American racing car driver left his mark on Indianapolis and beyond

ROYAL RICHARD "JIM" RATHMANN RACING DRIVER 16-7-1928 22-11-2011

ROYAL RICHARD "JIM" RATHMANN

RACING DRIVER

16-7-1928 22-11-2011

By RICHARD WILLIAMS

THE American racing driver Jim Rathmann, who won the most exciting Indianapolis 500, his country's most important motor race and has a rare achievement in space has died in Melbourne, Florida. He was 83.

His victory in the 1960 Indy 500 came at the end of an afternoon that saw 29 changes of the lead, still a record for the event.

After retiring from the sport, Rathmann became the first and probably the only car dealer to see his company's logo land on the moon, thanks to his friendship with the NASA astronauts, one of whom affixed the sticker to a landing vehicle.

The 1960 Indy 500 came towards the end of the era dominated by front-engined roadsters, as the single-seater cars were known, relatively simple and sturdy machines usually powered by the lusty four-cylinder Offenhauser engine. The best chassis at the time was designed by A. J. Watson, and it was in Watson-built cars that Rathmann who had finished in second place on three previous occasions and Rodger Ward, the winner ahead of Rathmann a year earlier, battled it out on a hot Memorial Day afternoon in May.

Other drivers swapped the lead in the early stages and it was not until the second half of the race, after 120 laps of the four kilometre oval track, that the two made their way to the front of the field. Ward had stalled his engine during an early pit stop, and had driven hard to catch Rathmann, subjecting his tyres to severe wear. After they had passed and repassed each other he elected to sit behind his rival for a while to conserve his remaining rubber.

A challenge from Johnny Thompson forced both men to speed up and resume a duel that enthralled the crowd of 400,000. With only half a dozen laps to go, Ward noticed the warning strip of white rubber showing through the tread of his front tyres, the consequence of the extra effort, and was forced to back off. Rathmann won the race by 12 seconds, and the cheque for $US110,000, after leading for exactly 100 of the 200 laps at an average speed of 220km/h.

Two years earlier, Rathmann had won a race that was in some ways even more remarkable, when he travelled, with a group of drivers from the US championship series, to race against their European counterparts on the 4.16-kilometre banked track at Monza in Italy in the second edition of a contest billed as the Race of Two Worlds.

On a circuit far better suited to the rugged American cars than to the modified grand prix machinery that Maserati and Ferrari had provided for a half-hearted challenge by the likes of Stirling Moss and Luigi Musso, Rathmann won at an average speed of of 265km/h, remarkable for the time, although Musso had lapped in practice at 280km/h.

Born in Los Angeles, where his father worked as a butcher, Rathmann borrowed his older brother's name, Jim, in order to fool officials at local speedways into letting him race under the legal age. (His brother later raced under the name Dick Rathmann, and qualified in pole position at Indianapolis in 1958.)

In 1948, he moved to Chicago, where he raced in a hot-rod series. A year later he was entered for the first time at Indianapolis, starting from 21st place on the grid of 33 runners and finishing 11th. He finished second to Troy Ruttman in 1952 and to Sam Hanks in 1957 before trailing Ward home in 1959.

Rathmann won two other races during his career in the United States Automobile Club national championship: the 1957 Milwaukee 200, over a tight 1.6-kilometre oval, and the 1959 Daytona 100. Between 1949 and 1951, he had also made a handful of appearances in the Nascar series, driving the modified saloons known as stock cars.

On retirement he moved to Florida and set up a dealership to sell Cadillacs and Chevrolets in the town of Melbourne, not far from Cape Canaveral.

After becoming friendly with several astronauts, he persuaded General Motors of the publicity benefits of providing each of NASA's national heroes with two new cars a year, supplied through his dealership. Most of them chose Corvette sports two-seaters for themselves and more sedate vehicles for their wives. Rathmann's mechanics ensured that the astronauts' Corvettes offered more vigorous performance than the standard models.

He was inducted into the US Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2007.