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The Indy 1964 second-lap disaster - Closing in on the truth
Part 3: May 30, 1964


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Jim Hurtubise, Walt Hansgen, Dave MacDonald, Len Sutton


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1964 Indianapolis 500, lap 2

Jim Hurtubise, Walt Hansgen, Dave MacDonald, Len Sutton, 1964 Indianapolis, lap 2

The events of May 30, 1964, up until MacDonald leaving Turn 4 for the second time

Denny Miller’s book on Eddie Sachs contains two pieces about the warnings Dave MacDonald received before the start of the race. Mickey Thompson himself was one of the two men who allegedly asked Dave to “go slow at the first” to which Dave supposedly replied by saying he would be careful. (3, p.551)

Mickey’s wife Judy Thompson also recalled that during the cab ride from the hotel to the track her husband had warned Dave to take it easy early on in the race. (9, p.141)

The second person advising Dave to be careful was USAC official Henry Banks. According to Miller’s book, Banks went to see MacDonald before the start and told Dave he (Banks) felt that, despite Dave’s good starting position, his car wasn't capable of winning the race. Banks went on to suggest to Dave to “cool it for the first two laps”. Dave’s reply on this was that he thanked Banks for “all the help you have given me.” (3, p.563)

In his book, Miller mentioned that Mickey Thompson had pumped up Dave MacDonald to the effect that Dave thought he could win the race. Such was observed by two drivers and the aforementioned mechanic Bill Stroppe. (3, p.531 & 536)

What Dave MacDonald’s feelings and motivations before the race really were is anybody’s guess. It could well be that he had been hyped up by Thompson, his confidence in both his own abilities and his car's capabilities boosted by the results on Carb Day. If he had indeed been warned to take it easy early on, what kind of effect would that have had on him? Did he feel they could be right, or was he annoyed by their comments because it showed their lack of confidence in him?

Besides that, the early part of the 500 is a nerve-wrecking time, certainly if you are up against it for the first time in your career. And despite the fact that drivers were warned each and every year, not all drivers accepted the advice to avoid taking risks in the early stages based on the wisdom that you could only lose the race early on instead of winning it in the first laps. It was so easy to get too excited early on in the race.

Whatever happened to Dave MacDonald once he was in the cockpit of his car and the flag had dropped, he was a man on a mission, along with 32 other drivers.

The race had a decent start with pole-sitter Jim Clark leaving the field behind like a rocket. Dave MacDonald was part of the race for a little under two laps. There is a picture taken seconds after the start with Clark heading into Turn One already. In this picture Eddie Sachs is at level with Dave MacDonald but on the outside of the track, with some three car widths between them. A few seconds later, in the early part of the turn, Sachs is actually ahead of MacDonald and Rutherford is the driver next to Dave.

Turn One, Lap 1, 1964 Indianapolis 500

This picture proves that, despite starting one row behind Dave, Eddie was actually ahead of Dave in the race, although very briefly. This is the first pass through Turn One, right after the start. See how low Bobby Unser had gone with the Novi-Ferguson.

Several cars were driving partly or even entirely below the white line in that first turn but Dave was at least initially not one of them.

Video footage of that first turn can be found in the film British Invasion, released on both video and DVD. This film was discussed in the autosport.com TNF thread and I reviewed the scene. I posted my observations in the thread and I reproduce them here, slightly re-edited to account for language errors:

You can see that Eddie Sachs is ahead of Dave at that time. On the inside of the turn is Johnny Boyd who has the entire car below the white line, then it's Dave and Rutherford on the right.

Boyd is faster so he edges ahead of Dave and then Dave dives down and his left wheels do drop below the white line, cutting off Ronnie Duman by then. About 1/4th of the car is on the left of the white line, he is not close to the grass in that turn. It appears as if Johnny Boyd is drifting back to the right, back onto the track again with Dave diving into his slipstream.

The sequence starts too late to ascertain whether Johnny went under the white line, feeling forced to do so because of Dave next to him.

Bobby Unser in the 4WD Novi is also below the white line with his entire car. Dave is not, but it is clear to see that he dives rather deep into the turn. But Johnny Boyd directly ahead of him, and Ronnie Duman directly behind Dave were much deeper below the white line than Dave was at the time.

You can also see the cars pass through the short chute for the first time. Rutherford is ahead of Dave at that moment again, an entire car's length. He is near the wall, Dave appears to be low but not ridiculously low. During the first pass through the short chute as I described, when I counted, Rutherford was 15th, Dave was 16th.

Another DVD, released in 2007 about the 1964 race, is called The Roadster’s last triumph by First Turn Productions. The quality of the film used is not that good since it is made up of material made by spectators with home-movie cameras. Nonetheless, this report contains a lot of interesting footage taken during the first two laps.

The DVD has footage of the first time the field goes through Turn Two. The cars are difficult to identify and I was unable to make a positive identification of Dave. But I think I did spot him and assuming I’m correct, he wasn’t way off line in that scene and in 15th spot.

I think I spotted Dave in the first pass through Turn Three but it is impossible for me to pinpoint him exactly. There are no cars doing strange things.

