Black Noon: The Year They Stopped the Indy 500

Art Garner

Thomas Dunne Books

ONE
Indy '63
 
 
It was go time for Eddie Sachs.
For more than 400 miles he’d chased Parnelli Jones and Jimmy Clark in vain as they pulled away from him and the other thirty cars in the 1963 Indianapolis 500. He’d run as fast as he dared, clawing his way past A. J. Foyt, Rodger Ward, and Dan Gurney and into third place. Yet he was still far behind the flying duo of Jones and Clark.
Suddenly there was hope. Jones was slowing. His car was trailing a cloud of smoke, a sure sign it was leaking oil. Sachs could see the oil on the track, on the nose of his car, on his windscreen and goggles; he felt it pelting his face. He could smell it. Like sharks with blood in the water, Clark and Sachs began to close on Jones.
Arguing with officials near the start/finish line was Colin Chapman, owner of Clark’s car, and J. C. Agajanian, the owner of Jones’s car. Another official stood nearby, black flag in hand. They were the same officials who warned drivers and crews in the prerace meeting that any car leaking fluids would be black-flagged and forced off the track.
“If you don’t believe me, just try me,” chief steward Harlan Fengler had warned.
Earlier in the race he’d done just that, flagging second-place runner Jim Hurtubise off the track when his car started leaking oil. Now Chapman pointed to the side of Jones’s car and the auxiliary oil tank. There were oil streaks on the car and a visible crack in the middle of the tank.
“You know what you’ve said about oil leaking,” Chapman yelled above the passing cars. “Now what are you going to do about it?”
It made for quite a scene, the dapper Englishman with his pencil-thin mustache, white shirt, and tie, and Agajanian, a board member of the United States Auto Club (USAC), the sanctioning body of the 500, in his trademark white Stetson, cowboy boots, and Western-style jacket, both gesturing wildly.
Sachs added to the spectacle, wiping away the oil on his goggles with the sleeves of his uniform and waving so everyone could see his blackened arms as he passed the hubbub.
The officials continued to hesitate, however, and Sachs thought he knew why. While Clark was the defending Formula One World Champion, he also was a Scotsman and driving one of the new European “funny cars,” a Lotus-Ford with the engine behind the driver. No foreigner had won the 500 since 1920, and no foreigner had even led the race since then. Clark was also a rookie at Indianapolis, and no rookie had won since 1927.
Jones, a fan favorite, was driving Ol’ Calhoun, the same Offenhauser-powered front-engine roadster he’d driven the previous two years and similar to the winning car in every Indy 500 since World War II. No rear-engine car had ever won the 500. More than fifty years of tradition were at stake, and if there was anything the Speedway stood for—it was tradition. Sachs figured there was no way the officials were going to black-flag Jones and hand the victory to the foreign team.
If Sachs could somehow catch Clark and move into second place, though, those same officials might be willing to pull Jones off the track. Clark, who closed to within four seconds of Jones when the leak first became apparent, now seemed to be cruising, perhaps thinking that the oily track was too treacherous or that Jones would soon be black-flagged. Sachs was gaining on Clark. The huge crowd of more than 200,000 could see it, and they were cheering him on. The fans loved Eddie, and each lap they leaped to their feet as the yellow roadster approached, waving him forward. He could hear their roar over the roar of the engines.
It was a scene Sachs relished, and he was putting on a show, his arms flailing and sawing at the steering wheel through the turns as he moved closer and closer to Clark. His was the fastest car on the track, shooting down the straightaways and diving into the turns with the slightest of wiggles, on the edge of control. On the long straightaways he had a moment to think about his son, only a year old, his wife, and the rest of his family. He’d promised them all he would retire the day he won the 500. He’d led the race five straight years, coming oh-so-close to winning in ’61. Now it was within his grasp once more. There was no reason to settle for second; he wasn’t contending for the season-long championship. Only winning the Indy 500 mattered.
Finally he caught Clark, sliding past going into the first turn, setting his sights on Jones. Could this be his year?
Just as fast, it was over. Perhaps it was the oil on the track. Maybe it was the “marbles,” the tiny bits of rubber that wear off tires during the course of the race and collect on the outside of the track. Or maybe he was just driving too hard. Most likely it was a combination of the three. Going faster into the first turn than he had all race, Sachs found his front tires suddenly sliding toward the outside wall. Then the rear tires were sliding and he was sideways. He fought to regain control, and for a moment he did, the tires gripping the pavement, before the car shot back across the track, glancing off the inside fence and bouncing to a stop.
Sachs convinced a safety crew member to give his car a push, and he drove back on the track. Any chance of winning was gone. There was a little vibration from one of the rear tires, but with fewer than twenty laps remaining, he decided to keep going.
