The Indy 1964 second-lap disaster - Closing in on the truth
Part 4: Since May 31, 1964
- Henri Greuter
- October 25, 2010; with July 14, 2011, December 8, 2011 & August 17 additions
- The Indy 1964 second-lap disaster - Closing in on the truth, by Henri Greuter
Dave MacDonald, Mickey Thompson
Thompson-Ford 'Sears Allstate Special'
1964 Indianapolis 500
- Discoveries in the aftermath
- How did the incorrect facts related to the accident appear and then manage to survive for so long?
- About the fuel capacity of the Thompson, crew members and some chilling thoughts
- About the cars that were part of the crash
- The results of the nightmare
- Dave MacDonald’s tainted reputation because of…
- And finally
Discoveries in the aftermath
The Shrike's wreck was carried off the track with Eddie still in the cockpit, covered by a white sheet. He was extracted from the car out of sight of the public on the front straight.
A startling discovery was made during the inspection of the wreck, one that went largely unnoticed over the years. It was found that most of the fuel tanks in the Shrike (the car had eight small tanks within the monocoque) had remained intact and were still filled. The only fuel tank in the car that had burst open was the one in front of the driver, above his legs. This tank held approximately 12 gallons and some 35 gallons of fuel were recovered from the wreck. (3, p.561), (23), (26)
In other words: no matter how big the Shrike's fuel capacity was, the car hadn't lost its entire fuel content in the accident. The accusations by some traditionalists and critics that both of these dreaded 'funny cars' had each thrown some 100 gallons of fuel into that fire couldn't be correct. The Shrike at least spilled less fuel in the accident than people believed it had done.
In January 1994, when I researched Indy 1964 because of another car in that race, I was at the Indianapolis Star/News library and ran into an article published after the race about the discovery of the Shrike still containing fuel. Regrettably I failed to make a copy of this part of microfilm. But I am 100% sure that it can be found in print, should complete editions of the Indianapolis Star/News/Times of the period of May 30 to June 7 ever appear for inspection.
The first incorrect detail had shown itself to me. It was at that moment that I realized that the stories told for almost 30 years about the amount of fuel involved in the fire were incorrect. I also realized the Shrike’s reputation was unjustly tarnished by an accusation that was proven incorrect only hours after the accident.
Further investigations later on also revealed it was known that the Thompson car did not contain the reported 80 or more gallons of fuel. The Sports Illustrated magazine of June 22, 1964 (24) carried an article about the accident's aftermath in which Mickey Thompson was said to have denied running 80 gallons or more but only a mere 45 gallons. There was an important person verifying Mickey’s story.
The article stated:
“First of all, Mickey Thompson, builder of MacDonald 's Ford-engined car, scotched an Associated Press story estimating the gasoline load at a fantastic 100 gallons (some 600 pounds in a car weighing about 1,200 dry). "We carried 45 gallons," said Thompson, a fact verified by Ray McMahan, the chief Mobil fuel specialist at Indy. Thompson said the gas was in a single rubber tank extending most of the distance between the front and rear wheels on the driver's left. MacDonald had practiced with a nearly full tank, so unfamiliarity with his car's handling in that condition was not a factor.” (24)
In addition to that, the race report printed in Autocar magazine (dated 5 June 1964) mentioned the Shrike as having a tank capacity of between 50 and 60 gallons. (20)
Then there is a race report printed in Sports Car Graphic stating that all the fuel tanks in the Shrike had remained intact. (26) This is incorrect since the tank above the driver’s legs had burst. Nevertheless, this is another publication at least indicating the Shrike hadn't spilled its entire fuel contents into the inferno.
The aforementioned Sports Illustrated magazine also stated that even though there were doubts about the Shrike's actual fuel-tank capacity, some 30 gallons of fuel were retrieved from the wreck. Despite the fact that NSSN mentioned in its articles that Dave MacDonald was out of his car after the accident, one article also mentioned that the Shrike’s fuel supply hadn't caught fire. (17)
In other words, by the summer of 1964 it was known through several publicly available sources that far less fuel was involved in the accident than was suggested to be the case in later years. This myth has remained intact ever since. To rub it in even harder: the Roadsters running on the allegedly safer methanol, so heralded by traditionalists, boasted the kind of fuel-tack capacity which the Thompson and the Shrike were said to have had.
Then, to top it off: another article appeared in print in one of the local newspapers of Indianapolis, around June 10th 1964, written by well-respected journalist Dick Mittman. (36) He had spoken Mickey Thompson some ten days after the tragedies of May 30th. Among other things (more on those further on) Mickey was said to be upset about the accusations of his car being “a death trap because it carried an extreme overload of fuel”. According to Thompson, the car was supposed to have 49 gallons but could eventually carry only 45 gallons of fuel.
How did the incorrect facts related to the accident appear and then manage to survive for so long?
Investigations were carried out right after the accident, in particularly zooming in on how the fire could have occurred. The committee investigating the accident concluded that at the moment the car hit the wall the fuel mass in the rubber bladder moved through the bladder so violently and with such a momentum that a leak occurred through which fuel ignited instantly. Once that had happened the chain of events that followed was pretty much unavoidable.
In the years that followed, most of the time that was written about the accident it was blamed on an inexperienced young driver in a tricky, questionable car, loaded with almost 100 gallons of that highly dangerous gasoline fuel and a second car, also with a massive gasoline load, plunging into it.
It is not easy to explain exactly why the stories about both cars being loaded with so much fuel kept on appearing in print. Taking myself as an example, I was also made to believe that both cars contained that much fuel. In 1994, I found the evidence of some 35 gallons of unburned fuel still left in the Shrike, which at the time I still rated as a 100-gallon car. Only in the second half of 2007, while participating in the ongoing thread at TNF, I found that both cars had just about half of the rumoured 100-gallon fuel capacity. A number of participants in the discussion, including me, were highly surprised to find out that both cars had carried much less fuel at the moment of the accident. But the evidence is so overwhelming that it is impossible to ignore it. It still remains difficult to believe but the facts are there.
I have the following thoughts as to why the story about two 100-gallon cars colliding and burning up kept being repeated over and over.
