Tragedy at the Start: The Story of the 1958 Indy 500
May 21, 2021
The excitement was palpable as the sun rose up over Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 1, 1958, opening day at the track. While enthusiasm floated over Speedway, Indiana, race fans had no idea of the tragedy that would await them at the end of the month.
Opening day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the first spectacle in a long series of spectacles. Half of the 56 entered cars arrived on May 1. Those drivers always compete to be the first one out on track. Eddie Sachs, nicknamed the Clown Prince of Racing, was the first man out and turned the fastest lap of the day at 130 mph, the most Harlan Fengler would allow on the first day (speed limits were in place for, the first few days of practice). Three other cars also joined him on track throughout the afternoon.
On the second day of practice, Ed Elisian, who had recently come into trouble with the law for passing several worthless checks and punching a police officer, set the fastest lap of the month so far at 139.3 mph. Elisian was a known gambler, and some speculate was in deep debt because of it. Drivers respected him on track but wanted nothing to do with him off of it. Winning this race would help him out of the hole he had dug himself into.
Among the rookies arriving at the track for the big race on that second day was a young man from Houston, Texas: AJ Foyt. Foyt had been competing in sprint cars for several years and was finally deemed experienced enough to try the Indy 500. However, several days of rain prevented any action occurring on the track. After a week, the Texan finally had a chance to get out and turn his first laps at the racing mecca.
“Pat O’Connor came over and said, ‘Go get ‘em AJ. And don’t forget what I told you about those bricks.’ He suggested I follow him for a few laps, just to get the feel,” Foyt later wrote in his autobiography. O’Connor was a well-liked driver from North Vernon, Indiana. He guided Foyt around the track, showing him the racing line for several laps. Then, O’Connor waved at AJ from his car and took off. “He had shown me his way around the speedway, and now he had a job of his own to do.” With O’Connor’s guidance, Foyt passed his rookie test, now he had to qualify.
As rookies learned the racing line throughout the week, the veterans began sizing each other up. On May 8, Dick Rathmann’s crew wheeled his McNamara Spl. out of the pits, and sent him out on a flying lap. After a few laps of warm-up, Rathmann stood on it and turned the fastest lap of the month at 144 mph. Elisian had been dethroned, but he was not about to sit idly by.
Within only a few days, Elisian was back out on track in practice setting quick laps. After coming in briefly for a setup change, he was sent back out and toppled Rathmann’s record by turning in a 146 mph record. The two began swapping lap times back and forth, both determined to set the fastest lap. A rivalry was brewing.
In the final day before qualifying, Elisian set an unofficial one lap track record at 146.914 mph. Rathmann, who hadn’t even been in the pits when Elisian turned the lap, emerged from the garage, hopped in his car, and quietly toppled Elisian’s record again, setting a pace of 147.11 mph. Elisian threw on his coveralls, and went out again, one upping Rathmann one more time at 148.148 mph.
At 11:00 a.m. on pole day, qualifying for the race began. Bob Veith was first out to qualify, but the real focus was on Elisian and Rathmann. Elisian went out and qualified on the pole for the time being at 145.926 mph. He stated his disappointment with his time afterward: “I thought I could go faster but the rear end kept slipping on me” (Indianapolis News, May 17th, 1958). Capitalizing on Elisian’s slower time, Rathmann charged out and stole the pole away at 145.974 mph. Rathmann had beaten him once again. ow, the last chance Elisian had to defeat his rival was the race.
AJ Foyt qualified an impressive 12th position in his rookie year at 143.130 mph — the second best lap time for a rookie in history at the time. He had made the race, but now, he had to show everyone what he was made of. Over the course of the next week, the field of over 55 cars was whittled down to 33, and the starting grid was ready for the big race on Memorial Day.
It was a sunny morning on Memorial Day, 1958. 200,000 fans packed into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the largest single day sporting event. Most homes in the US had their radios tuned to hear the radio call each Memorial day and bringing the race into homes all across the world was the IMS Radio Network. This year, a new commentator would be brought on to the broadcasting team, 25 year old Lou Palmer. He was assigned to cover the action in turn 3, a good place to learn the ropes, as nothing ever happened in that corner of the track.
Like the year before, the cars would start at the pitlane. USAC officials had implemented this new method of starting (in previous years the cars started on the main straight) to reduce starting accidents. It didn’t work. The year before, Elmer George ran into the back of Paul Russo on the pace lap and took both cars out of the race. The officials were adamant that this starting method was safer, and kept it for 1958.
For the majority of the morning, the drivers milled about aimlessly. Few had slept well the night before. They were waiting, waiting for the command to start engines. Each driver was in a sort of trance;all they knew was that they had a race to win. They may have had light conversation with one another, or their mechanics, but it all went in one ear and out the other. This was the biggest race of their lives.
Elisian had made it clear to reporters before the race that he was looking to lead the opening laps, as it would help his debt problem greatly.
Paul Russo later told reporters that he and Pat O’Connor were sitting together on race morning. “We were both concerned about Elisian and the rest of the front row. Pat told me ‘The only thing I’m worried about is getting through the first lap without a spin.’”
