The Indy 1964 second-lap disaster - Closing in on the truth
Part 1: Introduction
- Henri Greuter
- October 25, 2010; with December 8, 2011 & August 17, 2014 additions
- The Indy 1964 second-lap disaster - Closing in on the truth, by Henri Greuter
Thompson-Ford 'Sears Allstate Special'
1964 Indianapolis 500, practice
Practically since the moment it happened the fiery accident during the second lap of the 1964 Indianapolis 500-miles race is told to have been caused by irresponsible driving by the inexperienced rookie driver Dave MacDonald at the wheel of an unsafe car containing some 80 or more gallons of the gasoline fuel that was deemed so dangerous.
After he lost control and hit the wall his car burst into flames, got back on the track and blocked the track for four drivers unable to avoid it. Eddie Sachs, also in a gasoline-fuelled car, also allegedly containing some 80 gallons of the dangerous stuff, ran into the MacDonald wreck. Both cars spilled their entire fuel content in the resulting fire.
However, in the summer of 1964 several local newspapers and national publications already printed that both cars involved did not contain in excess of 55 gallons and that the Sachs car still contained the majority of its fuel load after it had burnt out. Over the years however, all kinds of negative sentiments regarding Dave MacDonald, his car and the team he drove for, as well as the ignorance of said publications and incorrect facts published in contemporary publications which have been repeated over the years have resulted in an incorrect view and opinion on several matters related to this tragedy.
Discussion on a motor racing forum and further research on the subject suggests that a number of 'facts' on the accident that are generally taken for granted are in fact incorrect. The entire tragedy started with a racing accident, indeed caused by driver error. However, the resulting fiery tragedy, more often than not also blamed on MacDonald, appears to be an unfortunate sequence of circumstances, for which MacDonald cannot be held fully responsible. Therefore his reputation in racing history has been tainted too negatively.
This series of articles contains a detailed presentation to support the above conclusions.
The saddest aspect of this series is that it contains little to no relevant information that is entirely new. There is no information presented here that was never published before or wasn’t known to anybody else but me. However, several sources used in this presentation (and the publications containing the information) are so little known that these may be considered new to probably the majority of readers.
Of the many accidents which happened at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the one that took place on the second lap of the 1964 race is likely the most horrible and ghastly of them all. Not because it was the biggest, involving the most cars. The first-lap third-turn crash of 1958 and the two start accidents of 1966 and 1973 involved more cars. But the 1964 second lap gets the nod due to the fiery inferno that the accident eventually became.
After the investigations of everything that had could have contributed to this crash were finished, the final conclusions that have lived on since were that a young and inexperienced driver had driven 'over his head', as they say, in a dangerous car loaded with up to 100 gallons of fuel, and ended up having an accident that took his life as well as that of another driver who was also driving a 'funny car' loaded with 100 gallons of gasoline.
However, due to all kinds of reasons, some of which were entirely understandable while others definitely weren't, lots of facts about this accident continue to be repeated which are either not entirely correct or pulled out of their proportions and, in some cases, untrue. As a result, one young driver killed in the accident was proclaimed guilty of the accident, his own death and that of another driver.
This verdict has been taken for granted ever since. Little has been done to once again investigate the accident to find out what was ignored or overlooked, or to give some aspects of the accident a different perspective.
Over the years I have always had some kind of interest for the events of 1964, primarily since one of the cars involved in the accident was a Novi driven by Bobby Unser. In 1994 I did research for a book about the 1961-1968 period of the Novi legend and naturally I got to deal with Race Day 1964 as well. I vividly recall reading a piece about the accident's aftermath telling that a large quantity of fuel in the wreck of Eddie Sachs was still in the fuel tanks. Regrettably I forgot to photocopy this piece of evidence but I put it down in my notes and realized that the story of the entire fuel load of both cars having gone up in flames were incorrect. Having seen video footage of the horrific scenes, it made me wonder how bad it would have been if indeed all the fuel had been released during the accident.
Other than using this info for the aforementioned Novi project, little happened with it until August 2007.
