TIME CAPSULE: THE 1958 INDIANAPOLIS 500
It’s the 1958 Indianapolis 500, and the monstrous, man-eating open-wheel “Champ Cars” are in full effect at the Speedway. This Era is what Wagner called the Gotterdammerung — the twilight of the Gods. Mere mortals cannot manage these man-mangling machines.
“American racing was, at that time, gruesomely dangerous,” said sturdy, venerable automotive journalist Brock Yates, reflecting on perils and horrors of the ‘58 “500 Mile Sweepstakes.”
Yes, in the 1950s the Indianapolis 500 was so dangerous it was its own Cycle of Life — the beginning and the end intertwined with creation coming out of destruction, life out of death, etc. To wit, three years before the ‘58 race a misunderstood, misguided motor maniac from Oakland named Ed Elisian pulls over in the middle of a multi-car crash and runs in front of the other highballin’ competitors. Through the mayhem, the doughy Elisian sprints to rescue his mentor and hero, two-time Indy winner Bill Vukovich, who had catapulted over the Speedway’s back straight wall and is pinned and dying under his massive mechanical mount. These futile first-responder heroics are the last acts of benevolence associated with the Edward Gulberg Elisian. He is soon to become the goat of the Indy 500. And at a time when open-wheel car drivers were killed almost every month, in 1958 Elisian would make his contribution to the legion of the dead stand out like a Baby Ruth in a punchbowl.
It went like this…
After battling Dick Rathmann all May for the 1958 Indy pole position, Elisian ends up slotted in second. On the flank in third was Okie hot shoe Jimmy Reece.
“With Rathmann, Elisian, and Reece on that front row, you may want to hang back the first few laps,” said Hoosier hero and Sports Illustrated cover boy, Pat O’Connor, who qualified in the middle of the second row.
The beginning of 1958’s 500 was portentous for others too. In his tersely titled memoir “A.J.,” then-rookie driver A.J. Foyt recalls the feeling of dread when contemplating the antics of the front row. “I thought, ‘these bastards are going to ruin everything.’”
Foyt and O’Connor weren’t the only legendary shoes spooked by the Speedway that year. So ominous was the 1958 Indianapolis 500 that Juan Manuel Fangio, “El Maestro,” the Argentinian ace who won five World Championships and is considered to be the greatest Formula 1 driver ever, withdrew his entry during qualifying. Three months earlier in Havana, Cuba, armed Revolutionaries allied with Fidel Castro kidnapped Fangio before the Cuban Grand Prix, but that fate seemed kinder to “the Master” than 500 miles at Indy. In point of fact, after his release, Fangio maintained a friendship with his captors — but he never returned to race Indy.
Meanwhile, young Brock Yates was amongst those standing by during 1958’s doomed opening lap. “I remember this race vividly. Like thousands sitting on the main straight, we waited for the field to appear for the first lap, but nothing happened. Then a few battered machines straggled out of Turn 4. A terrible accident had occurred in Turn 3 caused by an idiotic move by a loopy driver named Ed Elisian.”
On his “Talk of Gasoline Alley” radio show, esteemed Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian Donald Davidson recalls Elisian and his role in the Danse Macabre a little more charitably: “(Elisian) was kind of a loner and a bit of a mystery. Elisian idolized Bill Vukovich. Vukovich’s apparent style was to lead every lap that you can until it blows up. Elisian tried to model himself after Vukovich it is said. He never really had a good car. AJ Watson said: ‘Well, he stood on the gas.’”
Yes, Elisian stood on it, but prime interest might have been his prime motivator.
“Elisian apparently had a gambling problem,” Davidson explained. “He was into several of the other drivers and people associated with racing — and owed money. He saw the opportunity to have one good day and be able to pay everybody back. He almost won the pole, but the lap times and speeds were as not tight as the others, but he came away with the one-lap track record.
“Dick Rathman was able to knock Elisian off the pole, but he had the four-lap record. It was pretty unusual. One guy had the four-lap record, and a different guy had the one-lap record.”
As the drivers exited pit road single-file on the parade lap, the first row was beat out IMS President Tony Hulman riding in the pace car. Before the green flag, the first row was still ahead of the pace car but behind the last row, so Rathman, Elisian, and Reece jammed their throttle pedals and squeezed between ten rows of race cars and the crash wall. Coming out of Turn 4 on the pace lap, these men were hauling ass and just managed to get into a pell-mell formation and took the green flag at maximum velocity. Rathman was in front, and Elisian poked his nose under the apron, trying to elbow Rathman behind him.