Turned out it was more than just a vibration. The rear suspension was damaged, and after a couple more laps the left wheel separated from the car, sending him sliding again, toward the third-turn wall. He hit hard, the tire bouncing across the track. Sachs scrambled from the car and over the outside wall, waving to the cheering crowd. Then he slumped down to await the end of the race, mentally and physically exhausted, his dream of winning the 500 gone for another year.
On the track, Clark continued to slow.
“I could see Parnelli up front and I could see that he was losing oil,” Clark said. “I really can’t say if it was all from Parnelli or not, but even on the straights at 180, I could see lines of oil. I figured if I can actually see the oil on the track, he must be losing it something shocking. I suddenly went completely sideways and I was lucky to collect it again. Then, in the next turn, I saw Sachs do the same thing, only he wasn’t so lucky. I said to myself, ‘We’ve come this far, it’s bloody silly to pile into the wall in the last twenty laps.’”
Roger McCluskey, who moved into third place replacing Sachs, refused to back off and took up the chase. He was trying to pass Jones and get back on the same lap as the race leader when he also spun and crashed. From there Jones nursed his car home to victory, Clark content with second.
As soon as Jones pulled into Victory Lane, the charges and accusations started. Shouting the loudest were Sachs and McCluskey.
“There’s no doubt that I spun in Jones’s oil,” McCluskey said. “I had to wipe my goggles every lap. He was just blowing it out. I don’t blame the mechanic. I don’t blame the owner. I blame the USAC officials. They are a very inefficient bunch. I’m very bitter. They’re not supposed to show partiality and they just don’t do a good job of it.”
After the race, Sachs retrieved his wayward tire and began rolling it back toward the pits, nearly a mile away.
It was the kind of move that endeared Eddie Sachs to the fans, and they responded with more cheers. Known as “the Clown Prince of Racing,” he loved playing to the crowd, often drawing the ire of other drivers who felt he was showboating. With his face oil-streaked and his uniform blackened with grime, Sachs rolled the tire around the track and back through the pits, waving to the delighted fans every step of the way, declining several ride offers from safety vehicles.
Sachs’s mood changed when he reached his garage and reporters began to arrive, knowing he’d have something quotable to say. He didn’t disappoint.
“It’s the first time in Speedway history that the 500-mile race has a winner that does not deserve it,” he charged. “If it had been a fair race, a rookie, Jimmy Clark, would have won it.”
Sachs pointed his finger at Agajanian, saying he received special treatment as a USAC board member. “I don’t blame Parnelli, because he deserves the win. But I do blame the car owner. He’s a poor sport. They black-flagged Hurtubise for the same thing. Those officials shouldn’t use politics. Everyone should be treated alike.”
Jones didn’t deny losing oil, but he pointed out that when the oil level fell below the crack, the leak stopped.
“I did put a little oil on the track,” he admitted. “However, most of the oil did not go on to the track. It went on my exhaust, and that’s what caused the puff of smoke. There were several other cars out there throwing a lot of oil. I don’t believe my car laid any more oil out on the track than anyone else. There was over a half tank of oil left in my car after the race.”
Clark was diplomatic, posing for a congratulatory photo with Jones, saying the winner “did a damn fine job.” When he was asked why he lost, however, the frustration showed through.
“Given an equal chance and a break or two,” he said with a shrug, “we should have lapped Parnelli.”
*   *   *
More than 2,000 miles away, in the Los Angeles suburb of El Monte, Dave MacDonald turned off the radio after listening to the 500. It was time to barbecue. For many in America, Memorial Day meant three things: remembering those who sacrificed for their country, listening to the Indy 500 on the radio, and barbecuing.
He’d been pulling for Gurney, who was his occasional teammate driving Cobra Fords for Carroll Shelby, but was also happy with Jones’s victory. Like MacDonald and Gurney, Jones was from Southern California, although MacDonald didn’t know him well. Jones had spent his early racing days running jalopies on local dirt ovals, before moving on to midget and sprint cars on the national scene, and finally to the “champ cars” raced at Indianapolis. MacDonald started on local drag strips, before trying his hand at road racing, where he was beginning to make his mark nationally as one of the lead Cobra drivers.
He’d been on a hot streak since joining the team at the start of the year, scoring the very first Cobra victory. He’d raced at Daytona and Sebring for Shelby and won eight of his first twelve races. It was all a blur for MacDonald. At Daytona, Gurney held MacDonald’s pit signboard. At Sebring, he shared a car with legendary stock car driver Fireball Roberts.
The hectic schedule also meant MacDonald was spending more and more time away from home, so he was enjoying his Memorial Day with the family. Racing had always been a family affair—loading up the station wagon on Friday night and heading to a local track. Not anymore. He was hitting the big time.