In October 2005, a group of race fans, both amateur and professional historians and all members of the autosport.com Nostalgia Forum, had taken up a subject related to the accident: the Mickey Thompson cars of 1964.
After a very slow start, the topic really took off almost two years later, in August 2007. All of a sudden, the topic appeared to be discovered by a number of forum members. I was among the ones entering the ongoing discussion.
One year later, this group of people had pooled so much knowledge and facts that it was no longer possible to stick with the generally accepted story. Some of the initial conclusions about the accident couldn't be disproved, but there were several matters related to this drama that proved to be rather different from the way they are told to be most of the time. Given the opportunity, I wrote an article about the events, using the TNF info, for Dutch magazine RTL GP. It was published in April 2009. (28)
In 2011 it will be the 100th anniversary of the “500”. There is no doubt that the glorious moments of the past 100 years will be remembered on any number of occasions and in all kinds of manners. And there is no doubt as well that the same will happen on occasion with some of the saddest and most tragic and horrible moments at the Speedway. 1964 will undoubtedly be ranked among its darkest moments. When they will indeed be brought up again, how many of the familiar facts that are proven to be incorrect will be repeated yet again?
This writing (compiled in September 2010) was based on all the information available in the Nostalgia Forum discussion, as well as published elsewhere but often mentioned and used in this discussion. I gratefully acknowledge all the people who were part of this discussion for their efforts. The result is that we have come much closer to the truth of what really happened in May 1964 and what cumulated into the devastating scenes of May 30, 1964, a little past 11 AM.
It is impossible that the one and only truth will ever present itself in every tiny little detail. Because of the death of several people involved some 'facts' will forever remain a question. That is why this series of articles is entitled Closing in on the truth. However, I am convinced that a number of facts, stories and details presented here are more accurate than the version generally known and accepted.
Part 2: Before May 30, 1964
- About Dave MacDonald and Eddie Sachs
- The 1964 Mickey Thompson Sears Allstate Special
- An evaluation of the 1964 car, compared with the 1963 version
- The 1964 “500” practice and qualifying
Part 3: May 30, 1964
- The events of May 30, 1964, up until MacDonald leaving Turn 4 for the second time
- Why or how did Dave MacDonald lose control of his car?
- About the inferno
- Gasoline responsible for the inferno?
- The fatalities: Eddie’s responsibility?
Part 4: Since May 31, 1964
- 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
(1) Can-Am challenger. Peter Bryant, David Bull Publishing. Phoenix, AZ, USA, (2007) ISBN -10: 1 893618 86 2
(2) Design & Development of the Indycar. Roger Huntington, HP Books, Tucson AZ, USA (1981) ISBN 0-89586-103-8
(3) Eddie Sachs, the clown prince. Denny Miller, Authorhouse, Bloomington IN, USA, (2005), ISBN 1-4208-4894-1
(This book contains a lot of quotes used here. It is however far from unlikely that some of the quotes I credit to this publication originally come from other publications.)
(4) Eddie called me boss. Dick Sommers, Warren Publishing Company, Indianapolis IN USA, May 1979
(5) Floyd Clymer’s 1964 Indianapolis 500 Mile race Yearbook. Floyd Clymer, Los Angeles, 1964.
