The Day the Grandstand Disappeared

 

 

Tension began May 1, 1964, and persisted throughout the month at the Speedway.  Rear engine cars were poised to have a strong month. The traditional roadsters still held favor with many drivers and fans. This month could be a turning point for the car of the future.  Who would prevail?

There was talk that a rear engine car could complete the race without a pit stop.  Could cars making stops overcome that by pure speed?  It seemed as if they would have to have quite a gap to complete their stop and come out of the pits still ahead. Would the extra fuel load be an early disadvantage?  I sensed it was dangerous to have that much f fuel on a race car.

During Race Week, the newspapers had full page ads about going the entire race without a pit stop. The ad mentioned the driver was surrounded by 75 gallons of fuel. I was not impressed, I was concerned.

Race morning was cooler than usual. Our routine was the same: up early, pack the cooler, head to the track to sit in traffic. I told my brother during a long delay about the dream I had the night before.  I dreamt of a multi-car crash coming out of turn 4. A car caught fire and stopped against the pit wall. Several other cars spun and hit the outside wall.

We finally parked in the infield and went to our seats in the Tower Terrace. We were about halfway between the Start/Finish line and Turn 4.  I had purchased these seats the previous year. They were great. We could see the cars come out of Turn 4, the start of the race, and pit stops.

The prerace ceremonies built to their always stirring conclusion, and the command to start engines echoed over the PA.  The combination of rear engine and front engine cars made an interesting looking grid.  The pace car pulled into the pits and the race was on. It was a furious start.

Out of the fourth turn to complete the second lap, I watched Dan Gurney pull to the inside to pass A. J. Foyt., rear engine vs. roadster. I followed the two cars down the front stretch. My brother tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to the fourth turn. I turned to see a four-wheeled fireball sliding across the track. As it came to rest against the outside wall,  we heard a loud thump. I knew the result immediately.  Then the vision in my dream  appeared. A burning  car rested against the pit wall while the first inferno continued behind it. Cars sat helpless everywhere.

The smoke became so thick, black, and tall that the grandstand on the outside of the track disappeared for what seemed to be several minutes. A burning tire flew over the fence between two stands.  A quarter of a million people, cheering just moments before, stood mostly silent, with some low murmuring. The red flag stopped the race.

There was no shock that Tom Carnegie began to announce a death. The shock was which driver. Eddie Sachs? No. It can’t be. I had figured out that the fiery car was Dave MacDonald. How was he still alive? The silence became complete.

Nearly two hours later, the race restarted. There was no question that it would not. Death was accepted as a possibility in that era. The spectre of a fatality hung over every track every race. A race where no one died was considered a relief. The restart began with a subdued crowd watching.

Jim Clark dominated until his suspension broke. A battle between A J Foyt and Parnelli Jones developed. Jones came in to the pits while leading. He never left. A spark blew the fuel cap off and he left his pit with the car on fire.  He leaped out, and the fire was extuinguished. Shortly afterwards, we learned that Dave MacDonald had also died.  Foyt led the rest of the race.

1964 was the last victory for  the front engine car at Indianapolis. Good things to come of the disaster were the introduction of a fuel bladder cell in the fuel tank and the banning of gasoline. Mandatory pit stops became part of the rules. When something bad happens in racing, it accelerates the search for safety measures.  It would be nice if some ideas could become rule before something happens.

I never entertained the thought of not going to another race. For me, it was simply a difficult part of the sport. I don’t like it; I get upset when a driver dies. Racing is dangerous. Things will happen.   I really wish these incidents didn’t occur, but I realize it is a possibility.

I don’t have many dreams the night before the race anymore. Fortunately, the ones I have had did not happen the next day.  I have seen other scary crashes during the race but nothing that involved a grandstand blotted out by a smoky cloud.

 

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