I recognize Dave in the first pass through Turn Four. He is 12th at that moment. You see the cars heading into Four, seen from the chute, looking into their tailpipes. Now here it appears as if Dave closes in rapidly on the car in front of him and the rear of the car is stepping out sideways but caught in time to continue.

Then there is footage of coming out of Turn Two for the second time. I recognize Hurtubise in 8th, Hansgen in 9th and an unidentified driver in 10th, maybe Sutton? Dave is 11th. He goes rather low into the turn but so is Hansgen as well as the car right behind Dave. Behind Dave there are two other cars, then there is a gap and then a group of Sachs, Rutherford and Duman following each other closely, a gap of about two cars followed by a fourth car, that of Veith.

On the footage of the first two laps of the 1964 race that I had available there is one single moment which I believe may show that Dave was close to losing the car.

I have read observations by others taking part in the TNF thread that in their opinion Dave’s driving wasn’t abnormal. However, what was written about Dave's driving conduct during those two laps is somewhat different.

Johnny Rutherford has been quoted in a number of books about his 1964 experiences. The following piece is taken from Denny Miller’s Sachs book (it could however have appeared in other books before).

“MacDonald was starting to my left and he took off like a scalded dog. He was really zig-zagging through traffic. He was passing guys down below the white line and he touched wheels with someone that first lap. I don’t recall who it was. I thought he was either going to win the race or crash. (3, p.536) (…) We made the first lap and MacDonald was still hooking them. In fact, he had gone through traffic to a point where I wasn’t seeing him anymore.” (3, p.536)

In his book City of Speed, Los Angeles and the rise of American racing (15), Joe Scalzo vividly paints Dick Rathmann's views of the race. Rathmann had started 12th. I do have some difficulties with the way these experiences have been described so I will abstain from quoting this passage. But according to Scalzo, Rathmann was chopped by Dave early on. (15, p.101)

Sir Jack Brabham said the following in The Jack Brabham Story, written with Doug Nye:

“All the way round the rolling lap before the start - mindful of Masten's warning - I just kept my eyes riveted on that red car, knowing it was brimful of fuel. It was visibly very unsteady, I did not take my eyes off of it. We came out of Turn Four, green flags, and we were racing. My eyes were still glued on that odd-looking car a couple of rows ahead. Dave MacDonald nearly lost it in Turn Two, but caught it. In Turn Three he was again all over the place.” (14)

Now, Sir Jack and Johnny Rutherford's statements raise a big question. It reads as if at one point Johnny Rutherford lost sight of Dave MacDonald’s position on the track, yet Sir Jack (who was at that time running behind both men) still had Dave in sight? I don’t want to draw any conclusions but I think this is something that needs to be mentioned in order to allow people to make up their mind.

The quotes seem to contradict the observations of the people participating in the TNF thread, who have watched the available footage and commented on it. But I instantly want to point out that watching a video or DVD on TV is entirely different from being on track participating in the 500 and driving against, among others, Dave MacDonald. Besides that, there is more to say about the way to perceive any form of movie material.

Fred Bailey, a movie director involved with the film coverage of the race, has been quoted as follows:

“MacDonald passed eight cars! I thought he was travelling about eighth, ninth when the accident happened. (3, p.549)

(…) In the stuff that I’ve seen since and studied, I have been able to follow MacDonald from virtually the starting flag until the moment he crashed. He was driving down and passing underneath the cars.

He almost lost it a time or two before. He was driving over his head. I think had he taken his time and settled down for a few laps and gone with the flow, things would have been all right.

One of our cameramen was up in the Air Florida helicopter right at the time and he got everything up to the actual accident, just as he was to spin. He had been following him on the backstretch through Turn Three through the short chute and into Four. Then he stopped shooting. You could see him just starting to go sideways. We had good ground coverage. It was interesting to study this film and watch what MacDonald did because you could see what it was building up to” (3, p.549)

In another quote, Bailey said:

“He [Dave MacDonald, HG] was definitely driving over his head. He was driving down under the yellow line and passing cars, coming underneath theirs. The reason I can say this is because I have film of it. The record shows that MacDonald passed eight cars on the first lap or up to the point he crashed.” (3, p.561)

Danny Miller quoted an explanation of what had happened by Mickey Thompson:

"Dave spun in the straightaway. He came out and he was straight. I don’t want to elaborate but I saw pictures taken from the Goodyear blimp that shows exactly what happened. He had to move down to miss another car. He was about 10 miles faster because he had come out of the corner so fast.” (3, p.551)

Personally, I have never seen footage taken from above the track but I am pretty certain that a number of people would love to see it in order to find an answer to the one question that is pretty much the most important question of them all.

It is difficult to avoid coming to one conclusion. There are so many statements by drivers who were out on the track with MacDonald, each having told similar things, each in their own words. Some observations by people off the track, using the film footage available to them, all indicate the same.

Were all of these people entirely wrong in their opinion? Was Dave the victim of some kind of conspiracy (intentional or not) by all of these people who all put out the same kind of explanation? A very crude accusation, and whatever the drivers must have had against Dave, I find it hard to believe that so many of them would actually participate in a combined and intentional move that would be so tough on one of their colleagues.

