Worlds apart

Fifty years ago the Race of Two Worlds was billed as a contest between the leading F1 and Indy stars of the day around Monza’s fierce banking.
In truth the event was a one-man race
By Robin Miller

It was a novel, if not naïve, concept: bringing 10 of the best and bravest Indycar drivers from America to Italy to compete against an equal number of Formula 1’s finest in a 500-mile race at Monza. But it sounded better than it played out because Stirling Moss and his Maserati were no match for those rugged roadsters from the United States Auto Club.

Fifty years ago this month, Jim Rathmann made quick work of the F1 contingent and his American counterparts in the second and final 500 Miglia di Monza. That 39-degree banking in the turns combined with the bumpy 2.6-mile track and ridiculous speeds played right into the strength of Rathmann and his roadster, built and prepared by A J  Watson.

“It was the fastest, toughest track we’d ever seen but a lot of us were young and dumb and broke so, you know, it was just another race track to me,” says Rathmann, now 79 and the oldest living Indy 500 winner. “A sprinter at Salem or Winchester scared the hell out of me but I really didn’t mind Monza.”

As evidenced by his domination of the event. Instead of one, long enduro, there were a trio of 63-lap heats and the future Indy winner (1960) swept all three – leading 179 of 189 laps driving his Zink Leader Card Special.

Rathmann averaged a remarkable 166.72mph, which was more than 30mph faster than Jimmy Bryan’s average in his Indy win that May.

“It was a lot of fun, for us anyway, because those F1 guys really didn’t have a chance,” recalls Watson, the master mechanic whose roadsters ruled Indy in the late 1950s through the mid-1960s. “Their cars just weren’t very good. Not for that place.”

The F1 line-up, which sported biggies such as Juan Manuel Fangio, Phil Hill, Mike Hawthorn and Moss, mustered some hope in qualifying after Luigi Musso captured the pole position at 174.653mph in his Ferrari (by contrast, Rathmann earned the Indianapolis pole at 145.974mph a few weeks before).

Fangio, in the Dean Van Lines roadster driven at Indy by a kid named A J Foyt, wound up third quickest at 171.400mph. But his next closest ally was Moss, who started 11th in his specially-built V8 Maserati after turning 164.385mph.

Musso gave the Italians something to shout about by trading the lead with Eddie Sachs early on. Starting seventh, Rathmann had been fooled when the flag dropped.

“I thought it was some national flag and they were waving it to celebrate the race and by the time I figured out everybody was racing, I was half a lap behind and that Musso was long gone,” says Rathmann with a chuckle. “But then I caught his ass and tucked him away.”

Even though he drove away to a comfortable win over Bryan and Bob Veith, Rathmann was quick to credit Musso, who had finished sixth, three laps behind after giving way to Hawthorn on lap 27. “He was that guy who stood up in his seat occasionally and didn’t at first wear a seat belt. I knew he was brave but he had to be crazy because that track was so rocky and bumpy. It was banging the hell out of me, I know that.”

The track also took a toll on Rathmann’s car during that first heat. “There was fuel running everywhere because the tank was cracked so we got some burlap and bound it around to save the tank,” says Watson. “It was bumpier than a son-of-a-bitch and we had to put 2x4s under the frame where the axle hit to keep it from bottoming out.”

Nineteen cars had started that initial heat (Fangio never made a lap after two cracked pistons were discovered on race morning) but only 14 were still standing when Rathmann brought the field to the green for heat number two. He led all 63 laps, as Veith, Bryan, Troy Ruttman and Moss comprised the top five.

“I was just on the gas, stroking around out there,” says Rathmann. “I didn’t change the car any from the first race because, when you drove for Watson, you took what he gave you.”

Moss managed to hold off Foyt (who had taken over Maurice Trintignant’s Sclavi & Amos Special) and only got lapped once in his inferior equipment. “We all heard that Moss had a lot of talent and he showed it,” says Rathmann.

When it was time for the third heat, only a dozen cars answered the bell and it was strictly a two-car battle as Rathmann lost the top spot to Bryan on lap 18, only to snatch it back and lead the rest of the way over the 1957 Monza victor.

“I only drove for Watson once and obviously it was a great experience because we never lost,” says Rathmann. “I have a lot of great memories from Monza, the people were very friendly and took care of us. And that was my biggest win until a couple years later at Indy.”

For Watson, it was the beginning of a great partnership: “I was working for John Zink at the time and he didn’t want to take his car to Monza but Bob Wilke did so he borrowed me and my car. After that, Zink called and wanted me to move to Tulsa. I didn’t want to so I called Wilke and he said he had $50,000 and wanted to go racing. That’s all I needed to hear.”

Watson went on to win Indy twice with Rodger Ward, sandwiched around Rathmann’s win in the great battle with Ward in 1960. And Monza went back to F1 cars – although the banked circuit’s days were numbered. In 1961, just three years after the second and final Race of Two Worlds, F1 took its final bow on that terrifyingly fast and bumpy banking.