Close behind MacDonald when he lost control were Don Branson, Len Sutton, and Dick Rathmann. The three veterans never hesitated, staying in the natural high groove coming out of the fourth turn and running flat out as they dashed past the sliding and burning car. Sutton glanced over to see MacDonald sliding toward him—but then he was past.

They were the last of the lucky ones.

On the front stretch and closing fast was Sachs, followed at two car lengths by Rutherford and Duman, running nose to tail. Unser was another car length back.

“I was just settling in behind Eddie to see what developed,” Rutherford said. “I saw a cloud of dust and then a flash of red, a red car. It was sideways off the track. Then it just exploded.”

Sachs was already on the brakes, bunching the four cars even closer. By now they could all see the fire on the inside of the track and a burning car sliding back across it.

Rutherford “had my brake pedal buried to the bottom, just trying to slow down and figure out how to get through that black and orange curtain—knowing there was a car sitting in there somewhere—and trying to keep from running over Eddie.”

Unser, perched high in his Novi’s cockpit, had the best view. “The whole track was blocked with fire,” he said. “I didn’t know if it was one burning car or ten. It looked like ten.”

In the instant available, all four drivers reached the same conclusion. There was no time to stop.

Rutherford could see the fluorescent red circle that Sachs had put on his helmet for his sponsor, American Red Ball movers, darting frantically from side to side, searching for a way around the burning car. At the last moment, Sachs made a move to the left.

He never had a chance. The sliding car of MacDonald slowed about a yard from the outside wall, a split second before the now nose-to-tail freight train of Sachs, Rutherford, Duman, and Unser reached the spot. Sachs turned directly into him. The relatively damage-free—and still mostly gasoline-filled—left side of MacDonald’s car was exposed to the flat-out Sachs. The collision punctured the Thompson’s gas bladder and a small front auxiliary fuel tank on Sachs’s car, one of eight tanks in the Shrike, touching off a second explosion with flames even greater than the first.

Sachs hit MacDonald with such force that it lifted the rear of the Shrike off the ground. Rutherford jerked his steering wheel to the right in a desperate attempt to avoid Sachs and reach the narrow gap between MacDonald and the wall. But he caught the right-rear tire of Sachs’s car, forcing Rutherford under the rear wheels before launching up and over MacDonald’s sideways racer.

The heat from the gasoline-fed fire was intense. To Rutherford, it felt as if “someone jerked open the door on a blast furnace.” At first he thought it was raining, before realizing the drops were actually gasoline, some of it on fire. Then he burst free of the conflagration, his car on fire but still moving.

Duman wasn’t as lucky. He swung to the left and for a moment thought he might clear the blazing cars. But only for a moment. Unser’s 2300-pound Novi, easily the heaviest car in the race, drilled him from behind, shoving Duman squarely into the cars of Sachs and MacDonald.

Unser’s head was down and his right foot was buried on the floor. He had known immediately there was no stopping the mammoth Novi.

“I lowered my head and stood on the gas harder because the one thing I knew was that I didn’t want to stop in the fire,” Unser said. “I’d rather come out of the fire trailing wreckage or with my race car all torn apart—anything—but I did not want to catch on fire. I put the pedal to the metal, closed my eyes, and hoped I’d come out.”

Unser slammed into the rear of Duman’s car, pushing it into the pyre, then just as quickly through the flames. Emerging from the dense smoke, Duman bounced off the inside wall, clipped the rear of Unser’s passing car, and then slammed back tight against the wall, his car rolling backward toward the pit entrance.

A huge tree dominated the inside of the track where MacDonald first hit the wall, and the USAC observer stationed there was on his track phone screaming, “Yellow, yellow, yellow.”

Only a few seconds had passed since MacDonald first lost control.