So I have to accept “the theory of large numbers” this time. There is a large number of statements, all suggesting the same thing (MacDonald took too much risks) and so, lacking any better explanation, we must believe and accept what the drivers and observers told and what this suggests.

Added mid-2014: In his book Black Noon (39) Art Garner states that some of the hard words about MacDonald were unjustified and incorrect. Although Dave did drive aggressively (30, p.301), some of the comments made by Johnny Rutherford in particular are untrue. (39, p302). Dave’s reputation was unjustifiably tarnished by these comments.

Nevertheless, for whatever reasons, Dave MacDonald appears to have ignored all the good advice he got that month, up until that morning, and tried to gain positions early on in the race by stepping on the gas. Instead of taking it easy early on and let the race come to him, he went for it, almost instantly, in a way that contradicts the concerns he may have had about his car and his experience with a car all fuelled up, as Bill Stroppe seemed to have noticed.

Dave wasn’t the first driver taking too many risks early in the race, and he wouldn’t the last. But one of the talking points at the drivers briefing ahead of the race is indeed to remind the drivers the race isn’t won in the first laps but after 200 laps. But the “500” has something special that brings up emotions and feelings in a driver that are difficult to control. But was this really so much of a factor?

According Bill Marcel, Dave had a reputation on the West Coast (where he had raced Corvettes and Cobras) of racing to the front as quick as possible, trying to overtake as many cars as he could in the first lap. (9, p.141)

This race approach would work against Dave later on. Since so many sources told he had taken too many risks in these first two laps, it was easy to see that as the main reason why he lost control of his car. Even if the actual reason for his car spinning didn't have anything to do with his driving style, the spin was immediately associated and credited to his risky driving. Which he appears to have done, given the amount of evidence suggesting so.

Because of this, the question below was needless to many people. But it is a valid question nonetheless: was the reason Dave spun indeed the result of his driving style?

Why or how did Dave MacDonald lose control of his car?

The entire tragedy of that fateful race all started with one single mishap. Everything else that reminds us of the 1964 race would not have happened if this mishap had not taken place.

According to Speedway observers, Dave had passed Troy Ruttman after a daring swoop in the middle of Turn Four. (24) When coming out of Turn Four for the second time, following Jim Hurtubise and Walt Hansgen, Dave MacDonald lost control of his car. How or why this happened is not known in precise, hard details. Publicly available films of the accident fail to show the exact cause why MacDonald lost control. There is talk of footage shot from the air but to my knowledge these films haven't been made public.

Driver Len Sutton gave the following eye-witness account in his book My Road to Indy:

“In the second lap at the end of the back stretch, going into the third turn, Dave MacDonald went whistling by me, jumped on the binders and proceeded across the short chute in front of me. Walt Hansgen was right in front of him then and Dave drove it deep under him, but not deep enough for Walt to see him. When Hansgen came down, as that was his line, Dave had to get his nose out or turn left enough to keep from running into him. Dave's back end got away from him and he headed for the inside guard rail.” (10, p.75)

Sir Jack Brabham had the following printed in his biography:

“Then, coming out of Turn Four, it happened. Dave's ultra-low Thompson car flicked broadside, and he lost it. Instantly I hit my brakes. Dave MacDonald's car speared down to the inside.” (14)

Turn Four, Lap 2, 1964 Indianapolis 500

It’s still looking fairly innocent at this stage, literally moments after what started a nightmare. On the left in the roadster is Jim Hurtubise, on his right is Walt Hansgen and then comes Dave MacDonald, out of control already and heading for disaster. On the far right is Len Sutton.

Fred Bailey, who had film material for verification, said the following:

“You could tell easily because our cameraman picked up the lead car and you can see all the cars coming through and identify them one after the other. All of a sudden here comes MacDonald. You can see him hading towards us, facing us. He’s coming towards us with his back end coming around. By the time he hit, right square in front of Morris, his right side was almost broadslide to the wall. He had passed eight cars at the beginning of the race.” (3, p.549)

The exact reason why Dave lost control isn't proven beyond doubt. There are a few theories, however. It has been stated by a number of drivers that Dave drove very aggressively those first two laps, way over his head, losing the car as a result in Turn Four.

Did he lose the car on his own or were there any other contributing factors?

A) Mechanical failure has been suspected. There are pictures of the car, having already spun and heading for the wall, in which it looks as if the front tyres aren't angled similarly but one having turned in, the other straightforward. This would suggest a steering failure. The pictures in question, however, are blurred and too vague to see clearly.

Dave MacDonald, 1964 Indianapolis 500

This image has been used as evidence that the Thompson had a mechanical failure related to the steering. Looking at first sight it appears as if the left front wheel is countersteering to steer out of the spin while the right front wheel isn't angled but directed straightforward. When studying the picture a moment longer this illusion disappears and it seems as if both wheels are directed straightforward again.

