News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Sports

June 13, 2014

Todd Golden: Indy 500 book is intriguing look into an important era

TERRE HAUTE — Doing the job I do, I get my share of books sent to me at the office. I hate to admit it, but a lot of them cross my eye for a moment, and like anyone else, if the subject matter doesn’t interest me, I don’t open it.

Recently I had one book that piqued my interest. “Black Noon: The Year They Stopped The Indy 500” written by Art Garner and published by Thomas Dunne Books. The subject matter was the 1964 Indianapolis 500. Being that it was May, the Indianapolis 500 was imminent, and that I enjoy racing history, I took a peek.

I knew what I was getting into. Any dyed-in-the-wool race fan knows that the 1964 Indianapolis 500 stands out as one of the most tragic days in Indy history.

On the second lap of the race, Dave MacDonald, an Indy rookie who was a top sports car driver, lost control of his car at the exit of fourth turn. His car slid to the inside of the track and side-swiped an inside retaining wall. Gasoline from one of MacDonald’s tanks sprayed on to his exhaust, ignited, and set ablaze his flammable magnesium chassis. MacDonald was trapped inside the horrific blaze.

The wall MacDonald hit angled back to the track and his out-of-control car, fully engulfed, was sent back into the racing groove of the still-packed field at the start of the front straightaway.

Several cars — including those driven by future Indy 500 winners Bobby Unser and Johnny Rutherford — were collected, but Eddie Sachs got the worst of it. Sachs struck MacDonald’s car head-on at the outside wall and Sachs’ car burst into flames.

Chaos ensued. The entire fourth turn and the north end of the straightaway was immersed in black gasoline smoke as emergency crews frantically rushed to a disaster of barely imaginable proportion. Fire burned on the track itself from the gasoline and alcohol fuel that trailed the stricken vehicles. A flaming tire breached the Turn 4 catch fence in front of a packed grandstand, but fortunately, struck no one.

Seven cars were involved, and for the first time in Indianapolis 500 history, the race was red-flagged.

Never before and not since has Indy ever had such a visceral image of the danger that lurks in the shadows of the 500. And sadly for both Sachs and MacDonald, they paid the ultimate price.

Sachs — one of the most popular drivers of the day — died instantly from the impact of the accident. MacDonald, horribly burned, had vital signs for nearly two hours after the wreck, but died at Methodist Hospital due to lung damage suffered from breathing in the flames.

The accident is chronicled in great detail in Garner’s book, but the horror aspects of the Sachs-MacDonald wreck are not what make the book an intriguing read.

The 1964 Indianapolis 500 was a turning point. It represents a sea change in nearly every aspect of motorsports and is a cornerstone moment in the development of modern racing. Garner does a great job capturing the forces that shaped it.

The 1964 500 had a wonderful variety of vehicles, drivers and technology, none of which had ever really been together before in one place before, and after the innovative 1960s ended, would not be again in such a free-form manner. In these days of spec racing and specialized racers, it’s an era that’s hard to imagine if, like me, you’ve lived after it.

There’s a fascinating Youtube video that shows the parade lap of the 1964 500 and it’s a crazy-quilt of two eras mashing together into one. There were front-engine roadsters, living on borrowed time, as the rear-engine cars, first entered by European Formula One teams, began to overtake them technologically. A.J. Foyt would win in one of those roadsters, the last front-engine car to prevail in the 500.

There were oddities like MacDonald’s car — nicknamed the “Super Skate” — which looked more like a LeMans sports car than an Indy car. A car with a driver riding in a side-pod attempted to qualify.

Novis and the long-dominant Offenhauser engines shared track space with modern Ford V-8s. Four-wheel drive was used on Bobby Unser’s Novi. Three different brands of tires were represented.

The drivers were equally diverse and Garner did a wonderful job capturing the culture clash. At what other point in history would you have personalities as disparate as legendary F1 empersario Colin Chapman and STP and racing promoter par excellence Andy Granatelli butting heads?

Sachs — the self-styled Clown Prince Of Racing — was a post-war era racing lifer. Drivers like Foyt and Parnelli Jones (himself burned in a pit fire in the race) bubbled up from American dirt ovals. Jim Clark and Jack Brabham were, or would become, F1 champions.

The 1964 500 also represented the worst of racing at the time — the constant specter of death, the willingness to design cars to go fast regardless of the human cost, and the blasé attitude towards basic track safety design we take for granted today.

MacDonald’s car was designed for 12-inch tires, but raced on USAC-mandated 15-inch tires, making the handling of the car extremely difficult. But no consideration was given to pulling it out of the race.

While Garner dispels the long-held belief that MacDonald’s car had a 90-gallon gas tank, at least one car in the field actually did. The use of gasoline, while inherently dangerous, was used for better mileage and no thought was given to the obvious hazard. Garner mentions a now-chilling ad in one of the Indianapolis newspapers on race day which said, “Eddie Sachs Starts Today’s Indianapolis 500 Completely Surrounded By Marathon Gasoline.”

(Contrary to widely-held opinion, gasoline was not banned by USAC after 1964, but was legislated to the point where it wasn’t competitive to use.)

Fuel cells were in their infancy, and in MacDonald’s case, were placed beside the driver, attached to the wall of the chassis by little more than a hook. Such a thing would be unthinkable today.

The fourth turn inside retaining wall that MacDonald struck and sent him out-of-control and into harm’s way was poorly designed … though no one would have thought of it that way at the time. Swede Savage hit the same wall in 1973 and also vaulted back on to the track. Savage’s death, the last in the 500 itself, hastened its removal by the 1974 500.

Garner attempts to find reasons for the accident. There were myriad factors, but in reality, it was an accident of its time. An accident that led to changing times for auto racing.

Garner’s book captures that time in an engrossing manner. Black Noon is worth a read and is available in local bookstores.

Todd Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 231-4272 or todd.golden@tribstar.com. Follow Golden on Twitter @TribStarTodd.

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