Povich vs. Auto Racing: The Disaster of ‘64

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Povich vs. Auto Racing: The Disaster of ‘64
Jun 12, 2019

Perhaps no other sportswriter sought to put an end to the sport he was covering as much as Shirley Povich wanted to put an end to organized auto racing in the 1950s and 1960s. And after the debacle that was the 1964 Indianapolis 500, he wasn’t alone.

In its formative years, auto racing was more than mere spectacle. Earlier race cars were built on mostly the same principles as passenger automobiles. By pushing them to their absolute limit, manufacturers could gain useful technical information for building their next models, as well as a golden promotional opportunity should they achieve success. The drivers, for all their willingness to compete and win, were mere guinea pigs. Unfortunately, as the world returned to auto racing after World War II, more and more of those drivers’ lives ended on the race track each year.

“The madness known as speed-car racing has now has claimed one more well-known corpse, and there has to be a new revulsion toward the whole senseless business of motorized Roman Holidays for the dues-paying spectators,” wrote Povich after the fatal accident of Bob Sweikert at Salem Speedway in 1956, mere weeks after he won the Indianapolis 500.

“There is no longer any sense to [auto races] and they are, unfortunately, becoming an unchecked national disease.”

But the races went on, the fans kept showing up, and the deaths piled up. One of those was Jerry Unser, older brother of future 500 winners Al and Bobby Unser and uncle of Al Jr. During the second qualifying session for the 1959 Indianapolis 500, he lost control and slammed into the wall at 133 mph, causing his car to burst into flames. He suffered third-degree burns to 35 percent of his body, and succumbed to his injuries on May 17 — 15 days after his crash.

Four days later, Povich again made auto racing the focus of his column, and it read like a blow-by-blow rerun of his Sweikert piece — a sign of how little the lessons from years past had sunk in.

“At this time of year, the sports pages are too often difficult to distinguish from the obituary pages. Americans outraged by the barbarism of bullfighting can heed the inhuman carnage in their own backyard,” Povich wrote.

At the time, however, Povich was in the minority. One citizen, responding to the 1956 article, decried Povich’s opinion as “revolting,” and expressed his hope “that Povich will either learn something of the finer points of what he so hysterically criticizes or leave its reporting to someone who appreciates a time-honored sport.”

By the 1964 Indy 500, the “time-honored sport” had hit a crossroads. For the first time, more than a third of the field were made up of rear-engined racing machines, leaving old-fashioned “roadsters” in the minority. Suddenly, one of Povich’s fears became a reality — the cars on the track at Indianapolis had stopped resembling the cars on the highway, mutating into 100 percent purpose-built racing machines. The manufacturers had avoided all pretense.

One of the “rear-engine” drivers that year was Dave MacDonald, driving the Sears-Allstate Special for owner Mickey Thompson. The machine had proven so uncontrollable during practice sessions that family, friends, and even fellow drivers urged him to drop out of the race for his own safety. MacDonald, knowing he might never get another chance to drive in the prestigious 500, stayed put.

On the second lap, the team’s worst fears played out, as MacDonald spun out of control and struck the inside wall rear-first. The impact splashed gasoline over the engine and caused the car to burst into flames as it slid back onto the track, into oncoming traffic. Some managed to evade the inferno, but Eddie Sachs plowed head-on into McDonald, creating a fireball over the fourth turn.

Sachs died instantly in the collision, and MacDonald died hours later in the infield hospital.

With much of America glued to their radios or watching the closed-circuit telecast from local theatres, the disaster at Indianapolis could not be ignored. Naturally, Povich was there the following week with his most blistering anti-racing piece yet.

“There is a new revulsion toward the speed carnival,” he wrote. “The deaths and injuries will be listed as accidental, but the trappings for accident are built into the whole senseless spectacle.”

As he made callbacks to his previous columns, he placed the 1964 catastrophe in greater perspective. “The things they drive in the Indianapolis 500 bear little relation to the automobile of the highways,” he wrote. “They are little bugs with monstrous engines on which the drivers are virtually riding saddle, in an effort to show they can go 100 miles an hour in excess of normal speed limits.”

In previous years, he would have been ignored or shouted down. By this year, however, he had gained some allies — not just in journalism, but in the automotive field. The Chicago Tribune ran a similar editorial calling for the end of the 500. Robert McBride, lead anchor for then-CBS affiliate WJBK-TV in Detroit, made a similar plea on the evening news.

“This is enough. Memorial Day is a time to pay our respects to those who have defended our country and our right to freedom. It is not a day to kill people,” McBride said.

Even before the 1964 race, American Motors had taken out advertisements in the Detroit News to mark their stance against the “glamorizing of excessive horsepower” in auto racing. The week after the 500, full-page AMC ads proclaimed that they would not enter their Rambler model into any competition, “because the only race Rambler cares about is the human race.”

Despite the protests of Povich, MacBride and all others, the 1965 Indy 500 went ahead — albeit with major rule changes to prevent a similar disaster. Cars were no longer allowed to carry more than 75 gallons of fuel at a time, and all fuel tanks were to be made of metal, reducing the risk of a puncture.

But these rule changes, and still more in the years to come, would not completely rule out the risk of death on the race track even into the 21st century. The past decade in the modern-day IndyCar Series has seen the deaths of both Dan Wheldon and Justin Wilson in racing accidents — Wheldon in 2011, and Wilson in 2015.

However, two fatal accidents in five seasons is nothing compared to the mortality rate of open-wheel drivers in the 1950s. While driver safety has improved by leaps and bounds since 1964, we must remember that the predecessors to today’s drivers paid for that safety with their own flesh and blood, and sometimes their lives.

Sources:

Garner, Art. Black Noon: The Year They Stopped the Indy 500. Thomas Dunne Books, 2016.

Povich, Shirley. This Morning…With Shirley Povich. The Washington Post, Times Herald (1959-1973); Jun 19, 1956

Povich, Shirley. This Morning…With Shirley Povich. The Washington Post, Times Herald (1959-1973); May 21, 1959

Povich, Shirley. This Morning…With Shirley Povich. The Washington Post, Times Herald (1959-1973); Jun 1, 1964;

Ridges, Olive. Auto Racing. The Washington Post and Times Herald (1954-1959); Jun 23, 1956.

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