Thu, Dec 29, 2011 - Page 19 News List

Famed racer Jim Rathmann leaves legacy of thrills

The Guardian, LONDON

The US race car driver Jim Rathmann, who has died aged 83, won what is hailed as the exciting Indianapolis 500, his country’s most important motor race.

His victory in 1960 came at the end of an afternoon that saw 29 changes of the lead, still a record for the event. After retiring from the sport, Rathmann became the first and probably the only car dealer to see his company’s logo land on the moon, thanks to his friendship with the NASA astronauts, one of whom affixed the sticker to a landing vehicle.

The 1960 Indy 500 came toward the end of the era dominated by front-engined roadsters, as the single-seater cars were known, relatively simple and sturdy machines usually powered by the lusty four-cylinder Offenhauser engine.

The best chassis at the time was designed by A.J. Watson and it was in Watson-built cars that Rathmann — who had finished in second place on three previous occasions — and Rodger Ward, the winner ahead of Rathmann a year earlier, battled it out on a hot Memorial Day afternoon in May.

Other drivers swapped the lead in the early stages and it was not until the second half of the race, after 120 laps of the 2.5 mile (4km) oval track, that the two made their way to the front of the field.

Ward had stalled his engine during an early pit stop and had driven hard to catch Rathmann, subjecting his tires to severe wear. After they had passed and re-passed each other he elected to sit behind his rival for a while to conserve his remaining rubber.

A challenge from Johnny Thompson forced both men to speed up and resume a duel that enthralled the crowd of 400,000.

With only half a dozen laps to go, Ward noticed the warning strip of white rubber showing through the tread of his front tires, the consequence of the extra effort, and was forced to back off. Rathmann won the race by 12 seconds and the check for US$110,000 after leading for exactly 100 of the 200 laps at an average speed of 138mph (222kph).

EUROPEAN ADVENTURE

Two years earlier, Rathmann had won a race that was in some ways even more remarkable, when he traveled, with a group of drivers from the US championship series, to race against their European counterparts on the 4.25km banked track at Monza in Italy in the second edition of a contest billed as the Race of Two Worlds.

On a circuit far better suited to the rugged US cars than to the modified grand prix machinery that Maserati and Ferrari had provided for a half-hearted challenge by the likes of Stirling Moss and Luigi Musso, Rathmann won at an average speed of 267kph, remarkable for the time, although Musso had lapped in practice at 282mph.

Born in Los Angeles, where his father worked as a butcher, Royal Richard Rathmann borrowed his older brother’s name, Jim, in order to fool officials at local speedways into letting him race single-seater cars, known as hot rods, while under the legal age. (His brother later raced under the name Dick Rathmann and qualified in pole position at Indianapolis in 1958.)

In 1948 he moved to Chicago, where he raced in a hot rod series. A year later he was entered for the first time at Indianapolis, starting from 21st place on the grid of 33 runners and finishing 11th.

He finished second to Troy Ruttman in 1952 and to Sam Hanks in 1957, before trailing Ward home in 1959. In his last race at the Brickyard in 1963, he retired with magneto trouble.

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