Indycars haven’t run on Daytona’s fearsome banking since their sole ill-fated race there in 1959
Indycars at Daytona. That suggestion today would bring a volley of laughter from drivers, mechanics, owners and race officials. The speeds would easily top 250mph and it would be borderline insanity running wheel to wheel for two-and-a-half miles on the 31-degree banking.
But, back in 1959, safety seldom entered the thought process because there was so little of it.
A professional race driver in the United States Auto Club was long on bravado and short on life expectancy. Danger was simply part of the job description. So when Bill France opened his answer to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway down in Florida, it only seemed natural that the Boys of Indy would be part of the show.
“We’d run at Monza for two years and it was much faster than we’d ever run before, so Daytona didn’t bother me,” recalls Jim Rathmann, who captured the 1958 triple-header in Italy at the astounding average speed of 166mph. “There was nothing like Daytona in this country, but it was just another race track to a lot of us.”
Now 80, Rathmann is one of only three drivers still alive from the original 20-man line-up at Daytona on April 4, 1959. And while his memories are good ones, the Daytona experiment was short and savage for Indycars. Marshall Teague and George Amick lost their lives and Indycars never came back.
“I always liked the high banks of Salem and Winchester in a sprint car; heck, that’s where [George] Bignotti saw me win an IMCA race and hired me to drive for him,” says A J Foyt, who finished eighth in his Dean Van Lines Special at Daytona. “But Daytona was scary. It was like sitting on the wing of an airplane.”
Bob Christie, who wound up third in the Federal Engineering Special, enjoyed the experience but admitted the speeds were ridiculous for a roadster with eight-inch-wide tyres. “You really didn’t drive it,” says the 84-year-old. “You just aimed at it.”
To illustrate the leap of faith (and speed) facing the drivers, Dick Rathmann captured pole position for the 1958 Indianapolis 500 at 145.974mph and Jimmy Bryan pulled into victory lane after averaging 133mph. During the initial Indycar test session at Daytona in February ’59, speeds rocketed past 170mph and the track claimed its first victim.
Teague, a two-time stock car champion with no previous Indycar experience, had practised at over 171mph in the radical Sumar Streamliner that featured an enclosed cockpit and fenders over the wheels. The postmortem in a local paper read: “Going into a turn the car appeared to list, the nose went downhill and dug itself into the ground. The car then hurtled into the air. The cockpit tore loose from the chassis and travelled airborne for 150 feet with Teague in it. Sections of the car came off in the air and were strewn in many directions. There was no indication of mechanical failure and the general consensus was that Teague has just lost it.”
Undaunted, USAC returned two months later for what was scheduled to be a 100-mile National Championship event followed by a 100-mile Formula Libre race for sports cars, Formula 1 and Indycars. But practice gave a preview of the uncertainty awaiting the competitors and the effects of speeds no one could imagine back then.
Al Keller, Jerry Unser and Bob Veith all took wild rides and experienced what had to be the first signs of aerodynamics in an Indycar. Keller spun several times down the front straightaway after the rear end of his Central Excavating Kuzma roadster just “lifted off the ground. I had no warning and I was probably doing close to 180mph,” he told eyewitnesses.
“Jerry was in our dirt car and hit a dip in the track and hit the wall real hard,” says A J Watson of Leader Card fame. “So he was done.”
Veith wound up in hospital with a bum shoulder after crashing down the backstretch and flipping into the infield – but landing on all four wheels. A gust of wind had turned his car sideways.
Qualifying was a sight to behold as Amick threw down an incredible lap of 176.887mph and Tony Bettenhausen, who had run 177mph in the Novi in Italy the year before, had practised a tick under 180mph. Pat Flaherty, the 1956 Indy winner, found the pace hard to comprehend: “It’s hard to realise your enormous speed, and it’s exhausting.” Dick Rathmann, elder brother of Jim, who had taken Teague’s place for the Sumar team, stuck his conventional roadster in the show at 173.210mph and said: “There’s nothing I’d rather be doing than driving here.”
Despite his eye-opening speed, Amick didn’t discount the challenge ahead. “Perhaps it takes more experience to drive at Indy, but this course is tough because you don’t get a chance to relax anywhere.”