First of all, indeed there were cars in the race carrying up to 80 gallons of fuel. The aforementioned Walt Hansgen drove a Huffaker-built MG Liquid Suspension Spl listed to carry 78 gallons, Bobby Unser’s Ferguson-Novi started the race with 89 gallons. (All that Novi power didn’t just come from lots of air being pumped into the cylinders…) What's more: roadsters in general carried tanks of approximately 70 gallons or thereabouts. (22)
Secondly, please watch the pictures and the available movies of the accident, especially after the moment Sachs plunged into the wreck. The explosion was enormous, as well as the resulting fire. The fireballs and smoke stacks were so bad that it is easy to believe that a tremendous amount of fuel had just gone up in flames. The visual impact of the accident is a major factor. Even though it was nowhere near 200 gallons of gasoline fuel, it easily looked like it. Moreover, there are the stories about difficulty of putting out the fire and the reoccurances of flames for some time. It has been mentioned that killing all the fires took some 20 minutes and staggering amounts of fire fighting equipment at the track. (3, p.354) This suggests that within the melee there must have been ignitable spots of fuel left that were difficult to control. The less control of the situation, the stronger the argument that there was a lot of fuel involved, perhaps up to 150 gallons or more.
Then, during practice in May, rumours went around that some of the Ford cars destined to race on gasoline had tanks large enough to go the entire distance on a single set of tyres without stopping for fuel. As told, the Mickey Thompson cars were part of those rumours from the moment the newspaper article was published on May 20.
Mid-2013 I had a private correspondence with Bob Gates, author of the book on Jim Hurtubise I consulted when writing on this project. We discussed, amongst many other things, the fact that his 2012 publication on Troy Ruttman also suggested that the Thompson car contained some 80 gallons of fuel. After reading this site Gates wrote:
“In regards to the 80+ gallons of gasoline the cars supposedly carried, it demonstrates how something, inaccurate though it might be, if it's repeated enough will become the accepted truth. If we do a reprint of the Ruttman book, I will make an effort to correct it there.”
Mr Gates continued with an interesting theory as of how the rumors of an excessive fuel capacity in Sachs' Shrike found their origin. I think this theory needs to be mentioned, using Gates' own words:
“One other thought about the quantity of fuel. You might have seen it, I had a copy of it at one time, now I can't find it. But, the Marathon Gasoline Company ran a well-known ad in the Indianapolis papers, the day before the 500, proclaiming that Eddie Sachs would run the race surrounded by 100 gallons of Marathon gas. I'm going by memory of the quantity of gas used in the ad, but I'm sure it was a significant quantity like that.
That could be one source of the misconception of the amount of fuel Sachs carried. And, if people believed Sachs carried that much fuel, there's no reason, in their minds, that McDonald wouldn't have carried an equal amount.”
Gates' comments got me thinking and the theory appears to be plausible, so it made sense for me to find out if the advertisement in question indeed could have added to the rumours.
I found an image of said advertisement but the resolution wasn’t good enough to verify the actual amount of gallons.
An image of the Marathon advertisement as found on the Internet.
Eventually, I was informed by someone with access to an original print that the advertisement stated a fuel capacity of 54 gallons, divided over 8 fuel tanks. Although 54 Gallons is a substantial volume for European (F1) standards, for Indycars of the day it wasn’t an outrageous capacity. But most important of all, this well-known advertisement did definitely not support the stories appearing in print in later years about both cars being rear-engined cars capable of storing up to 100 gallons of fuel. Even worse, if anything, the advertisement contains hard info that goes against the stories that were told later on and it was available for many to see, even before the tragedy took place.
But the statement of Sachs being surrounded by fuel is one that has been used by many people who criticised the new breed of rear-engined cars. And so a negative influence in the aftermath of the accident by this particular advertisement is undeniable. I think it is impossible to declare the advertisement as a valid excuse for the reason why the Shrike became known as a fuel bomb. And “since they were so similar in principal construction” kind of thinking for the Thompson for that matter. But it may have contributed to the fact. It was for sure one of the most unlucky advertisements ever by a fuel company. An advertisement containing words and phrases that had no nasty intention but became so grim after the day’s events were over.
As told, the Mickey Thompson cars were part of those rumours of going to do the race without a fuel stop from the moment the newspaper article was published on May 20.
But if Mickey had pursued the idea he would have had to increase the fuel capacity of his cars by installing a fuel tank in the right sidepod as well. Photographic evidence (the wreck of the car after the fire was put down) however seems to indicate that this wasn't done after all.
I have restricted myself from including pictures of the cars after the accident but I think I must include this (edited) image. This is the Thompson (cut out from a larger image taken directly after the inferno) seen here from the right. It is always possible to claim that a fuel cell on the right side had been ripped off already but the only impact on the right side of the car was with the wall. Eddie Sachs hit the car on the other side. Could the impact with the wall have been severe enough that the car lost an entire bladder there and then, or during the slide on the track? Perhaps all traces of the bladder burned up entirely? Or is this picture part of the proof that unlike the continuing stories want us to believe the Thompson simply didn't have a fuel tank on the right side of the car at all?
As far as I know, it never appeared in print that the Thompson cars were indeed prepared to go non-stop, neither that the non-stop plans were shelved. There is only the rumour that Mickey thought about it, as suggested in the May 20 newspaper article. These words appear to have been enough for to be taken for granted. It wasn’t and wouldn’t be the first time in Indy history that a rumour was accepted as the truth and carried on living a life of its own.
In his book, Peter Bryant told the following anecdote about the suggestion that the Thompson car used a larger fuel tank.
Bryant attended the funeral but had to stand outside the church. In front of him were racing driver Skip Hudson and a person unknown to him. After having paid his last respects Bryant overheard this person tell Hudson he had heard there was over 100 gallons of gasoline in the Thompson and that it had been nothing short of a bomb waiting to blow up. The man also told that the car had such a dangerous handling that several drivers turned down offers to drive it. After the service ended, Bryant took the man aside to tell that he (Bryant) didn't care like people spreading false rumours and saying things that weren't true. Bryant went on to say that the car contained less that 44 gallons of fuel and a few other things irrelevant to mention here. It turned out the man was journalist Gordon Martin, motoring correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle. (1, p.172)
More proof of the way the story about the Thompson car being fitted with a fuel tank in the right sidepod came about comes from the following quote by Fred Bailey:
“The big question at the time was whether the tank on the right side of the car had fuel in it or not. You see, after the crash the officials claimed he was carrying fuel in the right side of the tank.