“Elisian apparently had the bit between his teeth,” said Davidson. “And he thought, ‘I’ll lead as many laps as I can and do what Vukovich used to do, and I’ll have a good day and pay everybody back.’”
“They got to the turn,” Foyt recollected. “Rathmann backed off slightly, and Elisian, who was in the groove — that’s the only reason Rathmann backed off; there was no place for him to go — well, Elisian was in too deep and too fast.”
“He passes on the inside going into Turn 3, and the car gets sideways,” Davidson said. “Instead of going all the way around and it looks like he is going to catch it. Dick Rathmann is sitting behind and doesn’t know quite what to do. The rule of the race track was that if the car spins in front of you, you aim straight for it.”
“I saw Elisian’s car bobble slightly,” Foyt said. “That’s the sign of trouble at Indy. There just wasn’t time to turn the car. He slammed into Rathmann, and the force took both cars into the concrete retainer wall. Rathmann’s car was chopped in two; parts from Elisian’s car were sailing everywhere.”
According to Davidson, “Whenever Elisian went out each evening (during qualifying) (he’s) running a light load. Elisian has a full tank of fuel — at least 75 gallons. The theory is when he went through the turn he went into the turn as he had been all month. And there are those who think he had not taken into consideration the weight of all of that fuel and that’s what caught him out.”
Foyt’s perspective of the pinwheel of pandemonium went like this: “I saw Reece slow down, and then Bob Veith hit him, sending Reece’s car directly into the path of Pat O’Connor. Son of a bitch. O’Connor’s car went up and over and sailed fifty feet in the air, and when it hit the track on the other side, upside down, it burst into flames. Everything was happening so fast. Just like they had said. I thought, ‘Oh, shit, I’ve come this far and it’s all over. I didn’t even make a lap.’
“I looked for a place to go,” Foyt continued. “There were cars sideways in front of me, so I spun my car to keep from hitting them. There was a hole and I pulled myself up straight in the seat, trying to make myself as thin as I could. Somehow I thought it might make the car thinner. While I was sideways, I saw a car go up over another car and flip right out of the Speedway. I found out later it was Jerry Unser going over Paul Goldsmith.
“My car was still sliding through the hole between Johnny Parsons and Tony Bettenhausen. I got through without touching a thing. The slide had scrubbed off a lot of my speed like I hoped it would. The car was still spinning to the right, so I turned the wheel right, and it started to straighten out. And then I saw it. A clear track ahead. I had made it.”
Yes, Foyt made it through the carnage. However…
“This terrible accident ensued behind (Rathmann and Elisian),” Davidson concluded. “It ended up with Pat O’Connor — who was extremely popular and a favorite to win the race — he lost his life.”
As he finished the first lap of his first 500, rookie Foyt knew he had witnessed the worst, with fifteen cars smashed in the melee, destroying eight. “When I got back around to the crash scene, O’Connor’s car was still burning. I tried hard not to look at it. I didn’t want to look at it. The next time I came around, the fire was out, but it was still smoking. I looked. Why did I look? Pat’s arm was frozen in midair. Everything was black. His car, his helmet, his uniform, everything. Son of a bitch, I thought. I wasn’t sure I was tough enough for Indianapolis. It was going to take some thinking.”
Handsome hot rod hero Jimmy Bryan was tough enough and goes on to win that Year’s 500, then smoked a stogie and got his hot breath on the ruby lips of trophy queen Shirley MacLaine.
Other scenes that day were less convivial. “When I came by the pits,” Foyt wrote, “I could see Ed Elisian sitting on the pit wall. His helmet was off, and his head was in his hands.”
Yes, this is all part of Indy’s circle of life. Of the 33 drivers qualified for the 1958 Indy 500, sixteen eventually died in competition. “Most of the front row of the 1958 Indy 500, as well as its race winner, was dead within a year or two.” Jimmy Reece took a dirt nap four months later in Trenton, New Jersey. In 1960 at Langhorne, Pennsylvania, Jimmy Bryan is flung out of his Champ car’s seat and savagely, fatally lacerated.
In the same month Reece was killed, USAC suspended Elisian for passing fraudulent checks. Later reinstated, the next summer at the Milwaukee Mile, A.J. Foyt’s mill crapped the bed and Elisian spun in the wet spot. Ed hit the wall, and his fuel cell ruptured. Elisian’s car rolled over, trapping the driver. It burned for nine minutes. Witnesses talked of hearing Elisian’s screams from the grandstands.
“These were perilous times,” Yates professed. “The men in these big, fast ungainly race cars had iron you-know-whats.”
Perhaps. “I was petrified, to tell you the truth,” Foyt confessed. Foyt eventually won Indy four times.