Jim Rathman, who died in 2011 at the age of 83, could probably be considered Indy car racing’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 an all-time 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. Meanwhile, Ward set a record for most times led in one race 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. He achieved three other top ten finishes in addition to his win and trio of seconds in a total of 14 Indianapolis starts.
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 event staged on a 2.64-mile banked oval at Monza, Italy that featured Indy cars and modified Formula 1 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!
The car Rathmann drove to victory in Italy is on display at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum.
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 (who made nine Indianapolis 500 starts between 1950 and 1964 with a best finish of fifth), 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 1961 Indianapolis 500 to devote attention to his burgeoning auto dealerships in Florida. He maintained close ties to the ‘500,’ driving the Pace Car six times.
Rathmann’s death leaves Parnelli Jones, the winner of the 1963 race, as the oldest living Indianapolis 500 champion.
The nomenclature of the Rathmann brothers is a story unto itself; the driver eventually known as Jim Rathmann was born Royal Richard ‘Dick’ Rathmann. He exchanged drivers licenses with his older brother James Rathmann to meet the age requirement for a California stock car race in the late 1940s. From that point, the original Dick Rathmann raced as ‘Jim’ and vice-versa. Therefore, Jim Rathmann was actually 20 years old when he made his Indianapolis 500 debut in 1949, not 24 as stated.
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