One story I heard was that MacDonald had it in his mind to go the distance without making a pit stop and thereby win the race. Depending on who was telling the story, the morning of the race when Mickey wasn’t around, MacDonald had them fill the fuel tank on the right side of the car. The left side was full. I don’t remember if the left tank held 75 gallons, I believe so. The story was he filled the right tank.
Mickey said that the tank on the right side didn’t even have a bladder in it, so he couldn’t have filled it. Well, that differed from his early statement that it was empty but there was a bladder.
All I know is when that car spun and came into the wall, it had spun half around and hit with the right rear almost broadslide. There are about two frames of film which show white flecks of fuel like water droplets escaping into the air. Then it became a ball of flame. So it is purely my opinion, based on what I found in examining the film, that there was fuel in the right tank.” (3, p.562)
This statement instantly brings up one important question. If the tank didn’t contain a bladder, then what kind of fuel tank was it? Was it a metal or fiber box which should have contained a bladder? But if the car did have a fuel bladder on the left (as is confirmed by various sources) why did this left-side bladder not have a protective casing around it? And why did the car have an empty casing on the left that did nothing positive and only added weight to the car? And how could the tank have been filled up if it had no bladder inside?
There is simply no logical answer to the question why the left fuel bladder was unprotected by any kind of casing while a casing on the right side was empty. Should this indeed have been the way how the car was built up, then it is next to impossible to find a decent answer to the question what sense this would make.
As you see, two more stories about the right side fuel tank on the car, but the rumour was fed by more factors.
Right after the accident, several drivers were asked about their experiences. A number of them made negative comments about Dave MacDonald’s driving style in those first laps. (In fact, the majority of drivers commenting about the 1964 race and Dave MacDonald were rather negative. More on that later.) It needs to be remembered that these drivers made their comments shortly after having been in or witnessed one of the worst accidents ever at the Speedway. Quite a emotional rollercoaster, and this certainly may have had an effect on what they actually said. Were all of them aware of the actual situation? Certain drivers have in the heat of the moment said things that later on proved to be incorrect. And let it be said here instantly that these drivers can’t be blamed for having told inaccurate details. Like I mentioned, a number of things were still unknown, let alone that the drivers could have known them. Having gone through what they had experienced, you can’t blame them for saying certain things.
When historians are dealing with the 1964 race, they will of course start searching for material published in the past since that is most often the most authentic, including statements made by the drivers who were there. Nevertheless, at least one of the race reports printed in an American magazine contained incorrect data. Besides that, it just happened to be that the crash involved two drivers who in later years were to write much more history at the Speedway. Both were second-year drivers and destined to become two of the Speedway’s three-time winners: Bobby Unser and Johnny Rutherford. Needless to say that being among the most legendary of the Indy drivers both Bobby and Johnny have been interviewed and quoted quite often over the years. These quotes also including their recollections of the events of 1964.
Johnny Rutherford in particular has been quoted on several occasions, talking about his share in the accident. On those occasions, he mentioned that the two cars involved had a fuel capacity of up to 100 gallons. This information was used in books published at least 20 years later and kept the myth about the two up-to-100-gallon cars alive. In fact, Johnny was mentioning such fuel-capacity figures as late as 2003. That is the date that this interview was published. (25) By the way, there is also evidence of Rutherford mentioning such fuel amounts as late as 2009. (39, p.302)
I must warn readers that this article contains gruesome details about Dave MacDonald’s condition after the accident. Since I am providing a link to a direct quote of what Rutherford has said about Race Day 1964 I have omitted using any of his stories anywhere else in this piece.
Now, it might seem that what I wrote down here reads as me putting the blame on Johnny Rutherford for maintaining a myth and contributing to hiding the truth about certain facts about the accident. But this is not intended as an accusation of Johnny. If I gave the impression that I attacked Johnny, then here is my defense of his actions and statements.
Again, I can entirely understand that with a lack of decent info, and in his state of mind on that fateful day, having survived such an ordeal, Johnny may have said things that later on turned out to be incorrect. This is entirely understandable.
The same applies to his continued talk of cars with fuel tanks of up to 100 gallons. Johnny and others who have done so spoke about what they believed to be the case, and they kept on telling these things since they apparently were never informed about the actual situation. Although there is proof about both cars containing 50 gallons at best, this was somehow has never picked up by other historians, writers and anyone else who has been working on this subject. Few if anyone were able to correct Rutherford and other drivers speaking out, or divulged the information to Johnny and other people. As the discussion in the TNF thread seems to confirm, few people were aware that the facts were readily available for such a long time. Those who did lacked the opportunity to step forward. In later publications I have still found figures of about 80 gallons of fuel being carried by the Thompson and about 155 gallons of fuel involved in the fire. Another prominent biography describes the accident in a manner that suggests that the Thompson had more than one fuel tank.
I realize that some readers will feel I should mention these books since I pinned down Johnny Rutherford in person for what he has said. I'd rather not. That would appear as if I am blaming famed authors for publishing inaccuracies. I only pointed to what Johnny Rutherford has said over the years as an example of the way these inaccuracies were repeated over and again, but not with the intention of accusing Rutherford. If he wasn’t told by people who knew better, he certainly wasn't in the position to be forced to verify what he told.
Besides that, he seems to have indeed verified these details before talking about them. In the TNF thread, one participant unveiled that he contacted Rutherford. Johnny told he had spoken Thompson crew members who said to him that the car carried 80 gallons of fuel: for reference scroll to the message numbered 435.
Johnny Rutherford made history but he didn’t write it. That was done by others. Johnny and other drivers participated in keeping the myth alive about the up-to-100 gallon cars but they can’t be held responsible for its negative effects. That was beyond their control and something they couldn't envision when they spoke out after the accident.
