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A Star Was Born: Foyt’s Dramatic First Indy 500 Victory Started New Era for Sport

The May morning was glorious and the atmosphere festive, with the spring sunshine making one wish the day could last forever. It was May 30, 1961, when the forces of nature and history came together to mark the end of an era, and the fresh beginning of something – and someone – new.

Even the physical characteristics of the Speedway were changing. When practice opened May 1, 1961, visitors stared in awe at the enormous double-decker steel and concrete grandstand along the front straightaway. Plans were also in place for another highly visible alteration: in the autumn of that year, asphalt would be laid atop the brick surface along the straightaway.

On race morning, a different kind of race car was rolled into position on the inside of row five. It was a rear-engined Cooper Climax, driven by two-time and defending Formula One World Champion Jack Brabham of Australia. Defying all conventional racing superstition, the car proudly wore a finish of British Racing Green. Rear-engined cars had appeared at the “500” before, but this was different. John Cooper’s designs had dominated Formula One in recent competition, and Brabham brought enormous driving credentials.

Speed had been the hot topic of conversation early in the month. Tony Bettenhausen had flirted with the magical 150-mph mark, recording a lap of 149.250. Dick Rathmann hit 148; Parnelli Jones, 147. It was widely speculated that Bettenhausen would win the pole position at 150 or better, but tragedy intervened on the afternoon before Pole Day.

Bettenhausen, a popular two-time national champion, died in a crash while “shaking down” the Watson roadster assigned to longtime friend Paul Russo.

It was a subdued atmosphere as Eddie Sachs captured his second straight pole position the following day at 147.481 mph. It wasn’t just the fact that qualifying speeds failed to match the dazzling numbers posted earlier; the loss of the beloved Bettenhausen had rocked the Speedway fraternity to its core. But racing – like life – went on, and just over two weeks later, on race morning, the massive crowd waved and cheered as several former “500” greats had another moment, literally, in the sun.

Ray Harroun, the winner of the inaugural race in 1911, wheeled the famous yellow Marmon Wasp around the track to a standing ovation. Eddie Rickenbacker, another 1911 contender (and former owner of the Speedway) then took a lap at the wheel of a 1914 Duesenberg, with Col. Roscoe Turner seated alongside as riding mechanic. They were followed by three-time national champion and 1926 “500” polesitter Earl Cooper.

Then the vintage cars were parked, and a familiar tingling feeling – a mixture of excitement and fear and anticipation – settled upon the spectators and competitors. The hour had come for the golden anniversary Indianapolis 500, and the first $400,000 purse in racing history.

It would be tough to choose a favorite on this day. There was Sachs on the pole in the Dean Van Lines car, and the exciting young Jim Hurtubise on the outside of the first row. Right behind them in row two were 1959 winner Rodger Ward, sensational relative newcomer Jones and 1958 pole winner Rathmann. Jim Rathmann, Dick’s brother and defending “500” winner, was again a threat. Another former winner was 1952 winner Troy Ruttman, driving John Zink’s Trackburner.

Lining up on the inside of row three in the Bowes Seal Fast Special was Anthony Joseph “A.J.” Foyt Jr., a fast-rising 26-year-old from Houston, making his fourth “500” start.

Hurtubise took command at the outset and led 35 laps until his first pit stop. Jim Rathmann surged into the lead until Jones passed him on Lap 42. Then, three laps later, Sachs moved in front. The month had been a mixture of emotions for Sachs and the Dean Van Lines team; despite winning his second straight pole position, chief mechanic Clint Brawner had spent much of the month barking at Sachs to pick up the pace.

Sachs was a unique individual, almost completely disinterested in the mechanical aspects of a race car. Highly dynamic and emotional, the hallmark of Sachs’ career had been a tireless, insatiable desire to succeed as a professional racer. By 1961 he had achieved his goal and was recognized as one of the sport’s top drivers. But he hadn’t yet reached his ultimate goal: winning the Indianapolis 500.