Then, in what turned out to be an eerily prophetic comment, he added: “If you lose it here, your rump is a grape.”
The 40-lap race turned out to be a preview of the 1959 and 1960 Indianapolis 500s as Jim Rathmann and Rodger Ward staged some of the closest and best racing ever seen before or since. Rathmann led the first six laps before Ward took command, only to yield back on lap 11 to the man he would beat to the chequered flag that May by 23 seconds.
“Ward and I had a helluva duel in the early part of the race before I took the lead for good,” says Rathmann, who would come back to conquer Ward at Indy in 1960. “I never got too far ahead of him but I had the best car and it was flying.”
Other than Dempsey Wilson’s spin into the infield on lap 28, the race was fast and safe as the cars took the white flag. But, as Rathmann headed for the chequer, Amick’s ghastly accident was unfolding exiting Turn 2.
“George and I had a good battle for third and we must have exchanged places every lap for almost half the race,” says Christie. “But on that last lap I said to myself, ‘George, I’m going to take you in there real hard this time.’
“But he didn’t make it. Either the wind caught him or he turned the car too sharply.”
The newspaper account said Amick’s Bowes Seal Fast Special knifed into the guardrail, shearing off both front wheels as it sailed upside down for approximately 900 feet before landing in the infield. The front end was severed from the car and the 34-year-old had no chance.
Christie took third and Amick, who had finished second in his first Indy 500 the previous May, was credited with fourth. Rathmann’s winning speed for the 100 miles was an incredible 170.261mph.
“It took just over a half hour to run 100 miles and that was pretty much unheard of,” says Rathmann, who collected $6400 for his win. “The speeds didn’t bother me, I loved fast race tracks. I liked Monza and I liked Daytona, although I think I was in the minority.”
The clean-up took forever and it was determined that the second race (a non-points affair) would be shortened from 100 to 50 miles (20 laps), as only 14 drivers lined up. Tony Bettenhausen opted not to run and turned over his Racing Associates mount to Wilson, while George Bignotti parked Foyt. The cars of Eddie Sachs and Len Sutton couldn’t be fixed from earlier problems.
Rathmann paced the first lap before Ward took the point, but his day ended in Turn 4 on lap four. “Rodger was leading and I was in third, and I saw some moisture on the track as we approached Turn 2,” says Christie. “He lost it and I thought he was going to spin down into the infield so I went high, but he was headed right for the fence and I clipped his tail. That started him spinning down the track and I zigged back and forth almost the length of the straightaway before I finally got my car straightened out. But by hitting him, I saved Ward’s life, I know I did.”
With Ward gone, Jim Rathmann managed to hold off brother Dick and Christie, but the USAC fraternity was just relieved to get out of Florida without any more fatalities.
“It was terrible,” says Foyt, who tamed deadly tracks such as Langhorne with relative ease. “We didn’t have the proper tyres and those cars weren’t built to run at a track like that with those speeds. It was like racing a roadster in the snow and you stayed puckered all day. Like I said, it scared the hell out of me.”
Even in the macho world of USAC racing circa 1959, the risks were too big. A return for the July 4 race was cancelled. “I don’t feel like there’s a car that can be built that will be safe at these speeds,” said Ward, who would win twice at Indy. “The driver only has a certain few opportunities to escape serious trouble.”
NASCAR issued a statement that said the deaths of the two drivers could not be blamed on its track. Then Nat Purcell, executive director of NASCAR, said what everyone had figured out: “The track is engineered far ahead of the automotive industry. Car designers and engineers have a lot to learn about wind resistance.”
Another NASCAR release said: “A close examination of driving and aerodynamic conditions existing between 160 and 200mph should be made before Speedway (Indy) cars are sent into competition at Daytona again.”
Of course, Indycars never returned to the beach, at least not to race on those daunting banks. Watson said Ward had already hinted he’d never be back and that seemed to be the general mindset of the bravest men of that era.
“I enjoyed running stock cars at Daytona,” says Foyt, who won NASCAR’s crown jewel in ’72. “But that was no place for an Indycar.”