Another often-told story might also be very different. The difficulty is that the spokesman on this issue is Mickey Thompson. Other sources mentioning this are unknown. And who dares to hold Mickey to his words for the full 100%?
In his mid-June 1964 article about Thompson (36) Dick Mittman quoted Mickey as having said: “Every time I say something it’s gotten twisted around to the writer's way of thinking. When I say something it's wrong and when I don't say anything it's wrong.”
But then Mittman quotes Thompson as: “Why, that story about Dave's father saying Dave said the car wasn't handling right was a lot of baloney. He gave an interview to one small newspaper and what he said was twisted around and then sent all over the country. Mr MacDonald denied the story 10 times but I didn't see where this was printed anywhere.”
It is of course difficult to judge this statement. It can't be verified anywhere else. But since Dick Mittman had a reputation to lose, he must have had good enough reasons to print it. Given Mittman's reputation, I believe I must mention it. Is this true? If so, this is yet another example of how many data and facts mentioned in print, even shortly after the accident, have been ignored, thus guiding the opinions about the accident and the result of it into a certain direction.
In general, although respecting the stories published right after the accident, Thompson team member Bill Marcel summed it up pretty well:
“The stories written immediately following the accident were written by people who simply didn’t know what they were talking about. They were written by outsiders who were making assumptions... who heard things secondhand.” (9, p.147)
About the fuel capacity of the Thompson, crew members and some chilling thoughts
The widely accepted story about the Thompson, told for many years, is that the car had fuel tanks capable of containing at least 80 gallons of fuel. Substantial proof for this doesn't appear to exist, other than as a part of the stories about the accident. As already said, Johnny Rutherford is among the people talking about this figure, as he had heard from Thompson crew members.
The race reports are other important sources about the event. Car and Driver magazine carried an extensive report including a diagram of the way the accident came along (18). This article claims that the first explosion, the one that started when the Thompson hit the wall, was because of the right-side fuel tank exploding. In fact, even Arneson's book on Mickey Thompson (9) contains at least three quotes (on page 142 & 143) suggesting that Dave’s car had two fuel tanks on Race Day, one of these being from Pete Bryant. Why Bryant did talk about two fuel tanks here and mentioned a single tank in his own book? A misunderstanding between the two men? Anyway, this is yet more proof of how the confusion was able to continue to reign, created by two books released as late as 2007 and 2008.
I also found clues that Arneson's book relies on the Car and Driver race report (18), which has inaccuracies and is very negative on the Thompson team and Dave MacDonald.
Looking further, it will very likely be possible to find more publications stating that the Thompson had two fuel tanks. In my list of literature one of the NSSN articles (17) is among those. Curiously enough, the same article did mention that the Shrike hadn't spilled its entire fuel load.
On the other side of the debate are the statements found in the Sports International of June 1964. Here, Mickey Thompson is stating that the stories about his cars carrying so much fuel were untrue and that the car had a capacity of 45 gallons. This fact was verified by Ray McMahan, the chief Mobil fuel specialist at Indy. (24)
Then there is Peter Bryant’s book Can Am Challenger, in which he also lists a figure of below 50 gallons: less than 44 gallons to be exactly. (1, p.172)
A case report by Bob Falcon about the actual accident can be found in The Alternate (23). Although Falcon reports a larger volume, it was way below the 80 to 100 gallons that is often talked about.
Finally, and even though this is no proof beyond doubt, there are pictures of the car after the accident, seen from the right side, with nothing to suggest there was something attached to the frame that could have been or supported a fuel tank. Now, this could have been ripped off during the spin, but nevertheless there are four rather knowledgeable people, some of them without any connection to the team and so having no reason to alter the truth, all confirming the fact the Thompson car did not have 80 or more gallons of fuel on board.
Of course, there is the contradiction that Rutherford claims to have got the 80-gallons figure from crew members of Thompson while there are only two team members (Mickey Thompson and Pete Bryant) who give lower figures. It remains a question why they gave differing statements, so that the rumour is both confirmed and denied by Team Thompson members. However, the fact that other people unrelated to the Thompson team deny the rumour about the fuel-laden Thompson car seems to tip the scales in favour of the car not carrying such a large fuel load.
If everyone seems to be making up his mind about Dave having driven dangerously because of so many statements by various people, isn’t it about time to accept the fact that the Thompson car didn't carry so much fuel, based on the same fact that there are so many statements about that as well? And the same being valid by the way for the Shrike, given the number of data stating values of less that 60 gallons?
It is by now almost certain that the entire amount of fuel involved in the accident was never close to the 150 gallons that was spoken and written about. Based on calculations and estimations it seems it was some 60 gallons that created the horrible scenes Indy 1964 shall always be remembered for. If that wasn’t enough of a nightmare as it was, then who would dare to think about what could have happened with 150 gallons of gasoline? How big would the resulting fire have been? How many more injuries would it have caused? And if more fuel would have been thrown around during the impact, how much would have gone into the grandstands?
Perhaps it would have ended in scenes that could well have finished the “500” as we know it. Tony Hulman was very supportive of the “500” and even created sanctioning body USAC to continue the event after the AAA pulled out after the 1955 disasters. He kept the event going after 1964. But what would have happened with the Speedway with a fire coming from 150 or more gallons, perhaps resulting in more injuries and fatalities, maybe even amongst the crowd?
Horrific as the eventual accident was, the disaster could have been much worse. Fortunately, neither car carried as much fuel as they were said to contain and the Shrike managed to keep some 30 gallons contained safely within its tank.
It appears there are several crew members in Mickey’s team who have given contradictory statements. Pete Bryant, for example, indicated that the cars were improved during the month and had a fuel tank capacity of less than 50 gallons. But Johnny Rutherford spoke about Thompson team members talking of a fuel capacity OF about 80 gallons and there is the statement in Friedman’s book about a crewman indicating that things hardly went better over time. The problem with the negative comments is that the sources remained anonymous. Pete Bryant can be given the credits for speaking out under his own name.
