Jim Rathmann, winner of both the 1960 Indianapolis 500 and the international 500-mile “Race of Two Worlds” in 1958 at Monza, Italy, died Wednesday, November 23, 2011. Rathmann passed away in a hospice in Melbourne, Florida, nine days after suffering a seizure at his home. He was 83.
Rathmann, who was inducted into the Auto Racing Hall of Fame in 1993 and the Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2007, already was a three-time runner-up in the Indianapolis 500 (1952, 1957 and 1959) when he scored his greatest victory. And if the 1960 race, with its record 29 lead changes, was not the finest Indy 500 ever held, there can be no question that Rathmann’s epic two-hour duel with defending winner Rodger Ward continues to stand out as the Speedway’s greatest sustained two-man battle of all time.
For the entire second half of that never-to-be-forgotten classic, Rathmann and Ward were rarely any more than a few feet from each other, exchanging the lead 14 times between them. That number could have been considerably more had not tire wear played into the equation. Long before the days of computer-generated race strategies, two-way radio communication, spotters, and Pace Car-led pack-ups during caution periods, these two wily veterans pretty much had to figure it out for themselves, aided only by a pit board message flashed to them every minute or so.
Ward, an early leader, had stalled on his first of three planned stops, losing at least a half-minute. He raced hard to regain lost ground and caught up with Rathmann just before the halfway mark, fully cognizant that in the process he had placed undue stress on his tires. They swapped the lead several times before Ward decided to run behind Rathmann for a while and let him dictate the pace, both aware that third-placed Johnny Thomson was running a comfortable margin behind them. That was until the pit board signs began advising them that the advantage was shrinking. When it fell to only 10 seconds, they determined it was time to go.
The lead changed hands six more times in the final 30 laps until Ward happen to notice tell-tale discoloration appearing in the center of his right front tire, indicating that the cords were about to show through. He led as late as Lap 197 before reluctantly slowing down to salvage second as a greatly relieved Rathmann nursed his ailing tires to the finish and won at a record average speed of 138.767 mph.
Had Ward prevailed, Rathmann, who led exactly half of the 200 laps that day, would have held the dubious distinction of being history’s only four-time runner-up at Indianapolis.
As an illustration of just how different things were in those days, the winning Ken-Paul Special was a brand new Offenhauser-powered car Rathmann had commissioned from his old friend A. J. Watson on behalf of Rathmann’s partners, Kenny Rich and Paul Lacy. Rathmann and his chief mechanic, Chickie Hirashima, drove a station wagon out to Watson’s shop in Glendale, Calif., to pick up the car whereupon they loaded it on to an open trailer and then towed it back to the Midwest themselves. More than rewarded by the eventual first-place prize money checks totaling a record $110,000, Rathmann later estimated the entire investment at only $35,000.
Born in Los Angeles on July 16, 1928, Rathmann started life as Royal Richard Rathmann, becoming “Jim” in the immediate post World War II years when he began racing hot rods as an underage teenager. He borrowed the identity of his two-and-half-year older brother, James, who later raced extensively and won the 1958 “500” pole position as “Dick” Rathmann. Although they were later to modify their dates of birth from time to time, they thankfully avoided further confusion by never professionally using their given names as they appeared on their driver’s licenses and so forth, Richard Rathmann known for the remainder of his life as Jim, and James as Dick.
A contemporary, since his earliest racing days, of Troy Ruttman, Jack McGrath, Pat Flaherty, Don Freeland, Andy Linden and numerous other “500” stars of the future, Jim Rathmann moved to Chicago in 1948 to race hot rods with Andy Granatelli’s Chicago-based Hurricane Hot Rod Association.
In 1949, Rathmann, Ruttman and Flaherty all made their Indianapolis debuts, Flaherty (who missed the show) being, at 23, the only one legally over 21. Rathmann, claiming to be 24, but really only 20, took his “rookie” test in a car he owned himself, but sponsored by Grancor Corporation, the hot rod business belonging to and operated by the Granatelli brothers. Rathmann ended up qualifying the Pioneer Auto Repair Special for John “The Popper” Lorenz and finishing 11th.
In 1952, driving for the Granatelli brothers, Rathmann finished second in the “500,” beaten only by Troy Ruttman, his boyhood friend and fellow hotrod club member.
Rathmann, who was also runner-up to Sam Hanks in 1957 and to Ward in 1959, drove in a total of 14 Indianapolis 500 Mile Races between 1949 and 1963, leading at some stage during six of them for a total of 153 laps. At the time of his retirement in May 1964, he had completed 2,295 laps in competition and was within less than a full race of claiming the all-time record, only Cliff Bergere (2,452 laps) and Mauri Rose (2,420 laps) having completed a greater number.
Having travelled to Monza for the invitational 500-miler in 1957 merely as a potential relief driver since his regular car owner, Lindsey Hopkins had chosen not to send a car, Rathmann brokered a deal for the 1958 contest.
