Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Banking on Fond Memories; USAC's Star Drivers Relive Daytona 100

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Banking on Fond Memories; USAC's Star Drivers Relive Daytona 100

Article excerpt


As 33 racers prepare for the 93rd running of the Indianapolis 500 at 1 p.m. Sunday, another IndyCar anniversary is being remembered.

But this one didn't happen at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway or any of the traditional open-wheel tracks.

Nope. For one day only on April 4, 1959, USAC's open-wheelers raced at Daytona International Speedway, going faster on its banked turns than any other track they raced on. They never went back - the speeds and forces on the track's banked turns during the Daytona 100 proved too great for the race cars.

It was also where racer George Amick (1958 Rookie of the Year) died.

But the day before the 13th annual Amelia Island Concours d'Elegance celebrated autos of all kinds on March 15, some legends of Indy's roadster era assembled to swap tales about those powerful front-engine cars, some to also remember the days when Indy invaded the beach. Sponsored by Brumos Porsche, Parnelli Jones, Johnny Rutherford and Bobby Unser took the Ritz-Carlton Grand Ballroom stage next to Melbourne, Fla., resident Jim Rathmann, who won that 100-mile race around Lake Lloyd in 1959 and the Indy 500 the following year.

The Motorsports Hall of Fame member is the oldest living Indy 500 winner at age 80. Born Richard Rathmann in Alhambra, Calif., he actually took his older brother James' name so he could enter a race while underage. Rathmann eventually adopted the name "Jim'' and his brother adopted the name "Dick.''

Beginning his career in AAA and USAC Champ Cars, Rathmann raced in 1949, 1950, 1952 and on through 1963, competing in the Indianapolis 500 plus the Race of Two Worlds at Monza, Italy, winning one in 1958.

Unlike other drivers, Jim Rathmann says he really liked the banked track at Daytona. But he admitted every driver had to stay on their toes.

"As soon as you would get up and go real fast, someone would just break your record," he said after the Great Roadster Drivers seminar. "It wasn't too bad. I really liked it. I really and truly liked it."

The roadster was the final evolution of the cars that had raced at Indy since the beginning - engine in front of the driver, driveshaft running under or beside him to power the rear wheels. Someone decided that you could lean the engine over a bit and make it lower and sleeker and the roadster era was born - 1952 to 1964.

At a time when the qualifying speed for the Indy 500 was just shy of 146 mph, the front-engine "roadsters" were hitting 170 mph and higher on Daytona's tall banked turns in 1959.

Rathmann completed the Daytona 100 at an average speed of 170.261 mph, according to records. He also won a second 50-miler at the track with an average of 160.694 mph -"the fastest roadster race ever," said event co-presenter Bob Varsha.

"A.J. Foyt said that particular track, in an IndyCar, scared the hell out of him," Varsha said, then turned to Rathmann. "What were your impressions of Daytona in a roadster?"

"It scared the hell out of me, too, but I needed the money," responded Rathmann, who went on to become a successful Chevrolet dealer in Melbourne and Palm Bay.

Automotive author Tim Consodine, the other presenter, wondered if the blunt shape of the roadster was a problem on Daytona's high-speed banks.

"I don't think so. But I was younger at that time," Rathmann said. "I don't remember doing anything slower or faster. I just wanted to be out there and get ahead of everyone else. That is all that counted. I tried to do the best I could."

"You did very good. You won the race," Consodine said.

As the drivers spoke, Rathmann's Daytona 100-winning blue Simoniz Special Watson roadster sat in front of the dais with owner Larry Pfitzenmaier lifting the hood so the audience could see its huge Offenhauser four-cylinder engine.

"In the early '60s, the cars cost about $15,000, and the engines were about $10,000," Jones remembered. …

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