(6) Hurtubise. Bob Gates, Wittnes Productions, Marshall, IN, USA (1995), ISBN: 0 9627653-5-X)
(7) Indianapolis Racing Memories 1961-1969. Dave Friedman, Motorbooks International, Osceola, WI, USA (1997) ISBN 0-7603-0142-5
(8) Indy’s wildest decade. Alex Gabbard, Cartech®, Inc, North Branch, MN, USA, (2004) ISBN 1-884089-71-2
(9) Mickey Thompson, the fast life and tragic death of a racing legend. Eric Arneson, MBI Publishing Company, Minneapolis, MN, USA (2008), ISBN 978-0-7603-3178-1
(10) My road to Indy. Len Sutton, Walsworth Publishing Company, Marceline, MO, USA (2002) ISBN 0-9725421-0-8
(11) Parnelli. Bill Libby, E.P. Dutton & Co, Inc. 1969
(12) Roar from the sixties. Dick Wallen, Dick Wallen Productions, Glendale AZ, USA (1997)
(Note: Although this book lists Dick Wallen as author, the actual writer of the majority of the chapters, including the 1964 chapter, is Bob Schilling)
(13) The chequered flag (updated version). Ivan Rendall, George Weidenfeld & Nicholson Ltd, London. UK (1993, updated 1995), ISBN 0-297-83220-4
Books I didn’t have available but of which I found quotes are:
(14) The Jack Brabham Story. Doug Nye, Pavilion Books (2004), ISBN: 10-186205651X
(15) City of Speed, Los Angeles and the rise of American racing. Joe Scalzo, Motorbooks International, Osceola, WI, USA (2007). ISBN: 10-0760327203
(NB: Publisher’s data given as found on the Internet)
(16) “A.J. Foyt becomes two-time `500`winner”. Tom McGeehan, National Speed Sport News, June 3, 1964
(17) “Fiery Crash worst in history”. Tom McGeehan, National Speed Sport News, June 3, 1964
(18) “Indianapolis 500”. David E. Davis, Jr, Car and Driver, August 1964
(19) “Indianapolis 500”. Tony Hogg, Road and Track, 1964, exact publication date unknown.
(20) “Indianapolis 500 miles race”. Peter Garnier, Autocar, 5 June 1964
(21) “Instant of terror as 500 goes up in flame”. Life, June 26th, 1964
(22) “Peter Garnier’s personal view of the INDY SPECTACULAR”. Peter Garnier, Autocar, 19 June 1964.
(23) “The inside story of the Sachs/MacDonald 1964 500” (part 1 and 2). Bob Falcon, The Alternate, Vol 19, number 4 Issue 220 (April 18, 2007) and number 5, Issue 221 (May 15, 2007)
(I had the printed versions of the magazine available but the pages with the articles can be found on the Internet.)
Magazine articles found on the Internet that I have used:
(24) Website: SI Vault. After the Indianapolis fire: An Argument. Kenneth Rudeen, Sports Illustrated, June 22nd 1964
(25) Website: Automobile. American Driver: "Lone Star JR" Johnny Rutherford. David E. Davis, Jr.
(Publication date unknown, I have seen it for the first time in 2007.)
(26) The TNF thread about the Mickey Thompson cars saw some parts posted from a race report as published in Sports Car Graphic. Even though it was incomplete as it was available to me, I still made use of it nonetheless.
In the text I have included the (__) numbers in order to list which reference provided the information. I have added the page numbers in order to help people who are doubting the quotes to be correct.
Not used for references about the 1964 events but for related info and other purposes:
(27) Novi, the legendary Indianapolis race car. Volume Two: The Granatelli years (1961-1966). George Peters & Henri Greuter, Bar Jean Enterprises, 1998, ISBN 0-96-30227-1-7
(28) 'May Day'. Henri Greuter, RTL GP, number 2, April 2009
(29) Floyd Clymer’s 1961 Indianapolis 500 Mile Race Yearbook. Floyd Clymer, Los Angeles, 1961
(30) The Watson years. Gary Wayne, Witness Productions, Marchall, IN, USA (2001) ISBN 1-891390-09-1
(31) The Roadsters of Indianapolis… Glory days. Greg Littleton & Bill Enoch, Art in the Heartland, Columbus, IN, USA (2004), ISBN 0-9762103-7-1
(32) The Bill Krause Interview, by Willem Oosthoek. Originally published in Il Tridente, Spring 1999 edition, the club magazine of the Maserati club in the USA
Finally, I must mention the autosport.com Nostalgia Forum, in particular the The Mickey Thompson 'Sears Allstate Special' cars of 1964 thread.
This is the place where much of the scattered evidence available ignored over the years was pooled and discussed. It made me realize that the story about the 'crash of 1964' as told over the years was incorrect and needed to be re-written.