On Lap 49, Donnie Davis suffered a ruptured oil tank, spilling liquid on his left rear tire and causing him to spin near the start/finish line. Apparently dazed, Davis quickly hopped from his car and began leisurely walking across the track as a gaggle of cars approached. A.J. Shepherd got into Davis’s oil and spun, triggering a spectacular multi-car melee that resulted in Jack Turner’s machine flipping wildly.

Attrition began to plague several contenders. Jones took the lead on Lap 52, but his machine began faltering 25 laps later, when Foyt moved out front. Ruttman made an impressive run from 22nd to take the lead on Lap 84, but soon faded with clutch trouble. Ward was slowed with suspension difficulty but continued.

At the halfway point, Foyt held the lead, with Sachs chasing. It had become apparent that these two cars – with Ward doggedly trying to stay with them – were the strongest on the track. Sachs had a solid lead at the 300-mile mark, but crew chief George Bignotti was urging on Foyt. On Lap 138, Foyt surged past Sachs, but Sachs charged back into the lead one lap later. The two men dueled for the next few laps before Brawner signaled Sachs to come in for his final pit stop on Lap 152, yielding the lead to Foyt.

Foyt, however, now faced his final pit stop. On Lap 160, he wheeled the Bowes Seal Fast machine into the pits, where he was quickly serviced. The Texan then set about chasing down Sachs. He suddenly realized that his car was much faster than Sachs. Elated, Foyt soon surged past to take the lead. Sachs, determined to stay with Foyt, hustled his car. Even though Foyt’s car was quicker, Sachs used every ounce of his machine to stay on his tail.

But with 25 laps to go, Brawner looked to the north, where Bignotti and the Bowes team were pitted. He saw a frantic burst of activity, and his intuition told him something was up.

Indeed, something very important. Bignotti and his crew had suddenly realized that their fueling rig had malfunctioned, and Foyt had not been loaded with a full tank of fuel on that last stop. That’s why A.J. had been so much quicker than Sachs. Bignotti’s heart sank as he realized he would have to call Foyt in for one more stop, almost surely handing the win to Sachs on a silver platter.

On Lap 185, they signaled Foyt in for a stop-and-go. The car was fueled (with a borrowed fueling rig) and he was quickly underway, but Sachs now held a lead of nearly 30 seconds.

In a heartbeat, the complexion of the race had changed dramatically. However, the drama was far from over.

Foyt steadily cut into Sachs’ lead. As the waning laps clicked away, a tiny glimpse of white on his right rear tire caught Sachs’ eye. His tire had worn down to the cord, meaning it might blow out at any moment. In his fierce desire to stay with Foyt, Sachs had used too much rubber.

Sachs faced an agonizing decision. If the tire blew, it would bring catastrophic results, perhaps even death. But if he pitted, he would not win the race.

On Lap 197, Brawner was shocked to see his car turn down pit lane. As Sachs screamed instructions, the crew frantically replaced the worn tire and got him back underway. But the die was cast. A few moments later, Foyt flashed across the finish line to win, with Sachs second and Ward third.

Oh, and that funny little green car? Troubled by tire woes and a lack of horsepower, Brabham soldiered home ninth. However, his performance would change the course of the “500,” as within a few years rear-engine cars would send the stylish roadsters to the dustbin of history.

Foyt later celebrated his victory with a meal of White Castle hamburgers, dining in weary relaxation with wife Lucy in their hotel room. The day heralded the arrival of one of the greatest drivers in Indianapolis 500 history, a man who would lead a new generation of racers that would dominate the race for three decades to come.

As for Sachs, the heartbreak resonated deeply with the affable driver, and he was openly emotional. His greatest opportunity to win the Indianapolis 500 thus far had come and gone.

Such is the nature of the Indianapolis 500; heartbreak and exhilaration are often only moments apart, and change is always right over the horizon. That was never more evident than that sunny May afternoon nearly 60 years ago.

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