Something else catching my attention is the fact that, in a number of publications, opinions about Dave MacDonald are rarely positive other than some comments that he appeared to be a nice guy. Bryant on the other hand gives little if any negative comments about Dave. His book is very much an exception to the rule. So is he the only one who is wrong compared with the others?
It is, however, not at all impossible that Pete has a better and more objective view on Dave and did indeed know how long faulty details have been told about Dave’s car. But other than that, I believe that Pete Bryant had a few other reasons why he has been mellow on Dave MacDonald. Maybe a bit too mellow and thus putting historians on the wrong track?
If I am indeed right, Bryant had some defendable reasons to be kind on several people, including Dave MacDonald. And if that is not entirely correct historically, then at least it is a bit of compensation for every bit of incorrect detail that had exactly the opposite effect on Dave MacDonald’s memory.
One must also feel some pity for Mickey Thompson. Before Mickey got involved at Indianapolis he had also been active in the Carrera Panamericana, apart from his achievements in the hot-rod world. In this crazy race he had the Carrera's biggest accident ever. In the 1953 event, Mickey was forced to avoid running into spectators crossing the road. He crashed and landed in another crowd. Six people died, the most fatalities in a single accident in Carrera history. Mickey then ended up being involved in what is likely to be the most gruesome accident ever in Indianapolis history.
Mickey got a bad reputation as well after the accident and though he was active at Indianapolis as a car owner, his career was ruined. It has been told about Mickey that the events of Race Day 1964 have haunted Mickey ever since and affected his commitment to the Indy program he carried out. (9, p.152). Curiously, having been one of the first American car constructors picking up on the rear-engine revolution, he forsook rear-engined cars from 1965 on and even went back to front-driven cars! Now, if one concept for front-engined cars was outdated…
None of his cars entered in 1965 or later managed to qualify for the race, but his 1965 car still appears in the Record Books of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, being the holder of the one-lap record for front-driven cars, driver Bob Mathauser earning this distinction. The car was unable to finish its qualifying attempt and that is why it missed out on the four-lap qualifying record.
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum collection contains an example of Mickey’s 1962 cars, the car being restored in the trim as driven by Dan Gurney. Being the first US-built rear-engined car of the sixties, one of the earliest of the breed after Brabham’s pioneering Cooper in fact, the car is now at the right place and a fitting tribute to an Indycar constructor deserving to be known for better things than the one thing every Indy fan knows him for: being part of “1964”. Mickey was an innovator, a man daring to shake up the establishment with revolutionary concepts. Although he only has a 9th place (in 1963) to boost with one of his cars, he still remains the first American constructor who saw the light and realized that rear-engined cars were the way of the future.
A car that is far more historical for the IMS than many realize. It was not just the car that popular rookie Dan Gurney drove but also the first American-built rear-engined chassis taking part in the rear-engine revolution at the Speedway. (photo HG)
Mickey and his second wife were murdered in March 1988, under suspicious conditions. Many years later a former business partner was eventually sentenced to jail for being behind the murders. The actual killers have escaped justice.
About the cars that were part of the crash
This is what happened at Indy with all the other cars involved in the tragedy. (30, 31, 27)
Johnny Rutherford’s Watson-Offy was numbered #21 in the range of Watson cars. It was not very lucky at Indy but still a significant car. Built in 1963 it failed to qualify in the hands of Ebb Rose. In 1965 if failed to qualify again with Bobby Grim behind the wheel but one year later Grim did qualify the car, now fitted with a turbocharged Offy. Grim was victim of the start crash that year and retired without having driven a single lap. This car had less that two laps in competition in four years of duty, with two actual starts. It was however the lone roadster in the 1966 race and the next to last front-engined car to ever race at Indianapolis. The car has been restored and still exists. The last info I found out about it is that it is restored into 1966 specifications, thus with turbocharged Offy. A fitting configuration for this car since in that shape it was indeed the last ever Watson roadster in the “500”.
Recently another car restored as the 1963 version of this particular Watson appeared, told to be the real Watson chassis #21. So there are two cars said to be the car Rutherford drove in 1964.
Chuck Stevenson’s car was another 1963-built car, numbered #22 among Watson followers. Len Sutton drove it in 1963 but was bumped from the field, the first time ever that a brand new Watson had qualified but was eventually bumped. Stevenson’s 1964 start was the only race for this car at Indianapolis although it did participate in other USAC events later on. This car is also still in existence today.
Looking like yet another Watson, Ronnie Duman’s car was built by Floyd Trevis in 1963 and raced that year by Allen Crowe, who started 13th and finished 27th after 47 laps. The car was no longer seen at Indianapolis after being Duman’s 1964 ride. The car was badly damaged by fire since its fuel tank had split when it was hit by Bobby Unser’s Novi. Going through the fiery inferno it was little wonder that it went up in flames. I haven't found any traces of its remaining existence.
According to Larry Pfitzenmaier, the majority of parts that once formed the Duman car of 1964 were used to build up a lookalike of the 1961 winning car, driven by AJ Foyt. Like the Duman car, the 1961 winner was another Trevis-built chassis.
Bobby Unser’s Ferguson-Novi (project number P104 according to Ferguson numbering) was brand new for 1964. In March 1964 it had been tested already, freshly brought over from England. It was one of the two Novi-powered cars that was heavily damaged in a garage fire which forced the Granatelli team to rebuild the cars in order to participate in May. After its 1964 performance the Ferguson was repaired and entered again in 1965. This time as a backup car but pressed into service when, the day before Pole Day, the primary 4WD Novi was wrecked in an accident. Unser qualified the car for the race but retired after 69 laps. It was the last time ever that a Novi-powered car raced on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The car was cannabalized. It is said that parts of the driveline were built into the 1967 STP Turbine. In the late eighties the car was restored in running condition again and still exists.
The Ferguson-Novi P104, restored into its 1965 shape, seen at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in 1998. Behind it is a car that was also mentioned here earlier: the 1946-built front-wheel-drive Kurtis-Novi, to this day still the four-lap track record holder at IMS for front-drive cars, but also the car in which two well-loved veteran drivers (Ralph Hepburn and Chet Miller) were killed… (photo HG)
Dave MacDonald’s car was originally built in 1963 and driven that year in the race by Duane Carter. After the accident the car was brought to the garage and from then on it is uncertain what has happened with it. Most likely it was destroyed.