Underwritten by Bob Wilke of Leader Cards, sponsor of his recent fifth-place effort with Hopkins at Indianapolis, Rathmann leased a car from John Zink, retaining Zink’s chief mechanic, Watson, another of Rathmann’s hot rod cronies from the late 1940s. The 500-mile race at the steeply-banked and bone-jarring 2.64-mile concrete bowl was divided into three legs, with intervals between each. Rathmann won all three and was the undisputed overall winner at the incredible average speed of 166.722 mph.
That association led to Wilke forming the Leader Card Racing Team, with Watson leaving Zink to head up the operation and build new cars. At one point, Leader Card intended running a two-driver team, with Rathmann joining Ward. Then Hopkins made an arrangement to purchase the second brand-new “Watson” for Rathmann, Ward going on to win, with Rathmann recording his third runner-up finish.
By the time the 1959 “500” was held, Rathmann had further demonstrated his great skill and bravery by winning a 100-mile USAC National Championship race April 4 at the brand-new Daytona International Speedway. Far better suited to the NASCAR stock cars, which had ushered in the Daytona 500 in February with Lee Petty winning the caution-free inaugural at 135.521 mph, Rathmann ripped off the 100 miles in the astonishing time of only 35 minutes. Scrunched down in the cockpit of his fish-tailing front-engined Offenhauser-powered Watson “roadster” and wearing a short-sleeved polo shirt with only an open-faced Cromwell-type helmet for protection, he averaged a breathtaking 170.261 mph.
Three-times the Midwest hot rod champion (1948, 1950 and 1951) and third-ranking AAA stock car driver of 1955, the diversified Rathmann was one of the first oval track specialists to dabble in sports car racing, taking part in the Sebring 12 Hours three times (sharing the 12th place-finishing and class-winning Corvette with Dick Doane in 1958) and racing several times at Nassau. He was even down to drive the Tec-Mec Maserati at the inaugural Formula One Grand Prix of the United States at Sebring in 1959 although he ended up not competing. He twice ran in the Carrera Panamericana, sharing an Oldsmobile in 1952 with Frank “Rebel” Mundy, and he even took part in the Miami-Nassau powerboat race one year, sustaining a broken foot along the way while trying to fix a mechanical problem.
An entrepreneur from his earliest days, Rathmann graduated from a paper route to running a hot rod shop while still in his teens. A muffler shop in Chicago was followed by a speed shop in Miami, a used car business and eventually a huge Cadillac and Chevrolet dealership in Melbourne, Fla., the latter being contingent upon his retirement, an agreement upon which he “fudged” for at least two more years.
There was also a very successful go-kart business which produced the highly sought-after Rathmann Xterminator and even an adventuresome episode of his life in which he held the rights toretrieving centuries-old treasure chests, firearms and cannons from sunken pirate ships off the coast of Florida.
Close friends with all of the early astronauts, Rathmann actually pulled off a most unlikely coup by having one of them discreetly affix a Rathmann car dealership decal to the famous golf cart which was driven on the surface of the moon! Yet another venture was the G.C.R. Corporation team which contested the USAC championship series in 1966 and 1967, the “G” being for Gus Grissom, the “C” for Gordon Cooper and “R” for Rathmann.
One of the fascinating character traits of Rathmann was that he always seemed so nonchalant in the winner’s circle, even at Indianapolis and Monza where he’d be poker-faced and stoic, standing up in the cockpit with loosened helmet straps dangling around his neck and barely smiling as he waved one hand at just above waist level.
It was a misleading illusion.
In fact, this very down-to-earth and unpretentious individual happened to be a fun-loving, chronic practical joker who seemed up for just about any mischievous adventure. A very modest man, he was most gracious to the fans, benched-raced with the best of them and told stories laced with a most infectious giggle. Questions about his own career were usually passed off with brief and rather evasive responses as he preferred instead to tell stories about his colleagues, tears of mirth rolling his cheeks as he relayed the details of yet another prank.
But Rathmann was a serious racer, and he loved the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. To him, the month of May at the track was “everything,” the other 11 months always being filled with plenty of activities, but with the focus clearly on the next migration to IMS. In spite of his deep competitive spirit, he was a great sportsman who was close with many of his contemporaries, photographs taken in the aftermath of the 1957 and 1959 Indianapolis races indicating that he obviously had great affection for both Hanks and Ward, who had narrowly defeated him.
Ill health in recent years had prevented Rathmann from making his annual pilgrimage to his beloved Speedway where, for many years he had matched his golfing skills with Ward, Lloyd Ruby, Parnelli Jones, James Garner and others. Six times the Pace Car driver for the “500,” Rathmann’s final appearance in the city of Indianapolis came at the Convention Center in February 2009 for the Speedway’s Centennial Era Gala, where he was the oldest and earliest of the 19 Indianapolis 500 winners on hand.
Rathmann is survived by wife Kay, sons Jimmy and Jay, stepsons Zack and Tosh Pence, five grandchildren and one great-grandchild.