Drivers were commanded to climb in their cars, and not long after, commanded to start engines. A huge roar of Offenhauser and Novi engines shook the speedway. It was time. The field of 33 pulled off pit road to begin their pace laps. However, confusion occurred. The first row of cars (Rathmann, Elisian, and Jimmy Reece) had left the pits too quickly and came out ahead of the pace car. They were now alone on the track, well ahead of the rest of the field.
Instead of waiting for the field to catch up, the three sped around the track, and caught up to the end of the field that way. Instead of the green flag being waved, the yellow was displayed, signaling one more pace lap to allow for the first row to get into position. The three squeezed their way past the other 30 cars and got into their respective starting spots. When the green flag dropped a lap later, some drivers had no idea if the race was actually going green. Because of the confusion, Rathmann and Elisian pulled away at the start.
Rathmann got the lead into turn one, but Elisian was right on his tail. Wanting to best Rathmann, Elisian threw the car down low in an attempt to make a pass through two. Down the back straightaway the two went side by side, Elisian had the advantage through turn three, but was carrying far too much speed.
From his vantage point in turn three, Lou Palmer watched in shock as Ed Elisan’s car lost control and spun. He tapped on his mic and began to describe the action over the radio “And we’ve got an accident here! Car #5! Car #5, the Zink Special, is the first to wreck!” Elisian’s car collected Rathmann, and the two went up into the wall. Reese broke to avoid the accident, and caught Pat O’Connor off guard. O’Connor’s car made hard contact with the back of Reese’s, and was launched 50 feet into the air. The car landed upside down and caught fire.
Cars went everywhere trying to avoid the accident. Jerry Unser touched wheels with Paul Goldsmith and was launched out of the track. Palmer was trying to keep up with the accident. “And we’ve got…one, two, three, four, five…six cars, piled up here, on the northeast turn! …And it’s almost impossible to identify the others. Out of car #5, now, is Ed Elisian…and, er, car #91 against the wall…that is all that we can see at the moment.”
8 of the 15 cars involved were taken out of the race. Jerry Unser, despite leaving the track, only suffered a dislocated shoulder. O’Connor was the one in danger. Without a roll bar, O’Connor’s head made contact with the ground, killing him instantly; it took several laps for rescue crews to put out the flames and retrieve him. After seeing the man who helped him figure out the racing mecca crash and burn, AJ Foyt was having second thoughts.
“I wasn’t sure if I was tough enough for Indianapolis… When I came by the pits I saw Ed Elisian sitting on the pit wall. His helmet was off and his head was in his hands.” Rumor has it that Elisian had been seen walking through the infield in a trance afterwards, but this has never been confirmed.
After 20 laps of caution, the race went on, as it always did. Jimmy Bryan led the field back to the green flag. Known for chewing on cigars during the race, Bryan was a larger than life figure among fans. Bryan, Johnny Boyd, and George Amick all swapped the lead back and forth. However, Boyd had a bad pit stop that took him out of contention, and George Amick’s crew chief decided to keep Amick in a safe second place, not wanting to push the rookie too hard.
Foyt, still shaken up from seeing his friend crash, had lost any interest in the race. He felt hollow. When his car spun out on lap 149, he was glad it was over. After that day, he vowed never to be close with another racing driver again.
Bryan took the checkered flag to win his first Indy 500 in the same car that Sam Hanks had won in the year before. The victory was bittersweet. Some fans had left upon hearing of O’Connor’s death, even Bryan was shaken up. “It was a nightmare,” he said in Victory lane, “And I had to live with it for 200 laps.” On what should have been a day of glory for Bryan, he ducked away from reporters and kept to himself.
Due to his fault in the accident, Elisian was suspended by USAC. USAC Director Duane Carter said “I’m suspending him because of a series of errors in judgement. He’ll not race again until he can appeal to USAC’s board of directors.” Elisian was reinstated several days later.
The USAC IndyCar season, however, went on without Elisian. Jud Larson took over his ride. Within only a week, the teams were competing at Milwaukee. Art Bisch won the event two car lengths ahead of Tony Bettenhausen. Jimmy Bryan retired shortly after his big win, only to come back out of it several years later. He lost his life at Langhorne Speedway in 1960. AJ Foyt went on to win four Indy 500s, and became a legend in racing. He never did become close with another driver.
Jerry Unser was fatally injured in a practice crash at Indianapolis a year later. His brothers, Al and Bobby, have 7 Indy 500 wins between them. Ed Elisian was killed at a race in Milwaukee the next year. His rival, Dick Rathmann, despite having success in NASCAR, never won the Indy 500. His brother Jim, however, won in 1960. The two retired from racing in 1963, taking up the job of running a car dealership in Florida. Their dealership had the honor of providing Corvettes for the Mercury 7 astronauts. Dick Rathmann died in 2000.
In 1959, USAC reverted back to the typical start on the front straightaway, mandated roll bars on all cars, and had to approve helmets for use. While they learned from their mistakes, a man’s life had been lost, and unfortunately many more would follow.