Eddie’s Shrike appears to have had the most bizarre fate imaginable. According to Bob Falcon in his articles published in The Alternate, most of what was left of the car has been used to build up a replica of the car Eddie drove and got killed in. This replica was said to be built for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame. (23) The car has been photographed on several occasions. I have seen the car personally in May 1991, on display in the lobby of the IMS Motel. A chilling thought?
A long time before 1991 I had been told about the 1941-winning car that apart from wearing the glory of being an Indy winner also killed no less than two drivers. Knowing this, I always felt a bit uneasy when seeing the Noc-Out Hose Clamp in the IMS museum. Only much later I was informed that the Noc-Out wasn’t so lethal after all. Even though on hindsight I didn't need to, I felt much more unease when I made the picture below than I ever felt when seeing the Noc-Out.
May 1991, IMS Motel lobby. The replica of Eddie Sachs’ 1964 Shrike appears in public. (photo HG)
The Clabbergirl Museum at Terre Haute (Hulman property) often has an Indycar on display to commemorate the link between the Speedway and the Hulman family.
In April 2011 the word came out that the lone Indycar on display at that moment was the reincarnation of Eddie Sachs’ Shrike, which in all likelyhood was one of the very first public appearances for the car since a long time. Circumstances enabled me to have a mid-May look around the museum to verify whether the car was still there.
The Shrike was indeed still there but without any display signs telling about the car and the history behind it. Somehow, it felt spooky to see the car, especially during the month of the 100th anniversary, far away from the festivities, yet still lingering somewhere for anyone to see who knew that it was there.
When one realizes that the gold-coloured side tank on the left is no fuel tank but an oil tank with cooling fins it is difficult to imagine how this relatively little car could ever have stored some 80 or more gallons of fuel within the confines of its monocoque and still provide enough room for its driver.
The Shrike replica, May 12, 2011, Clabbergirl Museum, Terre Haute, In. (photos HG)
From personal experience I can tell you another bizarre story about one part of this car.
In the summer of 2006 I was at Indy to attend the 2006 US GP at the Speedway. I stayed with a friend who was offered a part of an Indy 500 memorabilia collection. Within the lot was a crankshaft said to have been the one in Eddie’s engine when he had his fatal crash. The shaft showed some damage, supposedly a result of having been fitted in a car that had been in a heavy collision.
We had our reservations about this story, primarily because of the fact that the Ford Quadcams had been maintained by Ford themselves, engines being sent to Dearborn for maintenance and replacement. We couldn’t imagine Ford not taking back the engine out of the wrecked Shrike, if only to investigate it, before putting it back into service again or salvage whatever parts still could be used.
My friend bought the shaft, giving it the benefit of the doubt. The more while he was in a position to verify if it was, at least, a genuine Ford Quadcam V8 crank, or what we assumed it to be: a hoax.
It was a hoax. Once we showed the crank to some veteran mechanics who knew Quadcams and Offies inside and out, they instantly and unanimously identified the crankshaft as that of an Offy. We weren't surprised about being hoaxed.
Still, sad to see someone abusing a fatal accident of a legendary driver to try to get a higher price for something that could never ever have been even remotely related to that fatal accident to begin with.
The results of the nightmare
Despite the horrific scenes and outcome, the “500” didn’t come to an end after the 1964 misery. The race remained being held but organizing committee USAC mandated a few rule changes.
The first one was that the fuel tank capacity was maximised at 75 gallons. (Still more than the capacity of the cars in which Dave and Eddie had died…)
Secondly, each car had to make at least two mandatory pit stops in which the fuel hoses had to be connected with the car. USAC hoped that teams would refuel the car in those stops since the fuel hose was connected already. And by allowing still decently sized fuel tanks USAC also hoped to encourage team owners using methanol again, since economy runs on gasoline, and saving time in the pits, had become virtually impossible due to the two mandatory stops.
The fuel tanks themselves were mandated to be new fuel cells, aluminum or steel tanks, filled with a rubber bladder which in turn was filled with a foam absorbing the fuel and preventing it to slosh through the bladder.
Refuelling under pressure, as was the norm at that time to speed up refuelling, was also forbidden. Only gravity was permitted to enhance refuelling speed.
A minimum weight of the cars was installed in order to disencourage the use of expensive lightweight materials and attempts to reduce car weight by using less robust components. The minimum became 1250 lbs. (The Shrike of Eddie Sachs had been 1150 lbs.)
Despite the latter rule stopping certain paths of evolution, the rules were a success when it came to enhancing safety. Jim Hurtubise had a massive crash in 1965 in which the fuel tank didn’t catch fire. And despite the fact that 11 cars were involved in the massive 1966 start accident, none leaked fuel, let alone went ablaze.
If there is one positive thing to say about the deaths of Dave and Eddie, it is that in the aftermath of their death safety measures increased quite a bit. It can safely be said that a number of drivers came out of heavy accidents much better, and survived potentially fatal ones because of the lessons learned at the expense of Dave and Eddie.
One thing didn’t happen though, and that's what the establishment and the traditionalists in the grandstands may have hoped for: the end of the “rear-engine revolution” and the survival of the roadster (and the Offy). One year later the rear-engine revolution was near complete. After 1964 only eight cars would start the race with their engine ahead of the driver, the last one in 1968.
At the Speedway itself, one curious phenomena was observed between 1964 and 1965. It had been the habit of spectators to buy their tickets each and every year. The same people sat on the same seats year after year, the influx of new spectators in the grandstands was tardy over the years.
It has also been suggested that a number of spectators came to the race hoping to see some exciting events, major accidents and spectacular crashes, an occasional fatality being part of the show.
But a number of spectators in Turn 4 and at the beginning of the front straight who had seen the nightmare of 1964 had been so terrified about what they had seen right in front of them that they had seen enough, gave up their seats and never came back. According to rumours, one of the largest influxes ever of new ticket holders in the Turn 4 and early front-stretch area of the grandstands took place right after the race of 1964.