Suspension and/or other failures have been suggested but never been confirmed. Besides that, any failure on the wreck after recovery raises the question if the damage found was caused by the collisions with either the wall, Sachs’ car or the other drivers who hit the car. I don’t know if the wreck has been inspected for any damage (and its causes) that could have occurred before the actual crash had taken place.

B) Dave was known to prefer taking corners with the tail hanging out, a driving style he had learned with sportscars on road tracks. Eye witness Len Sutton didn’t mention if Dave did so when going through Four. But what could have happened is that Dave was indeed pushing hard, using his favourite driving style for which he had been warned on several occasions. And while doing so, he lost the back, spinning out and heading for the wall.

C) Another theory has it that Dave was still in control of the car, but getting out of the corner much faster than the two drivers in front of him, Hurtubise and Hansgen. To avoid running into the back of either of them he had to brake or, using his speed as slingshot, pass the two men in front of him. With the outside of the track blocked, the only option was to go low and pass on the inside. But when making his move the car lost grip and started its slide to the inside wall. This theory is not much in accordance with what Sutton saw.

D) A variation of the theory that MacDonald had to take evasive action is that he indeed made a move on Hansgen but having committed to the move was apparently caught out by Hansgen himself trying an overtaking move on Hurtubise. This forced Dave to steer away to the inside of the track in order to avoid running into Hansgen's tail. He lost control and that was it.

E) Another scenario that has been put forward was that for whatever reason Dave decided on making a pit stop and was heading for the pit lane but lost control. Personally I think this is the least likely of them all.

Just about every imaginable scenario appears to have one thing in common with the others: Dave MacDonald had to avoid running into the back of at least one the cars in front of him, Walt Hansgen's car mentioned the most often.

In case of scenario D (Hansgen making a move on Hurtubise forcing Dave MacDonald to react) it becomes a question whether Hansgen was aware that MacDonald was closing in on him. In the TNF thread such a discussion took place, resulting in the blame for the accident entirely put in Hansgen´s shoes. But there is simply no available evidence that puts beyond doubt that Hansgen made a move that caused Dave MacDonald to react or in fact that Dave had made his move first already.

Suggesting that Hansgen started the accident is inappropriate and incorrect. He was involved in what happened but that's about it.

Hansgen was another rookie. Earlier in the month he drew criticism because of his way of driving, using too much track. He is also reported to have scared a number of people by using weird lines to pass in the turns. Nevertheless he was rated highly by at least one journalist. (18)

Hansgen's unusual lines might have had something to do with the fact that he drove a rear-engined car. These cars were capable of being driven through the corner and have some manoeuvrability compared with the Roadsters that were pretty much committed to their line once going into a corner.

Whatever the true scenario was, one issue must be mentioned as possibly having been a factor as well. The Thompson was known to lift, at least during practice. There seems to be evidence that during the Carb Day tests and on Race Day the lift had been reduced. But it is unknown how much lift the car had in traffic, especially when closely following other cars, in the turbulent air created by the cars in front of it. It can’t be proven but it is possible in theory that the car all of a sudden lost much of its grip once it got close to the two cars in front of him, right after MacDonald had made his move to the inside.

If Dave’s driving style was a cause of the accident, I don’t think that it was the major reason. I do feel that it did play a part, depending on which of the scenarios above you believe the most.

About the inferno

Dave MacDonald's spin could so easily have been a dangerous situation that came off good after all. There were, however, a few issues that in themselves should not have been a problem but added all up resulted in the inferno for which we remember the race.

Dave MacDonald’s car had a fuel tank that was in fact nothing but a mere rubber bladder, with little crashworthiness. The fuel on board was gasoline. A protective wall on the inside of the track could act as a bouncing medium.

I don’t want to go into detail too deeply about the actual inferno and the drama that followed. Dave’s car hit the inside retaining wall. It is published that Dave hit the wall head on but film evidence shows that the car had made a 180-degree turn before hitting the wall. Inconsequent of the way the car hit the wall, it instantly burst into flames.

Dave MacDonald, 1964 Indianapolis 500

Seen from a distance, taken a split second after the impact with the wall.

The burning wreck was bounced back onto the track by the retaining wall and slid into the direction of the finish line, along with the traffic but slowly crossing the track to the outside, leaving a trail of burning gasoline in its wake. Len Sutton drove up with MacDonald and stayed clear. In his biography he described it as follows:

“Anyone watching this unfold - and I was - could feel certain it was going to be tragic. By the time Dave's car was off the wall and heading back onto the track, I was just even with him and escaped down the front stretch.” (10, p.75)

Sir Jack Brabham told it as follows in his biography:

“The ultra-low Thompson car impacted against the concrete wall and exploded like a napalm bomb. the car then ricocheted back up at an angle leaving a blindingly bright wall of orange flame across the track.”

Dave MacDonald, 1964 Indianapolis 500

“A funnel between roaring flame and the outside wall” (Sir Jack Brabham). This picture gives a good overview of what the drivers were faced with a few seconds after MacDonald had hit the wall.

