One of Indycar racing’s great drivers from the 1950s and early ’60s passed away last week. Jim Rathmann won the 1960 Indianapolis 500 after a fierce, race-long duel with Rodger Ward and finished second in the great race three times in 1952, ‘57 and ‘59.
Rathmann’s brother Dick also raced at Indy, and Jim won international acclaim in 1958 with victory in the ‘Race of Two Worlds’ at Monza, beating Indy rival Jimmy Bryan and a 4.1-litre V12 F1 Ferrari driven by Luigi Musso/Phil Hill/Mike Hawthorn.
The Race of Two Worlds was run in 1957-58 over 500 miles on the high-banked 2.64-mile Monza oval. The race was supposed to be a showdown between the top USAC and Formula 1 drivers and cars, but none of the F1 drivers or teams were interested in taking up the challenge of racing the more powerful Indycars of those times on an unfamiliar oval that was both bumpy and notoriously dangerous.
The only European contenders in the first race were a pair of Ecurie Ecosse Jaguar D-types, fresh from a 1-2 finish at Le Mans. Without any serious post-Le Mans maintenance the Jags ran without trouble but were no match for the Indycars. The bumpy oval was hard on equipment and most of the Indycars dropped out with chassis or suspension failures, while the Ecurie Ecosse cars ran all the way to finish fourth and fifth. The race, run in three 64-lap heats, was won by Jimmy Bryan who went on to claim the following year’s Indy 500.
The second running of the Race of Two Worlds attracted a couple of factory Ferraris, one a 1951 F1 car with a big V12 stuffed into it, the other a current F1 car with a 3-litre V6 engine. There was also the ‘Tec-Mech’ Maserati, a 250F with a 4.2-litre V8 sports car engine driven by Stirling Moss.
But even those monsters were no match for the Indycars and Rathmann proved untouchable in winning all three heats and averaging a staggering 166.722mph. But the rough, high-banked corners again tore apart most of the field. Moss ran well in the Maserati but crashed heavily in the third heat after his steering failed. Musso tried bravely to chase Rathmann but the beast of a Ferrari wore him out and he had to hand over to Hawthorn who proceeded at a more sedate pace.
So Rathmann won comfortably with Bryan second and the Musso Ferrari eventually salvaging third place. Rathmann said he wasn’t bothered by the daunting track: “It’s fine so long as you don’t look at the trees.”
Prior to his Monza win Rathmann had finished second to Bryan in the 1957 USAC championship. He was also second at Indianapolis that year behind Sam Hanks in George Salih’s lowline ‘laydown’ roadster and was runner-up to Bill Vukovich in 1954 and Troy Ruttman in ‘52.
Rathmann’s big day finally came in 1960 when he won a tremendous race-long duel with Ward. The pair traded the lead 14 times during the race, with Rathmann leading 100 of the 200 laps and eventually winning easily after Ward was forced to back off in the closing stages when his right front tyre showed signs of coming apart.
Rathmann continued to race Indycars until 1963 before announcing his retirement in May ’64. He went on to run a thriving Cadillac and Chevrolet dealership in Melbourne, Florida not far from Daytona Beach, and also built his own successful go-karts called Rathmann Xterminators. A quiet, unpretentious man, Rathmann was a renowned practical joker. Motor Sport sends its condolences to his wife Kay and family of four sons, five grandchildren and one great-grandchild.