Finally, there is one more result of the 1964 crash we are going to have a look at.
Dave MacDonald’s tainted reputation because of…
Dave’s reputation was promising ahead of May 1964 but effectively ruined after the crash. Even though he wasn't alive to endure it, his reputation was crushed. All the good he achieved was almost forgotten. He was held responsible for causing the visually worst-ever accident at the Speedway. The young rookie, inexperienced at the Speedway, driving over his head in a car doubted by so many experienced railbirds and specialists.
There were, however, a few other factors which over the years appear to have been all but forgotten, but may well have played their part in how Dave MacDonald was to be remembered.
The USAC Champ Car trail was in turmoil that year. It had been a near family-like affair for quite some time but with the introduction of the rear-engined cars, the arrival of Ford and Goodyear, the fair stability of the Roadster Era was under attack. And 'the establishment', the team owners whose investments were on the line, were not pleased with what was to come.
The drivers themselves were also a fairly tight-knit community, having learned the tricks on oval dirt tracks in midgets, sprint cars and champcars and meeting each other ever so often. Intruders from other racing categories and formulae weren't welcomed openly and treated with some suspect. Dave MacDonald came from the world of sportscars and had not taken the traditional road to Indianapolis: the dirt tracks and the cars that were used on those. These cars were deemed almost holy by the traditional USAC lobby and their fans: midgets, dirt cars and sprint cars.
Dave MacDonald was an intruder, seen with some suspect by the USAC regulars. And to make things worse, Dave preferred to use his own style of driving instead of adapting it to the Speedway. A lesson learned over a long time was to respect the track since it won’t respect you and will bite you if in any way possible.
It didn’t help Dave’s cause that he drove for a team that wasn’t part of the establishment. Instead, he drove for a rebel team challenging the old breed. Even the fact that the rebel (Mickey Thompson) had proven his stuff in other brands of motor racing and had earned quite a reputation over there didn't help. USAC's old guard had reason to feel challenged.
Now, had the car worked decently and not caused so much worries among the other drivers and people at the track it could have been different and have earned Dave the respect of his peers. Instead, Dave ignored the advice of his colleagues to get out of the difficult car and not take risks with himself or, worse, with his colleagues.
There are drivers who commented about Dave that he should not have driven if he had felt that his car was not alright. In the past there have been drivers who refused to drive a car, even after qualifying at Indy. (11, p.203)
Such did indeed happen at Indy, and not that long before the 1964 crash. In 1960, Jimmy Daywalt gave up on the car he had qualified for the race. He didn’t feel comfortable with the car once it had been torn down after qualifying and built up again. (29) Another legendary case was way before that: Bennett Hill, assigned to the front-wheel drive Miller factory car persuaded Harry Miller to withdraw the car since it wasn’t right. Hill drove relief that race in the other FWD Miller that eventually finished second.
Then, in the actual race, Dave for whatever reason ignored all advice to take it easy, failed to remember his own feelings and made a rush to the front. In his book about the Los Angeles racing scene Joe Scalzo put down the comment that Dick Rathman had stopped his car in time to avoid ending up in the carnage as well. Still angry about Dave’s chop on him Dick looked around for Dave to have a talk with him. Scalzo then tells that Rathman found out that he wasn’t the only driver looking for MacDonald to talk with him about his manner of racing those first two laps. (15, p.101)
The stories about the Thompson carrying 80 or more gallons of fuel which somehow could not be put to rest didn’t help Dave’s cause either. It left the impression that he had been driving a potential bomb on wheels and instead of being careful initially he had taken too many risks. Also, it was known that Dave initially had his reservations about his car. Yet when it really mattered he put those aside, at the expense of his own safety and that of his colleagues. He could have withdrawn from the car in time but for whatever reason had not done so. As already told, his hopes of becoming a part of the Ford onslaught on racing worldwide was a major reason. After the accident, George MacDonald, Dave’s father (who knew about Dave’s weariness about the car) stated the only reason Dave drove the car was that he felt obliged to.
Apart from Dave another driver lost his life in the accident as well. In the eyes of almost everyone he was an innocent victim who had no place to go and could not be blamed for what had happened. Of all drivers, he happened to be one of the crowd favourites. Few drivers were as popular and universally well-loved as Eddie Sachs. And now, due to the actions of a young and inexperienced rookie, the beloved Eddie was killed helplessly, hardly having had a chance at all.
There is no definitive proof that these sentiments were a factor in the way Dave MacDonald was seen by the racing world (drivers, team owners, officials) and the press in the immediate aftermath of the accident, but it is not unlikely these sentiments were fed by one or more of the points above.
Why these sentiments have lived on over the years has been explained already. First of all, incorrect details were being cited time after time. Another reason was IMS and USAC wanting to put the entire affair behind them as soon as possible. USAC reacted in a decent manner with new rules enhancing safety. The 1965 race was one of the safest on record. It suited USAC and others to try to forget about it and leave matters as they were. Of course, it could never be forgotten but everyone tried hard to ignore it as soon as possible. Even if people realized that not all the facts about the accident weren’t correct all the time, they simply took it for granted. Why open the can of worms yet again?
Another factor might have been the traumatic experience the entire scene had been for thousands and thousands of people in the grandstands. One of the effects of the trauma has already been mentioned: the number of people that never returned to the Speedway. Apart from those, there were many more people who somehow had seen at least something. Up until 1964 the “500” had not been on live television but in 1964 it was possible to see the race live for the first time ever. This happened nationwide in cinemas showing the race in black and white on their screens. It is told by Charlie Brockman, who was involved in the broadcast, that the coverage of the events and the actual crash had not been very good. (3, p.545) Nevertheless, thousands of people all over the country somehow saw part of the nightmarish scenes on the straight and how the race had to be stopped because of it. Dave MacDonald’s father, for example, attended a cinema in Los Angeles to watch the race.