Then came a group of drivers headed by Eddie Sachs, Johnnie Rutherford, Chuck Stevenson, Ronnie Duman and Bobby Unser. There is a picture included in Denny Miller’s book on Eddie Sachs (3, p.599) that is taken from the outside grandstands a split second before the impact. On this picture it appears as if the trail of fire is making two arcs to the right, in the last, say, 50 yards that the wreck made before being hit. The first arc, a rather moderate one, was on the left side (inside) of the track, went to halfway on the track. Then there is a second, sharper arc, again to the right and crossing to the outer side of the track, with ahead of the curtain Dave MacDonald’s wreck that has gone ablaze. This picture indicates that the wreck's final crossing from inside to outside happened in the final stages of the slide, adding even more confusion to the upcoming drivers needing to decide what to do in order to avoid disaster.

Sachs was the first to reach the burning wreck. Regrettably, all his efforts to avoid MacDonald failed.

Dave MacDonald, 1964 Indianapolis 500

This chilling image is included in order to prove that Eddie Sachs (and his pursuers) had little to no chance of avoiding hitting Dave MacDonald once he had entered the “funnel”. The yellow car is driven by Johnny Rutherford, Chuck Stevenson is almost invisible right behind Rutherford. The pink car behind them is Ronnie Duman's, followed by Bobby Unser. When looking for the edge of the flame front, it can be seen that the front makes two curves, suggesting that the wreck did not follow a straight line to the outer wall.

Eddie plunged straight into the left side of the Thompson, at precisely the location of what was left of the fuel tank and its contents. As a result of this impact, the nose fuel tank in the Shrike burst as well. This, combined with the amount of fuel left in the Thompson was responsible for the volcanic-like explosions. Rutherford, Duman, Unser, and Stevenson all came through the wreckage, although Duman received major burns for which he had to be treated extensively. Johnny Rutherford’s drive through the carnage was the wildest of them all.

I won’t use one of several quotes available of Johnny telling his story. Later on, it will become clear why I haven’t done so.

Sir Jack Brabham told about his experience it as follows:

“Despite braking so hard, I just seemed to be accelerating through a funnel between roaring flame and the outside wall. I managed to slow just enough to dodge left through the fire at right angles before the burning wrecks. I was through it literally in a flash, and apart from running over some debris emerged unscathed. The race was stopped.” (14)

Eddie Sachs is reported to have been killed instantly because of chest injuries caused by the impact. Dave survived the collision by sheer miracle. Both cars were engulfed in a sea of burning gasoline and it took hard work and large quantities of fire fighters to put the fire out and retrieve the drivers. Once rescue men arrived on the scene they discovered that Eddie was beyond help. His car was taken off the track with Eddie still in the wreck, covered by a sheet.

A weird statement is found in Arneson’s biography on Mickey Thompson. It states that Dave MacDonald was thrown from, or managed to escape from his burning car, and tried to extinguish the flames. Arneson cited a 1964 National Speed Speed Sport News article (16) as his source. The same NSSN issue contained another article which stated the same. (17)

A stomach-turning research job proved to me this can’t have been the case. One of the Shrike's front wheels was ripped off in the crash and supposedly never found back again. A picture of the scene of the accident, after the fire, published in the TNF thread, shows that the Shrike is missing a front wheel but that the Thompson, by now abandoned, still has its front wheels, a fact confirmed by other pictures posted on the thread. Then there is the famous two-page article about the 1964 race as published in Life magazine with pictures of the crash, and also featuring a picture of one of the drivers in his car as he is approached by fire fighters. The car has both front wheels still attached. This has to be Dave MacDonald in the Thompson. Thus the NSSN article as cited by Arneson can’t be correct.

Life Magazine, 1964 Indianapolis 500

A scan of the Life magazine article covering the accident. The photo on top has Rutherford in the yellow car, Duman in the pink one and the white sidewall tyre is Unser’s front wheel. I have removed the picture in the right lower corner showing Dave MacDonald in the wreck after the worst part of the fire was put out. I don’t think it's suitable to include it here. There are other places on the Internet where you can find the full scan if you really want to see it.

Car and Driver magazine, 1964 Indianapolis 500

This visualisation of the accident was published in the Car and Driver race report in August 1964.
(Click on the picture for a larger image.)

MacDonald was retrieved from his wreck, still alive but horribly burned. He was treated in the trackside hospital before being rushed to Methodists Hospital. However, his burns were so severe and in addition to that his lungs had been damaged because of inhaling flames that he died shortly after arrival.

The cause of the entire accident, MacDonald losing control of his car, has not been examined in detail, as opposed to what happened thereafter: the fire and the collisions with the wreck.

An extensive analysis was carried out about how the fire broke out. One of the people involved was Bob Falcon, a man also involved with Ted Halibrand’s company, responsible for building the Shrike chassis.

More than 40 years later, being one of the few survivors having investigated the matter, Falcon wrote an article about what happened. It was published in the magazine The Alternate, published by the late Phyllis Devine. (23) Falcon’s piece was split in two and published early 2007. The article eventually found its way onto the Internet.

