I want to talk about revolutions on the small scale – the American, the French, the Industrial, the Electronics Revolution. These are huge, earth shaking history making momentous events that grind up individual human beings like a butcher grinds hamburger. As a small example, consider the life and death of a grease monkey and a gear head, a man who had one big dream. He was a gentle funny man by the name of Eddie Sachs. And he loved to go very fast
For most of human history, traveling 500 miles in a single day was the stuff of fantasy, Aladdin and his magic carpet. With the invention of the internal combustion, it became a possibility. But in its first century of its existence, the distance remained a significant challenge. In the laboratories of race tracks the limits of the technology and human reactions were pushed to the limit over and over again.
In 1946, nineteen year old college freshman Eddie Sachs lied his way into the garage area of a local race track. He fell in love with the sport and spent the next year following the circuit as an a mechanic's assistant for $15 a week. And just like thousands of other twenty year old's, he pestered the owners to give him a job behind the wheel. According to Eddie, the drivers warned him, “Eddie, when you climb into that race car and when you punch that gas pedal down, things are going to happen you never dreamed of before. Eddie, its going to scare you so bad your foot is going to come off the gas so fast you might break your foot And Eddie, when you get back into the pits and the guy who owns the car looks at you and asks, “What's wrong?” You just say, “Mister, this car isn't getting enough gas.” And that was what Eddie Sachs did. As he jokingly put it, “No guy, and I mean no guy, ever went further on less ability than I did.”
To compete at Indianapolis, each driver must first pass a ten lap test, increasing his speed by ten miles-an-hour every two laps. Eddie Sachs took his driver's test in 1953, and spun out. “In 1954, I returned to the track and... failed my driver's test. I became the first man in the history of the Indianapolis Speedway to fail his driver's test twice. In 1955...I failed my driver's test again. I made sure that nobody would ever break my records. In 1956, I passed my test and became the first man in the history of the track to run a 40-lap test.” Eddie declared himself to be “"beyond a shadow of a doubt, the greatest failure in the history of Indianapolis Motor Speedway.”
When racing returned to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway after the World War Two, the engine that dominated was the reliable, powerful four cylinder 4.2 liter motor developed by Fred Offenhauser. In the decade of the 1950's, Offys won 10 straight pole positions and often captured all the top finishing spots The Offys had no speedometers, no tachometers, not even an oil pressure gauge. The steering wheels were huge, to give the drivers leverage in the age before power steering. The cockpits were open, to give the drivers' more arm room. These cars had to be muscled around the track. The biggest technological improvement of the age was laying the engine on its side, and offsetting the driver's cockpit. Allowing the drive shaft to pass to the right of the cockpit lowered the car a foot or more.
The greatest surviving American racer of our age, A.J. Foyt, described racing with Eddie Sachs on the thousands of small dirt and asphalt tracks (above) across America in the 1950's; “He could take the worst-handling pig...and just manhandle that thing into looking like a winner...Most drivers have a bad day now and then, but more often their cars have a bad day. With Sachs....it didn't make a damn if his car was having a bad day or not. He made it go.” The fans had a different perspective. A reporter once asked Eddie which track was his favorite, and Eddie replied, That's easy - Salem (Indiana) Speedway. Of all the tracks we race at, it's the closest to a hospital.” They called him the “Clown Prince of Racing”, but it was no joke. There were 11 deaths at the Speedway between 1947 and 1960. Of the 33 qualifiers for the 1955 500 mile race, 17 would die while racing. As Eddie put it, “In the long run, death is the odds-on favorite.” Thirteen times over his own career, Eddie Sachs left the track in an ambulance.
In 1957 “rookie” Eddie Sachs finished this first Indy 500 in 23rd place. In 1958 he started second but engine trouble put him out after 68 laps. But that year, Eddie managed to lead a lap. In 1959 Eddie started second again, and raced the entire 500 miles. He finished 17th. In 1960 (above) Eddie captured The Pole, being the fastest qualifier, but he was forced to drop out on lap 132 with a bad magneto. Then came 1961 and one of the greatest finishes in 500 history.