How many of those cinema spectators would have had experiences comparable to what some of the spectators at the track went through? How many of those attendants at both track and cinema would have really cared to read more about the accident, both in its direct aftermath and in later years, and know in detail what really happened? And for the media to backtrack on their original publications or spend attention to getting the truth in print - not very likely to happen. Since no-one cared or wanted to know, with a very plausible string of causes to explain the drama now commonly known, the situation was left pretty much as it was. This also led to the incorrect information being re-used on the occasions the subject came up for discussion or publication.
The race was, of course, a PR nightmare for Ford. They had seven cars in the field, and two Ford drivers were killed in the gasoline fire, the fuel Ford had insisted upon. On top of that, the heavily favoured Lotus-Fords were eliminated from the race due to the wrong tyre choice by Colin Chapman, who had refused to take Ford’s advice. One Ford-powered car made it to the finish, in second place but a long way behind AJ Foyt, who ironically had been denied the Lotus-Ford back-up car. Ford had just about every reason to try and keep a low profile in the aftermath of the race. It also meant that whatever statement Ford could have made in order to rectify Dave MacDonald's memory never came.
On the other hand, because of their PR department keeping silent, Ford never made any comment that increased the blame on Dave in order to save their own face.
And, to twist the knife in Dave’s back firmly, at least one of the prime US publications appearing fairly shortly after the race had some very negative comments about Dave MacDonald and Mickey Thompson and his organisation. (18)
Mickey Thompson and Dave MacDonald (in car): employer and employee, but also two friends sharing a dream.
I have no idea how much all of these negative comments appearing in print either in the direct aftermath of the crash or in later years were fuelled by the sentiments I listed above, but taking all of this into consideration, what chance did Dave MacDonald have of being remembered with respect once his funeral was over?
Even before the start of the race the odds were pretty much against him. He could have proven his distractors wrong by racing an intelligent race, keeping his nose clean in the early parts, settling in and getting familiar with the circumstances of driving the early laps of an Indianapolis 500. And then, with the race well underway, he could have put his experience gained in traffic to use in the later phases of the race. Dave had quite a good reputation in sports cars, so there is a good chance that if Dave had brought his car home to the finish with a decent classification he would have been applauded for doing well in a car known to be tricky and questionable. That's what what was written about his fellow rookie Walt Hansgen. (18)
Regrettably, Dave opted for a different strategy, one that had suited and served him well elsewhere. Indianapolis was a different world and Dave seems to have failed to acknowledge that and react accordingly.
It is nearly impossible to proclaim Dave MacDonald as entirely innocent to his spin on the second lap. It is true that other factors (such as the cars directly in front of him) played their part but he ended up there because he was charging to the front, having failed to follow the advice of experienced men like Mickey Thompson and Henry Banks, and failing to respond properly to his own initial feelings about his car, including his weariness about not having driven it with full tanks, as Bill Stroppe seemed to have noticed. (3, p.531)
Of course, it is so easy to accuse Dave of doing something stupid despite his own worries. Why didn't he trust his thoughts and the advice he was given and for once change his strategy of going hell-for-leather on the first laps? But then, here you are as a rookie in your first ever “500”, the holy grail of motor racing in the US. Try to remain cool and avoid being dragged into the razzmatazz of all that! In all those years, how many of the good intentions of drivers, rookies and veterans will have been thrown out of the window once the race was on?
It is, however, fair to say that once the car had spun everything that happened after that can't be blamed on Dave. Once in a spin, he was a helpless passenger. Regrettably, the car burst into flames on impact with the wall. Was that Dave’s fault? And was it his fault that his car was thrown back onto the track?
By now it can be argued that “The nightmare of the second lap of 1964” can be separated into two parts, the first parts being a race accident, caused by what must be seen as a driver error, the second part a sequence of events in which everything that could possibly contribute to a disaster did in fact happen. This was a chain of events that had its beginning well before the race, with matters like a lousy fuel-tank construction and the use of gasoline fuel in some of the cars. Fate had it that precisely such a car spun after a case of driver error and hit the wall. Everything else that happened after that was an avalanche of events, out of control to anybody, resulting in the nightmare as we remember it.
Is it still possible to proclaim Dave MacDonald guilty of everything we remember about that nightmare? Or is that opting for the easy way out? Put all the guilt on his shoulders (and thus in his coffin) and you prevent that a living person had to deal with the burden. Blame the dead man, that’s the problem solved. But what about the people Dave MacDonald left behind? People can act so violently against other people related to a person remembered for doing something terrible, even if those friends and relatives had nothing to do with the event itself.
Now, more than 45 years later, it is about time to realize that Dave MacDonald's memory is not just tainted because of his own error but perhaps more so because of circumstances beyond his control. It's true that Dave MacDonald was no innocent by-stander to the tragedy of May 30, 1964. It can't be ignored, let alone wiped aside, that he ignored advice given by experienced people and refused to play it save in the wildest part of the race, in circumstances he was unfamiliar with, in a car of questionable reputation. However, it appears that for reasons of convenience just about everything else that took place that month cumulating into that horrible crash is put in his shoes as well. Therefore Dave was condemned too harshly for his errors ever since, partly because a few important pieces of historical documentation about the Indianapolis 500 contain errors in dire need of correction. Hopefully these articles will contribute to the record being put straight at last.
You might think that I was out to rehabilitate Dave MacDonald, getting him entirely cleaned of guilt and responsibility for the accident. That's not what I aimed for. Even the staunchest fan of Dave MacDonald can't achieve full rehabilitation. That's simply impossible. But shouldn't we at least - and at last - quit blaming, cursing and accusing him for things that were beyond his control and of which he, like Eddie Sachs, was a helpless victim?
Rest in peace Mickey Thompson.
Rest in peace Eddie Sachs.
Rest in peace Dave MacDonald. Rest in peace with Eddie Sachs and your friend Mickey Thompson, and all your other friends and loved ones who have followed you over the years.
Due to his fate, Dave MacDonald memorabilia are few and far between, and have value because of the wrong reasons. Dave's official qualifying picture is well-known but this is no doubt among the rarest and most valuable of all prints in existence that was made using this particular negative. The picture itself was taken just over two weeks before his death so Dave had little opportunity to sign these prints personally in the time he had left. (from the collection of John Douglas, used with permission; original copyright IMS Photos, used with permission)