The most important conclusions of the investigating committee was that the Thompson was known to carry a single rubber-bladder fuel tank on the left side of the car. This bladder, fully filled with gasoline had ruptured due to the inertia of the mass of fuel within the tank. The liquid could not be compressed. Such a volume of fluid had an enormous energy, enough to damage the bladder and provide an escape road for the fuel. Another escape route mentioned by Falcon was the fuel cap, which may have become detached during the impact. With the hot exhaust pipes close by or sparks being created by the car sliding over the asphalt, the spilt fuel ignited. (23)

With regard to the exploding fuel tank, Mickey Thompson is quoted as having said:

“Dave lost most of his fuel when he hit the wall, because the fuel cell exploded. It probably wouldn’t have broken if it wasn’t full of fuel and had some air space. You can compress air.“ (3, p.551)

In his book, Pete Bryant told he had inspected the wreck and according to him, the steel flange that located the fuel filler cap on the left side was still in place, as was the actual cap. The right-side suspension was damaged and pushed into the bodywork which had been ripped off and taken away some of the fuel cell. (1, p.170)

Both these theories appear to be more than plausible enough to explain how the Thompson could burst into flames. Maybe one of the accounts is correct in detail, or maybe the facts of both theories combined is what actually happened. Does it really matter?

According to Bob Falcon, the impact damage on the Shrike was so massive the crash force must have been about 100 G. Such an impact must have caused internal injuries likely to be fatal.

For Sachs the impact was indeed fatal, MacDonald's survival could be explained as follows. Eddie hit the Thompson at the rear end of the car at engine level, so not hitting MacDonald directly near the cockpit area. None of the other cars appear to have hit Dave or were close to the cockpit area. There are printed reports in which gruesome details are mentioned proving that Dave hadn't lost consciousness during the crash (37). It is a near miracle that none of the cars involved ran into the Thompson in such a manner that Dave was hit fatally by anything. Although given what is known about what the fire had done with him and what it caused for his final hours, maybe an instant death would have been more merciful. It is reported that Dave died because of his burned lungs. As far as is known, there are no reports of (internal) injuries unrelated to the fire. Itis unknown at this time whether a thorough autopsy was performed to diagnose internal injuries, although people in the hospital can be forgiven for not having done an extensive autopsy. The burns alone, especially those of the lungs, were fatal on their own and the obvious cause of death. What did it matter to know what possible internal injuries Dave might have had?

Almost two hours later, the race was restarted but wasn’t devoid of fire yet. During a refuelling stop Parnelli Jones’ car caught fire and he left the pit covered in invisible methanol flames but managed to escape from the car in time.

AJ Foyt won his second 500. It was to be the last ever victory for a front-engined car.

Gasoline responsible for the inferno?

The reason why gasoline was chosen by Ford was not as strange as it appears. Indycars carried large fuel tanks compared to the F1 cars of the day. For example, the 1962 Lotus 25 that was the inspiration for the 1963 Lotus 29 had a total fuel capacity of 26 gallons (118 litre) and provision for an additional 6 gallons (27 litre) if necessary (38). F1 cars at that time had 1.5-litre engines that pumped out 200hp at the best, ran on pump fuel and Grand Prix races were about 305km long. Refuelling during the race wasn't necessary. The Ford V8 descended from a production block running on gasoline. The rear-engined cars in which the Ford was to be used were lighter, and especially the monocoque cars (Lotus and Shrike) had a smaller frontal area than the roadsters. Thus they could do with a little less power to achieve the same top speeds. A power sacrifice through the use of gasoline did not have any major consequences for their top speeds compared to the roadsters. Furthermore, due to their lighter weight, the rear-engined cars were easier on their tyres. When running on gasoline, the cars were less loaded with fuel, thus lighter, which improved their tyre wear yet again. And that's regardless of the fact that the change in handling behaviour between a fully fuel-loaded car and a near empty one wasn’t as dramatic with a smaller fuel load as it was with a larger load, thus making the car more driver-friendly.

Also, for the Firestones in particular, wear on the new wider tyres became so much better that stopping for new tyres could be reduced to one single stop. Tyres were no longer the factor that decided how many pit stops were needed. By using gasoline fuel it became even less of a problem. From a strategic point of view, the use of gasoline fuel in the actual race was a perfectly logical, defendable choice.

As for the durability of the tyres, there were indeed some drivers (winner Foyt among them) who finished the race on the same set of tyres they started with (16). A first in the history of the “500”. A sound approval as of how durable the 1964 tyres were compared with older ones might be the following. Art Malone drove one of the three Novis in the race. These heavy, powerful cars were notorious for high tyre wear. Due to circumstances beyond the scope of this work, Malone was unable drive flat out anymore but was eventually flagged off after 195 laps after at least one off-track excursion into the infield, still on the same tyres with which he started the race.

Gasoline is a more volatile fuel than methanol, the fuel that is more commonly used by Indycars. The question has been raised whether the accident would have been less serious if both cars had been fuelled with methanol.

