It was May 30, 1964, at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the crowd of more than 300,000 was stunned.
A horrific, fiery crash on the second lap of the Indianapolis 500 had claimed the lives of crowd favorite Eddie Sachs and popular newcomer Dave McDonald.
Despite crystal blue skies and the sparkling May sunshine, a pall hung over the speedway when the race resumed following a two-hour delay. Then suddenly, Bobby Marshman in his red, white and blue Pure Firebird Special, a Jack Beckley re-engineered year-old Lotus-Ford, blasted past world champion Jim Clark and into the lead.
Marshman’s speeds at 10, 20 and 30 laps exceeded the previous marks by a whopping 10 mph.
At 30 laps, he led Clark by 23 seconds, then pushed it to 30 seconds before his unique groove proved his undoing. Swooping well below the white line through the corners, an oil line failed and the car’s engine blew on lap 40.
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When the slender Marshman wiggled from the tight confines of his car, though, a smile brightened his handsome, rugged face. While he was disappointed, he knew he could win the Indy 500.
“I was just cruising out there and singing ‘Hello Dolly,’” he exclaimed.
Most agreed an Indianapolis victory was in Marshman’s future.
Destiny decided otherwise. Talented, promising and brave, it was Marshman’s last Indianapolis 500.
Born on Sept. 24, 1936, racing became Marshman’s obsession. His father, George, was a driver-turned race promoter, so the younger Marshman grew up immersed in the sport.
In 1955, 19-year-old Marshman bought a sprint car and debuted in a URC event at the Reading (Pa.) Fairgrounds. It was an inauspicious beginning. He spun out at approximately 30 mph.
By his own admittance, he wasn’t a naturally talented driver, rather he worked hard to develop his craft.
“Driving race cars is not just having fun on weekends,” Marshman explained. “I learn with every lap. I train practically every day. I ride a bicycle and use a shock absorber mounted steering wheel and gripping bars to strengthen my arms and wrists.”
The effort paid off.
Despite the slow start, Marshman was URC’s rookie of the year in 1955. In 1957, he finished second in URC points. In 1958, Marshman diversified, running the ultra-competitive ARDC midgets, finishing third in points.
Racing permeated every aspect of his life. He even managed to sandwich the wedding to his fiancée, Janet Fairlie, between races.
Racing at Indianapolis was his goal.
To achieve that goal, Marshman began running sporadically with USAC in 1959. He caught the break he needed in 1961 when he set quick time in Henry Meyer’s Iddings Special for the USAC season opener at Reading. Pleased, Meyer put him in the same car at Trenton (N.J.) Speedway on April 9. It was an unusual machine that ran as a sprinter or championship car by changing the engine displacement with a different crank. He lasted 36 laps before the brakes failed and he flipped dramatically.
Yet, when practice opened at Indianapolis a few weeks later, Marshman was there. But Marshman didn’t find a ride and returned home.
But as soon as he arrived, Marshman received a call from Indianapolis. Meyer had convinced Eph Hoover to give Marshman a shot in the team car to Don Branson’s Hoover Motor Express special.
Marshman aced his rookie test but struggled to gain speed. Branson took one look at the car and growled, “Raise the seat a couple inches.”
That did it and Marshman made his first 500 and charged from 33rd to seventh. He shared rookie-of-the-year honors with Parnelli Jones.
Marshman possessed an uncommon feel for the intimidating Indianapolis oval. After starting last in 1961, he qualified on the front row twice in the next three years.
His smooth, consistent style enabled him to quickly transition to the new rear-engine cars, an ability that caught Team Lotus principle Colin Chapman’s attention. He contracted Marshman for testing and dubbed him the American Jimmy Clark.
Then during a test at Phoenix Int’l Raceway on Nov. 27, 1964, it all ended. The car’s throttle stuck and Marshman was horribly burned in the ensuing crash.
He died on Dec. 5.