I want to talk about revolutions on the small scale. Large revolutions – the American, the French, the Industrial, the Electronics - are like storms that rent and destroy the fabric of all lives, and grind up individual human beings like a butcher grinds hamburger. But small scales revolutions are like storms at sea, some drown, but most survive by riding them out. As a small example of the latter, 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 the first decades of its existence, distance remained the great challenge - distance and speed. 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 olds, 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.”
But Eddie was also the man who would call sportswriters collect from across the country, identifying himself to the operator as "Hello, this is Eddie Sachs, the world's greatest race driver, calling." And then follow it with "a hearty laugh". He knew he needed an ego to drive at the speeds required in racing, and he knew it was a thin veneer to cover for the fear that ate at every driver.
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 time was laying the engine on its side, and offsetting the driver's cockpit, thus allowing the drive shaft to pass to the right of the cockpit. This 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.”
Eddie 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.
And the truth was, Eddie made no secret which was his favorite track. "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." Eddie always insisted that on the day he won the Indy 500, he would retire in victory lane.
In 1957 “rookie” Eddie Sachs finished his first Indy 500 in 23rd place. In 1958 he started second and managed to lead a lap before engine trouble put him out after 68 laps. 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 Sachs and A.J. Foyt traded the lead, lap after lap, racing wheel to wheel. First Foyt was 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. “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 behind Foyt that year was a small 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, driven by Jack Braham (above), 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. To run these lithe beasts required relearning how to design, how to maintain and how to drive a race car.
The next year, 1962, rookie Parnelli Jones qualified in an Offy roadster at an average speed of 150 mph. On race day, driving another roadster, Eddie started far back in the field and finished third.
In 1963 Eddie was running fourth on lap 181 when he spun out in the 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, and grinning like a winner and waving to the crowd. But the loss hurt. 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 the pole in a rear engine Lotus Ford, at 159 mph. The revolution had arrived.
Twelve of the 33 starting field 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 suspensions, tires and body shapes, and on the second lap a rookie named Dave McDonald lost control of his unstable Sears Allstate Special . He spun out going into the fourth turn, skidded across the grass and slammed into an inside wall. That wall, for some reason, was angled to send a wrecking car right back onto the track.
And when McDonald's car hit the wall, crushing his right side gas tank, it exploded into a yellow and black fireball.
A shroud of ugly black smoke instantly loomed over the track, while. 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.
Eddie hugged the outside wall, looking for a way to squeeze past McDonald's car. Instead he smashed right into it (above) at something over 120 miles an hour. Directly behind Eddie, veteran Johnny Rutherford (in the yellow roadster) had no choice. He turned his car to the right and jammed his foot onto the accelerator, hoping to bulldoze his own way through the disaster. His decision saved not only his own life, but also the life of Bobby Unser (in the red roadster) who was following Rutherford..
The collision between Rutherford's car and the other cars, intensified the explosion. A flaming tire came over the catch fence, barely missing track workers.
As Johnny Rutherford's yellow roadster (above, right) powered through the wreck, followed by Bobby Unser (just visible through the flames of McDonald's car), spectators would remember seeing Eddie fighting to get out of his car, or even standing up in the flames. But no such images have surfaced. And from the condition of his body, no such thing happened.
People in the grandstand remember the heat from the flames, and the enormous time it seemed to take any one to reach the scene with a fire extinguisher. In fact, it was less than 30 seconds.
In driving through the burning wreck, Rutherfod's yellow Offy roadster picked up burning gasoline. Johnny kept going down the main stretch, the slipstream blowing out the flames. Rutherford did not stop until he got to turn three. Fire crews examined his car for damage, and found the tread from one of Eddie Sachs tires climbing the car's nose (above). Later, in the garage, a mechanic found a lemon in the engine compartment. Eddie Sachs combated thirst during races by sucking on a lemon he wore tied around his neck. It had to have been sucked into the air vents in the nose of Ruterford's scorched roadster as he passed over Eddie's burning car, and Eddie.
For the first time in its history, the Indianapolis 500 was red flagged for an accident. It was an hour and forty minutes before it could be re-started. Dave McDonald had managed to climb out of his car, and an ambulance took him Methodist Hospital, where he died from having inhaled burning gasoline.
Eddie remained in his car, covered with a sheet. A wrecker then lifted car and man and carried them back to the gasoline alley, where in privacy his body was removed from the car
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.”
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. But he would be one of the most fondly remembered.
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