This thread also contained some links to newspaper fragments from local newspapers published in May 1964, primarily the Indianapolis Star, which I also used.
From November 2011 on, new sources of information were posted in the ongoing thread about the Mickey Thompson cars. I have obtained permission to use these sources to update the site. The following articles were used:
(33) 'Thompson in all out Indy bid hires MacDonald as new driver', Bob Thomas, printed in what appears to be a newspaper issued in the Long Beach area, exact name unknown, printdate listed: December 6th 1965
(34) 'Indy diary', author unknown, Motor Trend, April 1964 (At least the first page if not more of this article was/were not posted)
(35) 'Sears tries the big time', George Moore, Motor Trend, April 1964
(36) 'The Mittman behind the bat', Dick Mittman, Indianapolis Times, exact publication date unknown but must have been about June 10th.
Used for updating articles in August 2013:
(37) California Gold, the legendary life of Troy Ruttman. Bob Gates, Pitstop Books, Zionsville, Indiana, USA (2012). ISBN-10: 0-9742668-6-8
(38) Lotus 25 Climax FWMV, A technical appraisal. Ian Bamsey, Foulis Motoring Book by Racecar Engineering, Sparkford, England (1990). ISBN 0-85429-802-9
In the spring of 2014 the following book became available. It has been used for this appendix to the original story. One of the author's observations was serious enough for me to include a correction in Part 3 since it sets an error straight in my original manuscript.
(39) Black Noon. The year they stopped the Indy 500, Art Garner, Thomas Dunne Books St Martin’s Press, New York, NY, USA (2014). ISBN 978-1250-01777-2
(40) In January 2016 we received personal correspondence from John Crosthwaite Jr, the son of John Crosthwaite who was the designer of the original 1963 Thompson cars. Some data exchanged within this correspondence has been used for an update of Part 2 of this series.
I watched the film British Invasion as well as the film The Roadster’s Last Triumph, released by First Turn Corporation LLC.
Due to the gruesome aspect of the subject I have limited the number of pictures used here and modified one of them. Most can be found on the Nostalgia forum thread already mentioned. When known, I have mentioned the original sources. In case copyright owners object against the use of their pictures, please contact 8W in order to have the proper credit lines added or have them removed.
First of all, I want to express my sincere thanks to all the participants to the Autosport/AtlasF1 Nostalgia forum thread The Mickey Thompson 'Sears Allstate Special' cars of 1964. Sometimes we ran in circles, sometimes evidence came forward to be discussed, sometimes these were only assumptions causing heated discussions. The results were that we gathered information that did exist but appeared to be long-forgotten and sometimes ignored. Discussing all of this brought us much closer to the truth about the events of May 1964 and in a position to prove that a sad part of Indy 500 history is in need of rewriting. I am sure that others among us may have been tempted to write about this subject. Thanks to our combined efforts at TNF I gave it a try here but without all of our knowledge and efforts combined I would never have done it to begin with. I’ve learned from you too, thanks for that.
Special thanks to my friend Paul Hooft of Zoetermeer, the Netherlands, for providing me a copy of one of the essential books used for reference within this work.
Regrettably, she can’t see the fruits of her cooperation since she has deceased by now. But I also owe a word of thanks to Phyllis Devine, publisher of The Alternate magazine. Once I was aware of the existence of this magazine containing articles about the Sachs-MacDonald disaster and informed how to obtain copies of these editions, Mrs Devine made them available to me before the pages went online. Racing has lost a big fan and friend with her heart in the right place when she left this world.
Thanks to Bob Falcon who was so kind to reply to my messages in order to get additional information after I had read his in-depth reports presented in The Alternate.
Also my special thanks to the men of First Turn Productions LLC for providing several pictures used here, and to John Douglas for allowing me to publish his signed copy of Dave MacDonald's qualifying picture.
Finally, my sincere thanks to 8W editor Mattijs Diepraam for providing me the space needed to tell this story and doing the much needed editing.