LONDON: The Racing Journal
VALLEY STREAM, N.Y. — Jim Rathmann, who passed away at age 83 last week, left behind a great legacy, even though he won just seven Indy car races. He was arguably one of the best drivers of the roadster era.
From California, he was quickly taken by the flood of races run when WWII ended. There were roadster and midget races all over the west coast, plenty of chances for a young driver to learn.
He desired to race for more money and wanted to join AAA. They had an age requirement of 21 so twenty year old Royal Richard Rathmann switched ID’s with older brother James. The switch stuck, complicated when the elder Rathmann decided to take up racing, too.
In 1949, he and another youngster Troy Ruttman, who was a good friend managed to make the Indianapolis 500. Troy was just 19. He hung on to finish a distant 11th. He made the 1950 race. He was 24th out of 25 cars running when it rained at the 345-mile mark. Brother Dick made the race in the famed “Pots and Pans Special,” an effort by A.J. Watson who sold shares and “borrowed” parts. Dick was a big surprise, zipping through the field when the crankshaft broke.
Dick decided to switch to stock cars, was quite successful in NASCAR, ranking fourth in points in 1954. Jim sat out 1951 with no ride. His Indy start wasn’t encouraging.
Thinks picked up in 1952. Getting a good ride with the Granatelli Brothers, Jim finished second to his young friend Ruttman. They were just 45 years old between them, the youngest top two in Indy history.
For 1953, Jim drove Ernie Ruiz’s Travelon Trailer car to seventh. That was the year the heat was severe and he needed relief.
1954 was another year for relief drivers. Jim was replaced by Pat Flaherty who managed to knock leader Jimmy Daywalt out of the race. Jim jumped into a team car. With ten laps to go, the crank broke, locking the rear wheels. It is said Jim skidded a third of a mile but didn’t hit a thing.
For 1955, Frank Kurtis had built two special “Stremliners.” Jim was assigned to Sandy Belond’s sleek car. It was sleek all right, but slow. Jim spent the race staying out of the way and was a dismal 13th, nine laps off the lead.
Rathmann needed a change and he got it in 1956. His ride was a scary one. It was the Hopkins roadster that Bill Vukovich had died in the year before. Brother Dick returned to the Brickyard as his teammate. The Hopkins dirt car was too slow. He picked up a ride in Lee Elkins’ car and finished fifth. His best finish, despite crashing after the checker. Jim qualified in the middle of the front row and took the lead at the start. The engine blew late in the race.
Staying with Hopkins, a new era started with lay-down roadsters. Rathmann had trouble making the 1957 race and wound up in the last row. He turned out to be a crowd pleaser, becoming the first to lead the race from that spot. He was outrun by Sam Hanks, whose blistering pace knocked five miles per hour off the old record, despite smaller engines used that year.
Rathmann never sought the Indy Car championship, as he forsook the dirt tracks, but in 1957 after winning the point rich Milwaukee 250, Jim was close to Jimmy Bryan. Rathmann did start some dirt races. He was reprimanded by USAC for blocking Bryan who was lapping him. He settled for No. 2 for 1958.
Back with the same laydown, Jim watched brother Dick win the pole but over-eager Ed Elisian knocked him into the third turn wall on the first lap. The ensuing crash killed Pat O’Connor. Jim got through the melee and raced with the leaders, but spun into the pits and lost a lot of time. He finished fifth.
For the second year, the Indy brigade went to Monza, Italy. Hopkins decided not to go. Rathmann loved high-speed racing. He got together with owner John Zink and drove the car Elisian ran at Indy. Expenses were underwritten by longtime midget owner Bob Wilke, whose Leader Card company was painted on the hood.
Rathmann won all three legs of the Monza race, but may have created a Frankenstein. Wilke was so thrilled to be a part of the winning effort, he started his own team for 1959, hiring A.J. Watson away from Zink and putting Rodger Ward in the cockpit. Jim and Rodger were good friends, but Rodger would be a thorn to him.
The 1959 season opened at the brand new Daytona Int’l Speedway, near Rathmann’s home of Melbourne, Fla. Many thought the track was too fast for the lightweight Indy cars. Marshall Teague died in a crash during practice. The race was run in two segments. Jim, handily won both and the 176 mph speeds didn’t bother him a bit.
George Amick, trying to catch Rathmann, got airborne and crashed on the last lap. He didn’t survive and Indy cars haven’t been back to Daytona.
Watson was now free to build cars for others and Hopkins ordered a new steed for Jim to drive at Indianapolis. He started in the front row, with Ward in the new Leader Card roadster right behind him. Ward won by a third lap.
A disgusted Rathmann was second for the third time. Only Harry Hartz had run second three times and never won.
Jim made a change for 1960. Veteran owner Hopkins never won the 500. He switched to a new team owned by Ken Rich and Paul Lacy, both new to
racing. With veteran Takio (Chickie) and Smokey Yunick turning the wrenches, Rathmann again made the front row, alongside Ward. The two
would spend the whole day that close. In what many call the best Indy 500
ever, Rathmann and Ward put on a battle that resembled a midget trophy dash. The last half of the race saw the lead change almost every turn.
Near the end, they were turning time trial laps. Neither would give way. Rathmann knew how to conserve tires, even at such a furious pace. Ward saw chord in his right front tire and slowed a bit, Jim Rathmann had finally prevailed at Indy in his 11th start. Only Sam Hanks took longer. Jim left with a nice check for $110,000
Jim would then suffer the biggest roller coaster drop anyone could experience. A week later came the Rex Mays 100 at The Milwaukee Mile. They polished the winning car and headed north. The car, so fleet at Indy was a slug that day. He didn’t qualify. Milwaukee always had such a big field, a 20 lap non-qualifier’s race was always run. No. 4 didn’t succeed there either. Jim left the payoff window with a crisp $20 bill.
By the 1961 race, Jim had become mostly an Indy only driver. He returned with the winning car. With Simoniz sponsorship and Yunick’s black and gold colors, he only started 11th. It didn’t matter. He raced into the lead. On lap 50, the magneto failed and he was out.
In 1962, Yunick put together a strange machine that had the driver riding in a “side car.” It didn’t feel right so he drove the old car and finished a distant ninth.
Jim had befriended the pioneering astronauts, with Cape Canavaral so close to home. He used his Indy winnings to start a Cadillac dealership.
In 1963, Rathmann was back with Hopkins in another new Watson creation. The car was slow and Jim parked it at the halfway mark. He showed up in 1964 and seemed vaguely interested in the new rear engine technology. He never turned a lap and didn’t race again. Brother Dick, the last to avoid the second-lap carnage, finished seventh and he, too, retired.
Jim remained a speedway figure for many years. After a bad experience with a pace car driver who crashed, Jim had the assignment for several years. He thought of writing a “tell all” book about his career and feared an outpouring of lawsuits, so sadly it was never written.
Jim’s passing means that Parnelli Jones, at age 78 is now the oldest former Indy 500 winner. A.J. Foyt, who got his first win in 1961, stands as the longest surviving winner.
Jim was the last living driver to have raced at Indy in the ’40s. Only five men, Chuck Weyant, Eddie Russo, Don Edmunds, Paul Goldsmith and Foyt survive the ’50s.