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The Cursed 1973 Indianapolis 500

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Open-wheel racing is a dangerous sport and the Indianapolis 500 is the ultimate test of courage as drivers hurtle around the track at speeds in excess of 200 mph. The event held in May 1973 was marred by bad weather and tragedies.

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Brief History of the Indy 500

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway opened in 1909. It was, and still is, a 2.5-mile track with four left turns forming a rectangular circuit. Originally, the surface was crushed stone mixed with tar that proved unsatisfactory, so 3.2 million bricks, each weighing ten pounds, were laid as a replacement. The bricks were eventually replaced with an asphalt surface except for one yard of bricks at the start/finish line.

The first car races were held in August 1909 varying in length from five miles to 250 miles. The event marked by the first fatalities; Wilfred Bourque’s car crashed on the front straight killing both the driver and ride-along mechanic, Harry Holcomb.

Two years later, the first 500-mile race was run. A purse of $14,250 (about $375,000 in today’s money) was offered to the winner. It was claimed by Ray Harroun in his Marmon Wasp at an average speed of 74.59 mph. It took almost seven hours to complete the race.

But, this race too was marred by the death of riding mechanic Sam Dickson. He was thrown from Arthur Greiner’s crashing car and smacked into a retaining fence.

The start of the 1913 race.

The start of the 1913 race.

Over the years, cars went faster and the track took its grim harvest. By 2020, 42 drivers and 13 riding mechanics had died while racing, testing or practicing. In addition, 17 people other people―spectators, pit crew, and track officials―have lost their lives at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

1973 Indianapolis Qualifying

In late April 1973, drivers began testing and practicing for the big race, but the weather was poor with rain and high winds. Still, the speeds were phenomenal, with Swede Savage getting close to the 200 mph lap average with a speed of 197.8 mph.

On May 12, a massive crowd turned out for qualification hoping to see the first 200 mph lap. What they saw instead was a terrible accident involving veteran driver Art Pollard. Barely half an hour into qualification, Pollard skidded into the wall at the first turn, flipped over, and burst into flames. Art Pollard died of his injuries an hour later.

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Qualifying continued but there was to be no 200 mph lap; Johnny Rutherford came close with 199.071 mph.

More qualifying was to take place a week later, but hail, lightning, and a tornado warning put a stop to that. On May 20, the field of 33 cars was set for the race on Memorial Day, May 28.

But, there was apprehension. Aerodynamic and power developments meant the cars were travelling much, much faster than in previous years. Had the safety measures kept pace with the engineering?

2017 First Lap with Fernando Alonso

Race Day

Rain delayed the start by more than four hours, but eventually, the 33 cars came thundering down the front straight and into a disaster.

The start was a bit ragged in the middle of the pack, with Salt Walther in the sixth row squeezing to the right and hitting Jerry Grant. Walther’s car was catapulted into the catch fence, which ripped open his alcohol-based fuel tank. The car then bounced back onto the track upside down and spun round and round spraying burning fuel. About a dozen spectators were injured and 11 cars damaged.

Amazingly, Walther survived the crash although he suffered burns and fractures. Jim McKay was doing commentary for ABC Sports. He said “This is what everybody feared. This is why there has been such a terrible atmosphere of fear here, all weekend long.”

The race was stopped and then more rain washed out the day and the race was rescheduled for the following day. But rain fell again and there were mutterings about the race being hexed.

Swede Savage Crash

Wednesday, May 30 dawned with yet more rain and the mood among drivers and mechanics was gloomy. But, the sun made an appearance at noon and the race finally got underway.

The starting grid of 32, without Salt Walther, rumbled into turn one safely. The race settled into its familiar pattern with the lead changing between Bobby Unser and Swede Savage.

Swede Savage in a publicity shoot before the race.

Swede Savage in a publicity shoot before the race.

On lap 57, Savage pulled into the pits for fuel. He headed back out, but his car twitched coming out of turn four. The car turned hard left and slammed into the inside wall at high speed. The fuel exploded and split the machine in two. The engine and transmission landed on the left side of the track, the cockpit, with Savage in it, smashed into the outside wall and was surrounded by a pool of burning methanol.

Rescue crews reached Savage and found he was fully conscious as he was pulled from the tangled wreckage of his car. Savage had suffered severe burns but survived for 33 days in hospital. He succumbed to complications from his injuries at the age of 26.

But, there was to be more tragedy. A member of Savage’s pit crew, Armando Teran, 22, was crossing the pit lane to go to Savage’s aid when he was struck and killed by a fire truck that was racing to the scene of the crash.

It took a little more than an hour to clean up the wreckage before the race could be restarted. George Snider pulled into the pits, got out of his, and walked away, too distraught to race. Several cars dropped out with mechanical problems and on lap 129 the rain came tumbling down again.

The race was called with Gordon Johncock in front and only one other car on the lead lap. Johncock was declared the winner, and the victory banquet was cancelled. Nobody was in the mood to celebrate after this ill-fated Indianapolis 500.

To me, it was a horrible year … Terrible. Empty.”

The sponsor of Swede Savage’s car Andy Granatelli

Bonus Factoids

  • Almost immediately after the disastrous 1973 race, measures were taken to make the cars and tracks on which they ran safer. Since then only four drivers: Gordon Smiley (qualifying 1982), Jovy Marcelo (practice 1992), Scott Brayton (practice 1996) and Tony Renna (testing 2003) have been killed at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Swede Savage was the last driver killed in the actual race.
  • Salt Walther, who survived the horrendous crash during the first attempt to run the 1973 race, spent months in recovery. He returned to racing but had little success. He became addicted to painkillers and turned to drugs and alcohol. He spent time in prison and died from a drug overdose in 2012. He was 65.
  • In 1996, Arie Luyendyk set the fastest ever lap around Indianapolis with a speed of 237.498 mph. The record is likely to stand for a long time because officials have dialled back engine power as a safety measure.
Joe Dawson wins the 1912 Indianapolis 500 at an average speed of 78.7 mph.

Joe Dawson wins the 1912 Indianapolis 500 at an average speed of 78.7 mph.

Sources

  • “Indianapolis Motor Speedway: Birthplace of Speed.” Don Sherman, Automobile Magazine, May 12, 2009.
  • “First Indianapolis 500 Held.” History.com, November 13, 2009.
  • “Deadly May of 1973 Still Resonates at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.” Phil Richards, USA TODAY Sports, May 21, 2013.
  • “Fatalities - May 1973.” Indianapolis Motor Speedway, undated.
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© 2020 Rupert Taylor