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Friday, November 25, 2011
Rathmann made his mark on Indy car racing


INDIANAPOLIS -- Jim Rathmann was considered one of the last links to Indy car racing's roadster era.

But in many ways, Rathmann, who died Wednesday at the age of 83, was ahead of his time. In fact, he should probably be considered the sport's first superspeedway specialist.

Two of Rathmann's three official Indy car race wins were at fearsomely fast ovals, topped by his victory in the 1960 Indianapolis 500. That race is considered a classic, with an intense duel between Rathmann and Rodger Ward that some Indy old-timers believe was the finest two-man battle in the hundred-year history of the great race.

The 1960 500 featured a record 29 lead changes; Rathmann led 12 times for exactly half of the 200 laps on the way to his triumph.

Jim Rathmann
Jim Rathmann -- winner of the 1960 Indy 500 -- celebrates qualifying for what would be his last 500 in 1963.

Meanwhile, Ward set a record for most times led without winning (10).

They swapped the lead eight times in the last 31 laps alone and it appeared Ward was set to claim the win when he passed Rathmann on the 194th lap, but he pitted two laps later with a worn front tire, handing the win to Rathmann by some 12 seconds.

Rathmann had already earned three second-place finishes at Indianapolis (1952, '57 and '59), and he made three front row starts, briefly holding the one- and four-lap qualifying records in 1956 and 1960.

While Rathmann's win at Indianapolis to kick off the 1960s is what made him famous, he had already won Indy car races at arguably more fearsome tracks. Rathmann was the winner of the 1958 "Race of Two Worlds" (also known as the 500 Miglia di Monza/500 Miles of Monza), an unofficial event staged on a 2.64-mile banked oval at Monza, Italy, that featured Indy cars and modified Formula One and sports cars.

Lap speeds exceeded 176 mph on Monza's high banking, some 30 mph faster than the pole speed at Indianapolis. Rathmann won all three 63-lap heats as the more powerful American cars dominated the proceedings. Rathmann's speed over the total 500 mile was 166.7 mph, a figure that would not be exceeded at the Indianapolis 500 until 1986.

Yet there was an even faster oval track that Rathmann soon also mastered: the brand new Daytona International Speedway, where USAC staged an Indy car doubleheader in April 1959. Rathmann qualified second behind his brother, Dick (the nomenclature of the Rathmann brothers is a story unto itself), then won the first 100-mile heat with an average speed of 170.261 mph. Rathmann won a second 50-mile race with a 160 mph average, but the day was marred by the death of driver George Amick on the last lap of the first race, an event that convinced USAC officials that Indy cars were not suitable for high-banked tracks like Daytona.

Rathmann's only other Indy car race win came at the Milwaukee Mile in 1957, the year he posted his best finish in the USAC championship (second). He was also fourth on two occasions before he retired after the 1963 Indianapolis 500 to devote attention to his burgeoning auto dealerships in Florida. But he maintained close ties to the 500, driving the Pace Car six times.

Ill health prevented Rathmann from attending the centennial edition of the Indianapolis 500 last May. Parnelli Jones, 78, the winner of the 1963 race, is now the oldest living Indy winner.