As Duman rolled to a stop, his relief at being free of the blaze lasted only until he realized his car was on fire. Unlike the gasoline-powered Fords of MacDonald and Sachs that caused the flames and smoke, his car was running on a methanol blend, like all the other Offys. As a result, the flames were virtually invisible. As the first fire crews raced to the scene they went right past his roadster, drawn to the flames of the other two cars.

Dazed, Duman felt the heat through his uniform and grappled with his seatbelt, desperate to get out of the car. Finally he was free, but the heat was intensifying. He made a frantic wave for help, then dove over the track’s short inside wall and began rolling on the grass, trying to put out his burning uniform. He stumbled back to his feet, ripped his goggles off, and took several steps before a Safety Patrol member realized what was happening and tackled him. Another member of the Safety Patrol ran up with an extinguisher and emptied it on Duman, then dragged him away from the car, now fully engulfed.

At first Unser thought his Novi was still drivable as he burst through the flames. He didn’t see, but felt, Duman’s car clip him as he went past. The contact damaged his left-rear suspension and sent the Novi on a hard right turn, headed back toward Rutherford.

Small pools of gasoline were burning all over Rutherford’s car. Even the rug in the cockpit, designed to soak up oil during the race, was on fire. There was a six-foot tire-tread mark on the nose of Rutherford’s car where he went under the left rear of Sachs.

The impacts slowed his car so much that it was starting to buck, so Rutherford looked down to shift the transmission back into low gear. He was desperate to pick up speed in order to clear the accident and blow the flames out.

Before he could, however, he heard the screaming Novi engine as Unser hit the left rear of his car. Again he was airborne, riding up and over the nose of Unser’s car and back into the outside wall. But somehow Rutherford was able to keep it going, finally downshifting and pulling away.

By now Unser could see he was trailing wreckage and his race car was all torn up, missing one wheel and without steering or brakes. The car brushed against the outside wall and slowly rolled to a stop across from the entrance to pit road. Unser climbed out of the car and stood on the wall for a moment, surveying the destruction behind him. Then he walked across the track toward the pits. The back of his neck burned, but otherwise he was unhurt.

Safety crews and firemen were on the move even before the race cars stopped spinning, darting through the smoke and flames. The first responders were dressed in short-sleeved, button-down dress shirts and armed with CO2 extinguisher bottles. Despite the intense heat from the gasoline-fed fire, they got as close to the cars as possible, quickly emptying their extinguishers with no apparent impact. They were forced to retreat and stand by helplessly as others called in requests for additional support.

“We couldn’t get to them because of all the fire,” said John Williams, who drove one of the first trucks on the scene. “It was a sickening feeling, pouring all that stuff on the cars and watching it doing nothing.”

Judy Thompson had Sherry’s camera trained up the track as the field came around for the second lap. Through the lens she spotted a sliding red car and then an explosion. Sherry, sitting to her right, almost immediately tugged on her arm. “Judy, where’s Dave? Where’s Dave?” she asked, growing more frantic. “Where’s Dave?”

Thompson kept her eye glued to the camera. “I don’t know,” she finally said, afraid to say anything else. She feared the worst.

Jones, running fourth, noticed the yellow light as he exited the second turn and started to slow down. Farther ahead, Clark’s arm was in the air, a signal he was slowing. Then Jones noticed the black cloud. “Shit,” he thought. “God almighty, what’s happening?

“It was shocking, unbelievable,” Jones recalled. “It looked like the whole front grandstand was on fire. I didn’t want to go around there. I didn’t want to see what was happening because I knew it must be terrible. If there had been an exit out of the track at the third turn, I would have taken it.”

Foyt, running right behind Jones when the yellow light started flashing, could see flames shooting high above the grandstands.

“It looked like an atomic bomb had been dropped.”

At the start/finish line, Vidan was scrambling to find the red flag. On the track, drivers were already taking things into their own hands. While some picked their way through the flames, many others were already bringing their cars to a stop.

It had happened twice before because of rain—but never like this.

They were stopping the Indy 500.

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