INDIANAPOLIS – 1957 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year Don Edmunds, also renowned as a race car builder after his driving career, died Aug. 11. He was 89.
Edmunds was the second-oldest living Indianapolis 500 starter behind 94-year-old Paul Goldsmith. With Edmunds’ passing, Goldsmith and A.J. Foyt are the only living drivers who started in The Greatest Spectacle in Racing in the 1950s, both making their debuts in 1958.
Southern California native Edmunds earned Rookie of the Year honors after placing 19th in the No. 92 McKay Special, spinning out due to an oil leak after completing 170 laps. He was the top-finishing rookie that year among five first-timers in the race.
Edmunds nearly didn’t qualify for the Indianapolis 500 in 1957. He came to the Speedway after a successful career in jalopy and midget-car racing in California, driving a car owned by Doug Caruthers. Edmunds couldn’t get that car up to speed but got a late call from car owner Roy McKay to jump into a car that already had made two of its three allotted qualifying attempts.
After being summoned by McKay, Edmunds rushed to grab his helmet from the trunk of his car in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway parking lot, hoping another driver didn’t take his place. The seat remained open, and Edmunds made a successful last-ditch attempt, qualifying 27th.
The Indy 500 Rookie of the Year Award in the 1950s consisted of a $500 prize and a year’s supply of meat from Indianapolis-based award sponsor Stark, Wetzel & Co. Always a personable gentleman with the ironic nickname of “Rotten Red,” California resident Edmunds gave his year’s supply of meat to fellow Indianapolis 500 driver and close friend Jimmy Reece because Reece lived in Indianapolis and could visit Stark & Wetzel to get a regular restock of meats.
Edmunds returned to IMS in 1958 in the McKay car but was injured in a crash during practice and spent a few days in the hospital, unable to attempt to qualify. Edmunds was back in 1959 in a car owned by Walter Braund. He couldn’t get up to speed and decided to quit as a driver, still dismayed by the death of Reece in September 1958 in a crash at Trenton, N.J., and also stung by the recent deaths of other drivers in accidents.
Still, Edmunds always maintained his passion for the Indianapolis 500 and IMS, insisting his one start in the Indianapolis 500 changed his life and opened many doors. He was a friendly and popular member of the large group of Indy 500 starters who returned to IMS in 2011 for the 100th Anniversary Indianapolis 500.
After his driving career ended, the well-spoken Edmunds turned his focus to his race car construction business based in Southern California, Don Edmunds Autoresearch. He already was known as a skilled fabricator, having worked for Eddie Kuzma in the 1950s. Edmunds claimed his first job with Kuzma was to repair the dent in the tail of Jimmy Bryan’s car in 1955 after Bryan kicked it in frustration due to dropping out of the lead of the Indy 500 near the halfway point because of fuel pump failure.
Don Edmunds Autoresearch became one of the most prolific builders of midget race cars in the country in the 1960s, 70s and early 80s. His company also built supermodifieds, sprint cars and super vees.
Another notable Autoresearch creation was the X-1 Skycycle prototype for famous stuntman Evel Knievel’s jump over the Snake River Canyon in Idaho. The X-2 Skycycle in which Knievel made the failed attempt at the jump in 1974 was based on the X-1.
In his later years, Edmunds enjoyed restoring vintage race cars and building scale models of race cars with stunning detail.
Edmunds was inducted into the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in 1991 and the National Midget Auto Racing Hall of Fame in 1994.