They lived in a small house his parents added to the family property a few years earlier. MacDonald’s six-year-old son, Richie, was racing up and down the driveway in a miniature replica of his old Corvette race car. Four-year-old Vicki was splashing in the small kiddie pool under the watchful eyes of his wife, Sherry. His mom and dad were there, and so was his younger brother, Doug, who dreamed of following in Dave’s footsteps.
MacDonald was still a long ways from his dream of racing at Indianapolis, however. He was just back from Florida, where he’d raced the week before in front of about 10,000 people on a racetrack marked by orange traffic cones and hay bales, laid out on an abandoned Pensacola naval airfield. In a race of Corvettes, Ferraris, and Cobras, he’d been the first car to drop out, forced to watch Roger Penske lap the field on his way to victory. While Jones picked up nearly $150,000 for his Indianapolis victory, only the winner earned money in Pensacola; Penske pocketed $1,000 for his efforts.
Already a fan favorite in Southern California, MacDonald was building a legion of followers wherever he went. His aggressive driving style, the rear wheels hanging out and sliding through the corners, brought the fans to their feet wherever he raced. The professionals called it “oversteer,” and MacDonald was earning a reputation as “the Master of Oversteer.”
Others simply called him “the Natural.”
Shelby, a former race champion and not easy to impress, said MacDonald had “more talent—as far as sheer speed is concerned—in a young driver than I ever hired. You can tell by looking at a race driver whether they have it or don’t. He has the ability to go fast.”
Back in Los Angeles, MacDonald listened with interest as the rear-engine Lotus-Fords of Clark and Gurney nearly surprised everyone by winning the 500. A rear-engine car owned by Mickey Thompson, another drag racer who until recently lived only a few miles away from the MacDonald home, also did well, finishing ninth.
MacDonald wondered if he would ever get his shot at Indianapolis. It was the dream of nearly every racer, and he was no different. There was a revolution happening at the Speedway, and he wanted to be part of it. New drivers and new cars were making their mark. He knew the Ford people were happy with his efforts in the Cobras, and with the company now starting to race at Indianapolis, maybe—just maybe—he might have a chance at the Speedway in a couple of years.
*   *   *
The charges and tension at the finish of the Indianapolis 500 carried over to the next day’s luncheon honoring lap leaders. Sachs sat in the back of the room, cracking jokes and heckling Jones. Most of the older drivers had long since learned not to pay attention to the sometimes bombastic Sachs, but Jones was having a hard time ignoring him. So when Sachs approached him in the hotel bar afterward to offer his congratulations, the race winner wasn’t interested.
Jones said he didn’t like the things Sachs was telling reporters, especially that his team didn’t deserve to win. Jones sarcastically asked Sachs how he knew it was Jones’s oil he’d spun in, since he’d been so far behind the leader.
Then things got ugly.
Sachs called Jones a liar; he’d been right behind him. Jones returned the favor, adding, “Call me a liar again and I’ll bust you right in the mouth.”
“You’re a liar,” Sachs said. “Go ahead and try.”
It was a one-punch fight, Jones knocking Sachs down and the two wrestling briefly before being separated.
Clark, standing nearby and amused by the happenings, was asked if he wanted a piece of the action. “Oh, no,” he said, throwing up his hands in mock surrender, “I’m not a fighter.”
With the media getting wind of the fisticuffs, Sachs’s wife, Nance, worked fast, taking some of her mascara to blacken his eye for photos. Then she put a miniature black flag in his mouth, telling reporters, “His mouth has been black-flagged.”
Both Sachs and McCluskey boycotted the victory banquet that night. Noting Sachs’s absence, Ward couldn’t help taking his own jab. “I see Eddie’s not here tonight. I guess he’s home taking boxing lessons.”
*   *   *
Despite the controversial finish, officials were breathing a sigh of relief after the race. For the fifth straight year the race was run without a fatality. It was the longest stretch of time in Speedway history without a death in the race, and officials were hoping the drumbeat of some politicians and members of the media against auto racing was beginning to lessen. They even let Sachs off with a slap on the wrist for his criticism of officials, as he received only a $1,000 fine and one year’s probation.
Not as easy to handle was the revolution taking place at the Speedway, featuring new cars, new engines, new tires, and new drivers. Some were trying to fight the changes and calling on USAC and Speedway officials to join the battle. They wanted the rear-engine cars banned. They were afraid of what the big manufacturers and sponsors would do to the sport. They didn’t like foreign cars and drivers coming in to take their money.
In the end the officials decided to do what they normally did—nothing. They decided to let the revolution take its course.
Besides, it was good business. Ticket sales for the 1964 race were already setting a record pace.
 
 
Copyright © 2014 by Art Garner