Most methanol-fuelled cars ran fuel tanks of about 70 gallons or more to make up for their low mileage figures. It's entirely plausible that Eddie and Dave's cars would have had larger fuel tanks if they had run on methanol as well. In the case of the Thompson that would have released a much bigger amount of fuel in the accident, since the impact with the wall would have ruptured the tank anyway and the car would have been set ablaze as well, whatever the kind of fuel the tank was carrying.

Would it have provided a better view for Sachs and the others if the fire trail left by the wreck during its slide had been a little less orange and black-coloured? That is difficult to answer. Methanol burns without colour and the fire would have been more transparent. On the other hand, it is reported that many of the black clouds were a result of burning fibreglass. With the full-width body of the car, there was quite an area of fibreglass to burn up. Also, tyre rubber may have caused some of the black clouds.

Another cause for the black clouds may have been the actual type of gasoline. It is suggested that a blend was used, based on gasoline containing special power-enhancing ingredients, instead of straight gasoline. Bob Wilke, owner of the Leader Card team with chief mechanic AJ Watson and driver Rodger Ward, was among the people suggesting that the gasoline used by Thompson was a hyped-up blend instead of regular pump gas. (3, p.558)

In the TNF thread I found a mention of one of the 'hype' components being benzyl. The difficulty with the word benzyl is that it is a rather vague and old-fashioned expression. The components meant by this expression are most likely to be benzene (a so-called cyclic carbohydrate with the chemical formula C6H6) and/or toluene (methyl-benzene, chemical formula C7H8).

Benzene is used as an additive in regular pump gasoline in order to boost its anti-knock capabilities, replacing the tetra-ethyl lead previously used for that purpose. Toluene is better known for its use in fuel blends intended for supercharged engines. These engines prefer methanol but this fuel has a low energy thus requiring large volumes. Adding some toluene enhanced its consumption figures.

Benzene and toluene have the habit that it burns with black clouds, supporting the theory that the gasoline in the Thompson did contain large quantities of benzene or toluene.

A race report printed in Sports Car Graphic (26) suggested that oxygen-containing fuel additives were used, given the fact that such additives had the reputation that once ignited they were near impossible to extinguish. The fire on the front straight had indeed been very difficult to put down. So what had gone into the fuel tanks of the six Ford-powered cars that used gasoline? Incidentally, the seventh Ford-powered car, Rodger Ward’s Watson, did run the race on methanol, a secret conversion done overnight by chief mechanic A.J. Watson.

One participant of the TNF thread listed the details known about the fuel as used by the Fords at Indianapolis in 1964, which I hereby reproduce.

The gasoline specification for the 1964 Ford DOHC Indy engine, from SAE paper #640252, was as follows:

Hyrdocarbon analysis:

This is described as a pretty standard formula. So it's unlikely to have been the cause for the black clouds, maybe only contributing to it to some extent.

It remains a guess how much of those black clouds would have been present if the Ford engines had used methanol instead of gasoline. It all depends on how much of the black clouds were a result of burning gasoline, the glassfibre bodywork and other burning parts on the cars such as tyres. There is a possibility that Eddie Sachs and the others could have avoided the wreck but it is no certainty. At best we can say is that their chances would have been slightly better.

It's for sure, however, that the fire would have been easier to put out. Perhaps fast enough to improve Dave's chances of survival? It's all speculation…

What is interesting, however, is the massive outcry after the race about the use of gasoline. Just about everyone condemned its use and was very outspoken about it. In contrast, many articles carried pictures of Parnelli Jones abandoning his burning car while it was still rolling. Yet very few people, if anybody, criticised the use of methanol as a racing fuel or proclaimed it to be unsafe. And maybe, to some extent, it is indeed safer. However, Jim Hurtubise and a few other drivers could tell you something about being trapped in a methanol-fuelled car. Ed Elisian, for example, can't anymore. And for the record, even though he died on impact, Bill Vukovich’s car also went up in flames having come to a rest after its wild tumble.

Instant rule changes on the back of serious accidents have happened in other formulae as well. Think of what happened in 1955 after Vukovich got killed, followed by the Le Mans disaster. F1 saw an instant ban on movable, suspension-connected aerofoils in 1969, right after the accidents at Montjuich Park. The legendary Group B cars were banned from rallying from 1987 on after these outrageous monsters were involved in a string of accidents, some of which resulted in fatalities. F1 went into instant panic and came with a raft of immediate rule changes after the weekend at Imola when Ayrton Senna was killed. His death was added to Rubens Barrichello's horrific high-speed practice crash and Roland Ratzenberger's fatal crash in qualifying. On race day a spectator was injured in a start-line accident when parts ended up in the grandstands, and a mechanic was injured in a pitlane accident.

Before the 1964 crash, probably the most gruelling fiery incident on record in IMS history is Duke Nalon’s 1949 crash in Turn Three during his 24th lap. Once Duke’s Novi had come to a standstill against the wall, the car leaked some 60 gallons of fuel onto the track and created a curtain of fire for its pursuers. Fortunately, Nalon survived the ordeal and nobody was injured. AAA and IMS officials could have changed the rules in order to prevent a repeat of a car starting the race with such an outrageously large fuel tank capacity - Nalon’s FWD Novi had a tank capacity of 112 gallons or 435 litres! Yet nothing was done. Was it because there was no fatality involved or because the car happened to be one of the crowd favourites?

