It was a bygone era of the Indianapolis 500, long before rear-engine racecars, ground effects, overtake assist devices and two-way radios. In fact, the frontstretch of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was still the original paving bricks that gave the 2.5-mile oval the unique nickname of “The Brickyard.”
It was 1960 and the Indianapolis 500 featured a two-driver duel unlike any event that had ever been seen in the history of the race that began in 1911.
Jim Rathmann and Rodger Ward were engaged in a two-car battle that featured a record 29 lead changes, although there were more than that because on some laps the drivers would pass each other two or three times a lap. “Official” lead changes are scored at the start/finish line. The record for lead changes would stand for 50 years before it was broken in the 2012 Indianapolis 500 with 34 lead changes.
Last year, the record increased to 68 in large part to the tremendous air wake created by the current Dallara DW012 chassis that keeps the cars on track sucked together in a large pack similar to restrictor plate racing in NASCAR.
Back in 1960, however, the cars were front-engine Roadsters with big steering wheels and little protection for the drivers. There were no SAFER Barriers and if a driver hit the wall it could mean death.
Ward and Rathmann raced fearlessly around the track. Ward was the 1959 Indy 500 winner and Rathmann was a perennial contender hoping to win the 500-Mile Race for the first time in his career.
Both Ward and Rathmann have passed away and are unable to tell their side of the story that makes this the No. 1 Indianapolis 500 of all-time.
But for the 250,000 fans at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Memorial Day 1960, it was a race unlike any that had ever been held at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Back in those days, the winner of the race often won by one or two laps over the second-place car. The Indianapolis 500 was an endurance race where innovative car creations where part of a battle of man versus machine. Often times, the machines didn’t last.
In 1937, Wilbur Shaw defeated Ralph Hepburn by 2.16 seconds – the closest margin of victory until the famed 1982 Indy 500 duel between Gordon Johncock and Rick Mears that finished with Johncock winning by 0.16 seconds.
In 1959, there were 12 lead changes. In 1961 the lead changed 20 times. When Ward won his second Indianapolis 500 in 1962 there were just six lead changes.
But in the 1960 Indianapolis 500-Mile Race there were 29 lead changes with Rathmann leading 12 times for 100 laps and Ward leading 10 times for 58 laps. Eddie Sachs led five times for 21 laps, Troy Ruttman twice for 11 laps and Johnny Thomson once for 10 laps.
What made 1960 so unique was the sustained battle that took place over the last half of the race.
“It’s not just a moment or even a close finish; to me it was a sustained battle for the entire second half of the race,” said Donald Davidson, the Historian of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “Why I like 1960 is it’s competitive in the early stages but when you get to the second half you had two guys and Ward had stalled on his first pit stop. So he lost time. He ran hard to catch the pack and by the time he caught up several of the contenders had gone by the wayside so he caught up with Rathmann.
“For the entire second half the two of them were back and forth.
“There is some interesting psychology there. There was no two-way radios or spotters. The only communication was a pit board the drivers had to read and then he had to figure it out himself.”
At that time, pit boards gave “nice to know information” such as speed and margin from the leader. The rest was up to the driver to figure out how to manage his tires or to save fuel.
“He didn’t have a team of strategists to tell him what to do,” Davidson continued. “Ward knew he caught up to Rathmann but had abused the tires in the pursuit to catch him because he was running harder than he normally would. He said, ‘There was something I knew about Jim Rathmann and he would race you hard for the lead but if he were in the lead the pace would drop off slightly.’ So he ran behind Rathmann and the pace dropped off and that helped his tires.
“A couple of times Ward would pass and then Rathmann would race him. They had a substantial lead over third place. There was a pit stop involved where they both came in together.”
Back then, the cars carried much more fuel so the race had three pit stops. And a yellow caution period had to be for something major — not just debris or oil on the track.
“They weren’t yellow happy then, it had to be something,” Davidson said. “They came into the pits together and went out together and Rathmann was saving his tires. Johnny Thomson was running third and they could see the pit board where the interval with Thompson was shrinking.”
So Ward and Rathmann picked up the pace. Both drivers continued to trade leads at an unusual pace. By the time Thomson had an engine problem and fell back, it was the late stages of the race.
Ward was in front with four laps to go when he saw the cord showing through the right front tire. Instead of coming in to change the tire, Ward was Firestone’s No. 1 tire test driver so he decided to back off and save second place rather than crash. That allowed Rathmann to race to a decisive victory in terms of margin – 12.75 seconds — but the duel between the two drivers ranks as the very best in Indianapolis 500 history.
“Ward blamed himself for stalling the car,” Davidson recalled. “There was a new guy on the right front and when he got the clear signal he stalled the car. If Thomson had not gotten closer they wouldn’t have had to go at that pace.
“Ward won it twice but often said 1960 was his best race.”
If Ward had won the race he would have been a back-to-back winner and Rathmann would have finished second four years in a row – something that had never happened in the history of the Indy 500.
For the fans at the Speedway that day the reaction was fantastic. There were no computers or Jumbotron TV screens. They could listen to the radio or listen to the public address system and that is all they got.
“Eyewitnesses would wait and then they would stand up to see who was leading,” Davidson said. “Unquestionably, that was the greatest. There were a lot of other great moments but this sustained battle was for 1-1/2 hours over the second course of the race.
“I was sorry to see that record go because a lot of lead changes now for the last 30 years and more than that are pit stop shuffles. In those days all of those lead changes were on the track. Once it was down to the two of them the only pit stop they made was between the two of them and they pitted at the same time.
“The lead changes in last year’s race were an aerodynamic thing. Every pass in 1960 was a driver thinking, ‘OK, let’s see what the other guy has got.’
“Back then the Indianapolis 500 was an enduro but 1960 was the standout because it was two foxes on the hunt for each other. Both drivers were cagey and that is what made this race so great.”
So great in fact, it stands as the greatest Indianapolis 500 of all time. But it has been tested in recent times by the other great races that have made the Indy 500 so unforgettable.
Be sure to catch Bruce Martin’s Honda IndyCar Report on RACEDAY on FOX Sports Radio every Sunday from 6-8 a.m. Eastern Time. Sunday’s guests include three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves and front row starter James Hinchcliffe. Show host Rob D’amico and Martin will preview Sunday’s 98th Indianapolis 500.