In early June, between the CART race at Milwaukee and the Canadian Grand Prix, I went to Indianapolis for a few days, in pursuit of one of my little obsessions.
I’ve written before of my passion for American open-wheel racing of the 1950s: just as Jean Behra captured my imagination when I was a kid, so also did a fellow named Bob Sweikert, of whom I became truly aware when he won the Indianapolis 500 in 1955.
This was just after my ninth birthday, and a terrible time in motor racing. Alberto Ascari was killed testing a Ferrari sportscar at Monza on May 26, and four days later Bill Vukovich died at Indy. A couple of weeks away was the disaster at Le Mans, in which Pierre Levegh and nearly 100 spectators lost their lives.
In the midst of all this, I ‘adopted’ Sweikert, just as I had Behra, read anything about him I could lay my hands on. A year later, in June 1956, he was killed in a sprint car race at Salem, Indiana, and although America was, to this schoolboy, light years away, another planet, I was stunned when I heard the news.
Today, 45 years on, even in the USA, Sweikert is largely forgotten, but never by me. For years I had wanted to go to Salem, where it all ended for this childhood idol of mine, and thus, on a rainy Tuesday morning in early June, I set off down 1-65, to drive the 100 or so miles south of Indianapolis.
You think of a sprint car track, and you think of dirt, but Salem is paved, and steeply banked. It is a half-mile, situated somewhat incongruously in lush Indiana farmland, next to a golf course. It is in the middle of nowhere, the last thing you expect to see in these surroundings.
I had seen tapes of races at Salem, but still nothing prepared me for it. It was hot and humid by the time I arrived, yet the place made me shiver. I knew all about how quick it was, and I couldn’t equate those speeds with this track — it seemed so small.
Salem is similar to the tracks at Winchester, Indiana, and Dayton, Ohio. In the 1950s, when they were at their most lethal, they were referred to by the drivers as ‘the hills’ or ‘the high banlcs’, and the names have stuck. I talked to Chris Economalci about them. A doyen of racing journalists over there — an American ‘Jenks’, if you like — Chris saw these tracks in their heyday.
“All the racing was incredibly dangerous back then, but even in that context there were some drivers who would not go to the high banks, to the hills. Jimmy Bryan was a brave guy, but I remember that some fan, in my presence, said to him, ‘You don’t go to the banks, do you?’ And Bryan said, ‘Not even on weekdays.’
“One of the reasons there were so many fatal accidents was the way the cars were made. They all had solid axles, so when a car ran over another car’s wheel, instead of something breaking and the wheel coming off, it became a pole-vaulter, and it would start a series of end-over-end rolls. And there were no roll-over bars back then, of course.” Nor proper seat belts, nor flameproof overalls, nor crash helmets worth the name. If ever there was a time when a racing driver was literally absurdly at risk, it was in the sprint cars of the ’50s.
“You have to remember how different the times were,” continued Economaki. “It was only a few years after World War II, and a lot of the drivers had survived that, and figured anything afterwards was a bonus. You didn’t have seat belts in street cars, everyone smoked — the world was not the same place it is now. Racing was dangerous, sure, and nobody gave a thought to it: that was how it was. You got inured to it.
“It was tough, but the racing was phenomenal — what won races in those days was drivers, not cars. The man-machine equation was weighted heavily in favour of the driver, and to me that’s how it should be. They were fabulous days in the sprint cars.”
Now, on this torpid afternoon, I looked over this spooky little track, screwed up my eyes, and tried to picture how it must have been back then. They lent me a buggy to drive round the track, and I stopped often to take photographs. Then they took me for a ride in the pace car, a Ford Mustang, with a driver who knew what he was about. Giving it kickdown out of a turn, he would just reach 70mph before the entry to the next In July ’54, in his Offy-powered car, Sweikert lapped at 101.72mph.
At one point, we parked right at the top of the banking, and it was so steep as to make me uneasy, for I was sure the car was going to topple down. The technique used by the racers, I was told, is to use the banking, rather than the brakes, to scrub off speed.
In the mid-’50s, the kings of Salem were Pat O’Connor and Sweikert, major stars on the USAC Championship trail, yet men who continued still to run the sprints.
“If you were successful in them, like those guys,” said Economaki, “you could make good money. The drivers didn’t earn then like they do today — most of them had other jobs, too. O’Connor, for example, was a car salesman in his home town, North Vernon, just down the road from Salem. “They were good friends, those two, if ferocious competitors on the track. There was no bitter animosity between them, like you found in certain other series. They were very similar — polished, high-type, guys. Most of the guys on the circuit were not like that”
Both, ironically, were to lose their lives in accidents involving one Ed Elisian, emphatically not according to Economaki, a ‘high-type guy’.
“Know what killed Sweikert? Ed Elisian was from the same neighbourhood — northern California — and he was a crumb. A lousy guy, a bum, wrote bad cheques, didn’t pay his bills, lied and everything. He was an outcast — the other drivers couldn’t stand him.
“Sweikert had no respect for Ed Elisian, and in this race at Salem, at one point Elisian passed him, and Bob could not stand that. And he killed himself trying to go back by him. Nothing broke, and there were no dirty duels, or anything like that. It was the simple fact that he was incensed at having this peasant in front of him.”
O’Connor was killed on the first lap of the Indianapolis 500 in 1958. Elisian led into turn three, where he lost it, triggering the biggest single accident ever seen at the Speedway; O’Connor was the innocent victim. Economaki has been involved in racing for more than 60 years, as journalist and broadcaster, and over that time has seen every conceivable type of race. I told him Sweikert had been a hero of mine.
“Well,” Chris said, “he was the greatest race driver I ever saw. He had it all. A really good guy, who understood engineering, who built his own cars.
“What ieally opened my eyes to Sweikert’s greatness was Sebring in 1956. There was a guy named Jack Ensley, who was a joke as a driver, but had a D-type Jaguar, which he asked Sweikert to phare with him.
“So here are all these Ferraris and Maseratis, and all the leading roadracing drivers of the world, and the race starts — and Sweikert’s up there, passing these guys. Then he stops, and Ensley gets in — goodbye!
“When he handed back to Bob, he was 23rd or something. Sweikert gets the car back to second again, and eventually they finished third. If it hadn’t been for Ensley, that car would have won. And that was Sweikert’s first — and only— road race.”
It was at Salem, in October 1964, that Mario Andretti scored his very first U SAC win.
“I’d never experienced anything like that place before,” he said. “The word was always out that this was a real man’s track, and on and on and on. The banks.
“Take my word, a 100-lapper there was something else. I remember I was almost falling out of the seat — and I get the signal that we’re at the halfway mark!
“You sat very upright in those cars, and what really went was the neck — for the last part of the race, I could not hold my head up.
“Everyone else was the same. I remember coming up to lap Bobby Unser, and he wasn’t sort of getting out of the way, so I gave his tail a thump, and his head hits the roll-bar!
“At Salem, you felt like you were in a bowl. If you lost the car, got sideways, after 60 or 70 laps, forget it — you’d never catch it, because you just didn’t have enough strength at that point. Today, of course, they have power steering.” They do, plus wide, sticky, tyres, and roll-cages — and the race is 30, not 100, laps, so it is very different now. Today, the lap record stands at 15.18sec, a hair shy of 132mph. I don’t believe it. I have to see a race there some day.