Eddie and A.J. Foyt traded the lead, lap after lap, racing wheel to wheel, first Foyt leading and then Eddie. Because of a refueling malfunction Foyt was forced to make an emergency fuel stop at lap 184, surrendering a 3 second lead. Eddie put his foot to the floor, determined to seal his victory. Then, leading by almost 30 seconds, he saw the flashing of the warning tread in his left rear tire. Said Eddie, “I looked down at that tire and saw fabric and kept on going. Then I looked down and it looked whiter and I slowed down. Then I looked at it and it looked like a white sidewall and I knew the next thing I would see would be air. So I didn't need to do anymore thinking.” Eddie was forced to pit, giving the race to Foyt, who won over Eddie by eight seconds. The difference between first and second place was $65,000 in prize money. Still, Eddie explained, “I wanted to win that race so bad I could taste it, but I wanted to live even more. That's why I stopped for that tire.”
But finishing eight places back that year was quite revolution, a rear engine race car (above). It looked like a toy next to the the big powerful front engine roadsters. It's 2.5 liter engine was about half the size of the Offenhauser's. But putting the engine in the rear did away with the need for a heavy drive shaft, which allowed the suspension to be lighter. The Cooper was the only rear engine car at the Speedway that year. Finishing ninth was beating very long odds. Everything Eddie Sachs thought he knew about race cars was turned on its head. They required relearning how to design, how to design maintain and how to drive a race car.
The next year rookie Parnelli Jones qualified in a roadster at an average speed of 150 mph. On race day, driving a roadster, Eddie started far back in the field and finished third. In 1963 Eddie was running fourth before, on lap 181, he spun out in oil laid down by Parnelli's leaking roadster. Parnelli won that race, but what people remember was Eddie strolling down pit lane, rolling his tire which had come off, grinning like a winner and waving to the crowd. The next morning, Eddie and Parnelli had breakfast together. Eddie said something about the victory being tainted, and Parnelli punched Eddie in the face. The following morning, on the front page of an Indianapolis newspaper, was a still smiling Eddie Sachs, with a black eye and a small checkered flag stuck between his teeth.
In 1964, just two years after Parnelli's record setting 150 mph pole, Jimmy Clark won it in a rear engine Lotus, at 159 mph. Twelve of the 33 starters (above) were driving rear engine cars, including Eddie Sachs. People had begun referring to the roadsters as "dinosaurs". Many of the new car designs were still experimenting with suspension set ups, and on the second lap a rookie named Dave McDonald lost control of his unstable car, spun out coming off the fourth turn and slammed into the inside wall. His fuel tank exploded in a ball of fire. A shroud of ugly black smoke instantly loomed over the track. McDonald's car careened back across the racing line, spewing flaming gasoline. Drivers tried weaving around the wreak. Seven failed - and one of those was Eddie Sachs.
For the first time in its history, the 500 was red flagged. It was an hour and forty minutes before it could be re-started. Just before the green flag was dropped again, it was announced that Eddie Sachs had died. Announcer Sid Collins gave Eddie's obituary live, on the air, just minutes after learning of his death. “We are all speeding toward death at the rate of 60 minutes every hour. The only difference is we don’t know how to speed faster and Eddie Sachs did. So since death has a thousand or more doors, Eddie Sachs exits this earth in a race car. Knowing Eddie I assume that’s the way he would have wanted it. Byron said “who the God’s love die young.” Eddie was 37. To his widow Nancy we extend our extreme sympathy and regret. And to his two children.”
But Eddie had offered up his own obituary years earlier. “I think of Indianapolis every day of the year, every hour of the day, and when I sleep, too. Everything I ever wanted in my life, I found inside the walls of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I love it all, from the first to the last day in May. On the morning of the race, if you told me my house had burned down, I'd say, "So what?" The moment that race starts is always the greatest moment of my life, and the day I win that race, it will be as if my life has ended. There is nothing more I could want out of life”
Nineteen Sixty-four would be the last year the 500 would be won by a front engine roadster. In 1965 only six of the cars qualifying for the race had front engines. That year Jimmy Clark won in a rear engine Lotus-Ford. The revolution was just beginning. And Eddie Sachs would be far from its last victim.
- 30 -