Legends: Bob Sweikert

Browse pages
Current page

1

Current page

2

Current page

3

Current page

4

Current page

5

Current page

6

Current page

7

Current page

8

Current page

9

Current page

10

Current page

11

Current page

12

Current page

13

Current page

14

Current page

15

Current page

16

Current page

17

Current page

18

Current page

19

Current page

20

Current page

21

Current page

22

Current page

23

Current page

24

Current page

25

Current page

26

Current page

27

Current page

28

Current page

29

Current page

30

Current page

31

Current page

32

Current page

33

Current page

34

Current page

35

Current page

36

Current page

37

Current page

38

Current page

39

Current page

40

Current page

41

Current page

42

Current page

43

Current page

44

Current page

45

Current page

46

Current page

47

Current page

48

Current page

49

Current page

50

Current page

51

Current page

52

Current page

53

Current page

54

Current page

55

Current page

56

Current page

57

Current page

58

Current page

59

Current page

60

Current page

61

Current page

62

Current page

63

Current page

64

Current page

65

Current page

66

Current page

67

Current page

68

Current page

69

Current page

70

Current page

71

Current page

72

Current page

73

Current page

74

Current page

75

Current page

76

Current page

77

Current page

78

Current page

79

Current page

80

Current page

81

Current page

82

Current page

83

Current page

84

Current page

85

Current page

86

Current page

87

Current page

88

Current page

89

Current page

90

Current page

91

Current page

92

Current page

93

Current page

94

Current page

95

Current page

96

Current page

97

Current page

98

Current page

99

Current page

100

Current page

101

Current page

102

Current page

103

Current page

104

Current page

105

Current page

106

Current page

107

Current page

108

Current page

109

Current page

110

Current page

111

Current page

112

Current page

113

Current page

114

Current page

115

Current page

116

Current page

117

Current page

118

Current page

119

Current page

120

Current page

121

Current page

122

Current page

123

Current page

124

Current page

125

Current page

126

Current page

127

Current page

128

Current page

129

Current page

130

Current page

131

Current page

132

Current page

133

Current page

134

Current page

135

Current page

136

Current page

137

Current page

138

Current page

139

Current page

140

Current page

141

Current page

142

Current page

143

Current page

144

Current page

145

Current page

146

Current page

147

Current page

148

Current page

149

Current page

150

Current page

151

Current page

152

Current page

153

Current page

154

Current page

155

Current page

156

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.

Related articles

Related products