A half century has passed since the fierce battle between Jim Rathmann and Rodger Ward for victory in the 1960 Indianapolis 500, yet it’s still regarded as one of the most intense, captivating, entertaining two-man duels in Indianapolis Motor Speedway history.
Officially there were 29 lead changes among five drivers in the 44th 500, one of the most competitive races in Speedway history. Twelve of those exchanges were between Rathmann and Ward in the latter stages of the race, and that does not include the number of times the lead changed hands prior to the start-finish line.
The combatants were the first- and second-place finishers from the year before. Ward won that one, giving Rathmann his third second-place finish in 10 years.
Ward returned to defend his title with his 1959 winning team, Bob Wilke’s Leader Card Racers. His chief mechanic was A.J. Watson, whose design skills had transformed the Kurtis roadster concept into an object of innate beauty and pristine performance.
Watson was unarguably the era’s top builder. By 1960, cars out of his tiny California shop had already won two 500s. He was a prolific builder, turning out many customer cars in addition to those for his team.
It was no surprise, then, that when Rathmann convinced two free-spirited Texans — oilman Kenny Rich and commodities broker Paul Lacey — to form an Indianapolis team he also convinced them to buy a Watson.
In an unusual arrangement, Rich and Lacey gave their driver almost total control in creating and assembling the Ken-Paul team. Their metallic blue beauty was reportedly one of the most expensive Watson ever built, as Rathmann specified his own ideas and preferences.
Along with the best car, Rathmann sought the best people to join him in his quest for an Indianapolis victory. Foremost among those was Takeo “Chickie” Hirashima, the master Offy builder who Rathmann lured away from Watson to serve as his chief mechanic.
Rathmann also convinced another highly talented racer, the legendary Smokey Yunick, to join his effort. In NASCAR Yunick had choreographed pit stops into ballet-like performances. Rathmann wanted that creative expertise in his pits, so Yunick was to work as a mechanic during the month and manage the pits on race day.
Rathmann’s decision to hire Yunick eventually resulted in bitterness. In the meantime, however, the month of May progressed smoothly for the new Ken-Paul team and for the Leader Card organization. Rathmann grabbed a spot in the middle front row, out-qualifying Ward, who started third.
Taking the pole and leading the field to the green flag was the irrepressible Eddie Sachs. Ward, however, making a firm statement about his desire to win another 500, chopped down on Sachs and Rathmann in turn one and led the first lap.
Sachs stormed right back to lead lap two, initiating a fight for supremacy with Ward that lasted through the first quarter of the race. Troy Ruttman, the 1952 500 winner, interrupted them for a few laps, as did Rathmann, but the battle early on was between those two, with Ward’s experience giving him the edge.
In fact, Ward always insisted that he had the field covered that year and had a plan. He would run comfortably, waiting to battle for the win at the end. On his first pit stop, as is apt to happen at Indy, his plan crumbled. He stalled his engine. By the time the hot, cantankerous Offy fired back to life, Ward was 30 seconds behind the leaders.
Over the next 50 laps he fought his way back to the front, and took the lead on lap 123. But he couldn’t shake Rathmann. Rathmann was tenacious. Few were better at chasing down a competitor, seemingly able to add speed at will when he had a rival in his sights. He’d driven that way for 500 miles in 1957, charging from 32nd to second.
Ward was now dealing with that dogged determination first hand and wearing out his tires in the process. He backed off to save rubber, only occasionally running up to the lead, just to let Rathmann know he wasn’t beaten.
Rathmann and Ward made their final stops at the same time and left the pits together. Going for the win, they pounded around the track, running literally wheel to wheel, continually swapping the lead.
Then Ward noticed that his Firestones were again wearing excessively. He slowed to save his tires — and the battle — for the closing laps. But that strategy was forced into a dramatic change, for Johnny Thompson was coming hard, easily running faster than either Ward or Rathmann.
Ward sped up to hold off Thompson; Rathmann sped up to hold off them both. The battle was on. As their crews cheered and the crowd roared, neither man backed down nor was able to get an edge. In the last 30 laps, they swapped the lead seven times.
Ward led at the 196th lap, but blasting down the backstretch he saw the white cord flash on his right-front tire. Almost simultaneously, Rathmann’s right rear also showed white. Ward backed off, but Rathmann, who had run many tire testing miles, gambled on his tire lasting, and beat Ward to the checkered flag by 13 seconds.
As often happens with successful endeavors, controversy welled up. Yunick believed that he was to be named a co-chief mechanic, but at the victory banquet, supposedly to Yunick’s great surprise, Hirashima solely was honored as the winning chief. Yunick was livid.
Rathmann insists that he never intended for Yunick to share the title and that Yunick knew it. That created a rift between the two that lasted until Yunick’s death.
The complete truth of the rift became clouded with time. What’s perfectly clear, however, is that Rathmann raced his way to a win in one of the most challenging 500s in history.
It was a deserving, satisfying, unforgettable victory.