It remains strange that the 1964 outcry was harsher and much more outspoken than in 1949 and, to some extent, 1955. Did the negative feelings about the Thompson cars and Dave MacDonald have something to do with this?

The fatalities: Eddie’s responsibility?

Statements were made to the effect that Eddie Sachs was responsible for causing his own death as well as Dave MacDonald's, proclaiming that Eddie and the drivers right behind him would never have hit MacDonald if they had slowed down in time. This would have saved Eddie and improved Dave’s chances of survival, despite of the fire.

This suggests that Eddie didn’t try to slow down. But according to Johnny Rutherford, he himself and Eddie had been on the brakes. One of his statements is found in Roar from the Sixties by Dick Wallen (and perhaps elsewhere), although the actual writer of the majority of the chapters is Bob Schilling. Schilling quoted Johnny as having said: “Eddie and I were both on the brakes hard.” (12, p.252)

Denny Miller, in his book on Sachs, is also quoting Rutherford:

”I was watching Eddie because he was on the brakes very hard and so was I.”“I was, as I said, very hard on my brakes.” (3, p.537)

Let’s take a closer look at the situation. MacDonald’s car was sliding across the track, having slowed down already before hitting the wall and slowing down faster after the hit.

Eddie and the cars behind him were entering the front straight at full speed, and it needs to be told that in general the brakes of Indycars were not that impressive. To go from, say, some 145mph to zero would have taken quite a distance.

It appears possible that Eddie's reaction time was limited considering the speed with which he approached the sliding Thompson. When was he able to see the flames for the first time? How much time did he need to realize he was closing in on a fire trap? How much time was left for him to try and make an emergency stop?

Once Eddie decided to make an emergency stop, his speed did not diminish as quickly as MacDonald’s wreck did. Despite slowing down, Eddie and his pursuers only moved closer. The chances that Eddie was able to stay clear appear to be slim. His only chance was somehow managing to avoid the wreck. Slowing down merely improved his chances and gave him time to find a way around and decide upon how to do it. The risk was that he slowed down too much, losing the momentum needed to get through the flames.

There was another danger. Did the drivers right behind see and understand in time what he was up to if he decided to make an emergency stop? Eddie would have been out of control if one or more cars would have run into the back of him, himself now unable to manage the situation of avoiding an accident, in fact having become part of another pile-up, and one that was heading straight into the direction of a wreck that was ablaze. Since it was early in the race, the cars were still bunched up and Eddie must have been aware that he was surrounded and followed by other cars in this group chasing the leaders.

Would Eddie have been thinking of dangers like these? Anyway, whatever crossed his mind in those final seconds of his life, when we accept Rutherford’s words he opted for slowing down and finding a way around the wreck. Regrettably, his final choice was the wrong one.

It's impossible to say at which particular time Eddie and his pursuers should have hit the brakes in order to make a safe stop, but it would have needed to be at a very early moment in order to avoid ending up parked very near to the burning wreck, if not colliding slowly with it. And then what?

Do you still believe that Eddie was at fault for having braked too late? Well, he was in good company. None of the cars behind him managed to stop in time, and all of them appeared to have taken the same approach. Either that, or they simply didn’t have the time to judge the situation any better.

The most logical conclusion appears to be that slowing down hard would have increased the chances of Eddie ending up in a collision with the cars behind him and losing control of the situation. He could avoid that by racing on as hard as possible but that reduced his time to react and choose his way. Then again, taking evasive action would also reduce his time in the flames to a minimum. Yet, luck was not with him.

Keep on going at full speed and keep the momentum going. This line of thinking is not as strange as it seems. Chuck Stevenson was one of the men who got out of the inferno alive and almost unharmed. He was interviewed on the P.A. system and this is what he said:

“I saw the explosion just as I was going into Turn Four. I saw the flames cover the track. I wanted to stop before I got to it but I knew that I was going too fast. I thought if I stopped, I’d probably wind up right in the middle of it. Picked a spot and went through. It was just blind luck that I made it. I couldn’t see where I was going. I hit something on the track. Whatever it was, it broke my shock absorber bracket and brake drum. The paint blistered on the car.” (3, p.545)

Mind you, Stevenson was behind Sachs when he entered the front straight. If he felt that he was going too fast and probably would end up in the crash by braking, we can assume that things were even worse for Eddie. Any attempt to stop in time had even less of a chance of success.

Bobby Unser was another driver ending up in the crash. He stated that he realized he had to go right through the fire once he knew there was no clear way around. So he got on the accelerator, building up as much momentum as possible in order to get through the mess. Johnny Rutherford also mentioned that he knew Bobby had done this and that it was most likely that just about everyone else in his position would have done the same in that big heavy Novi. (3, p.542)

So I'm answering to the accusation that Eddie was responsible for his own death as well as Dave MacDonald's because of braking too late. Eddie is much less responsible for his and Dave’s deaths than Dave MacDonald was for theirs.

Please note that I use the word responsibility instead of guilt.