Friday, May 23, 2014

50 years ago: Death at the Brickyard

Somewhere in the recesses of time there’s a memory of a newspaper picture of a spinning race car. Possibly it was this picture or one like it, which I would have seen in the Sports Peach* of the Minneapolis Sunday Tribune.

*So called because, in order to make it stand out from the rest of the Sunday paper, it was printed on peach-colored paper.  Distinctive, though it didn't do much to enhance the clarity of photographs.

For whatever reason - perhaps the obvious, that the car was clearly going in the wrong direction when contrasted with the other cars in the photo - the memory of that picture (as opposed to the picture itself) has stayed with me, frozen in its own moment, from that day on.  My four-year-old self didn't know quite what it meant, but I knew for sure that it wasn't good.

There would have been another picture from that Sunday’s paper, something like this one, it's meaning much easier to understand:

The photos, and many like them, were taken on May 30, 1964, at the conclusion of the second lap of the Indianapolis 500, and the worst part of that picture above is that it doesn't even show the worst part of that crash.  What you see there is the moment of impact when Dave MacDonald’s car struck the inside wall and exploded; the car then skidded across the track, where it was in turn struck by Eddie Sachs’ car, causing an even greater fireball, its smoke completely enveloping the corner of the track, making it impossible to continue.  The race was halted for nearly two hours, the first time anything other than rain had stopped it. Sachs was killed instantly*, and MacDonald died a couple of hours later from the burns he’d suffered.

*Hard as it may be to believe, it’s likely that Sachs was not burned to death, as initial reports stated, but instead was killed as the result of “blunt force injuries” from the impact of the crash.   

I could have found better pictures of the crash, ones that present the horror of the day with more clarity, but I chose those because they were how the event entered into my consciousness.  These were the days when the Indianapolis 500 was still a major, almost mythic, event in American sports.  The race was not yet carried on live television (though 1964 did mark the first of seven years in which it was broadcast via live closed circuit to theaters across America), and save for the few minutes of highlights that might appear on the following Saturday's Wide World of Sports*, the sole contact to the race was the live radio broadcast, hosted by the great Sid Collins.  For those who couldn't afford to go to the theater and didn't have the patience to listen to the radio for hours, the only entrance to this mysterious world set in far-off Middle America was the next day's newspaper.

*ABC's live TV broadcast has only been around since 1986.  No doubt it gives one a more detailed view of the 500; at the same time, it greatly diminishes the race's mystique. 

And so these pictures, or ones like them, were how I first learned about Eddie Sachs, one of the greatest drivers never to win the 500, and Dave MacDonald, a rookie at Indy but a great sports car driver in his own right; men of accomplishment who deserve better from me than to be immortalized in my memory as joint headliners in one of the darkest days in the history of the Indianapolis 500.  Jim Taylor, a columnist for the Toledo Blade, from which these photos came, described how "The fiery crash chilled a monstrous crowd estimated at 325,000 people who were suddenly quiet and solemn in the face of one of the worst tragedies in the history of this old, old track."  Some, witnessing that crash, never attended the race again.  

The pictures fascinated, but did not traumatize, me.


I may have mentioned this before, but auto racing was among the first sports that I came to love, my aunt buying an inaugural subscription to Stock Car Racing magazine for my birthday in May 1966, less than two years after the Sachs-MacDonald crash.

In May 1967 Lorenzo Bandini was killed during the Formula One Grand Prix of Monaco when his car crashed and exploded.  He did not die immediately, but three days later succumbed to the injuries caused by the burns.  Aside from that, the crash resembled, at least superficially, the one that had happened at Indy less than three years before.  This time I saw the crash a week or two later on Wide World.  Other than possibly giving me a slight fear of fire, of history repeating itself, it did not dissuade me from watching future races. A month later, again on Wide World, I would see A.J. Foyt, one of the racing heroes of my youth, win his third Indianapolis 500.  His second victory had come in 1964, the race in which Sachs and MacDonald were killed.

It bears repeating: auto racing was and is a dangerous sport.  But as technological and psychological changes have evolved, the sport has become that much safer.  Dale Earnhardt, Ayrton Senna, and Dan Wheldon, great drivers who were the most recent to be killed in their respective racing disciplines, remind us that death is always a present companion, one that maintains the ability to shock.

In 1964 auto racing was dangerous enough that the aforementioned Toledo Blade presented a kind of macabre box score detailing the types and severity of injuries that had occurred during the race.  I don't know whether or not this was a regular feature every year, but its appearance reinforces the impression that such risks were an understood, if not welcome, aspect of the sport.

Phil Hill, one of the greatest of racing drivers and the first American to win the Formula One World Championship, once said that drivers of his era (late '50s, early '60s) expected to die in a racing accident.  He was matter-of-fact when he said it.  It was the thrill, the adrenaline rush that came from the combination of speed and competition, that made them who and what they were, and made acceptable the risk that accompanied racing.  Sachs himself once said that "in the long run, death is the odds-on favorite."  Bobby Unser called survival a 50/50 proposition.

Today we look at things differently: we shield our heads in helmets when riding a bicycle, we use antibacterial soap to wash our hands, we beg the government to save us from the dangers of food and drink.  Yet, as the newsman Harry Reasoner once said, for all the efforts man makes to avoid risk, "he may get one day extra or none; he never gets eternity."  It echoes the words Sid Collins spoke after the announcement of Sachs' death had been made on the radio broadcast. "We're all speeding towards death at the rate of sixty minutes every hour," he said.  "The only difference is that we don't know how to speed faster, and Eddie Sachs did."  Sachs died driving his racing car and, concluded Collins, who knew the man and the racer, "I assume that's the way he would have wanted it."

The relative safety of auto racing today has induced, if not overconfidence, a kind of complacency about the sport's ever-present danger, in fans if not in drivers.  People who are not racing fans think that many of those who are come to see the crashes, in the same way that hockey fans come for the fights, though I have never been that kind of fan.  Some think the emphasis on safety has been to the overall detriment of the sport and its competitive nature, that back in the day drivers enforced a kind of self-discipline knowing a small mistake could have catastrophic results. About one thing there is agreement: there are drivers living today who would not be, had their accidents occurred in another era.  The important thing, racing people will tell you, is that spectators should not be put at risk.  They remember the 83 spectators killed in the 1955 accident at LeMans, and while the driver knowingly assumes the chances of death, the fan should not.


This weekend marks the greatest single day of auto racing on the calendar, beginning in the morning with the Grand Prix of Monaco, continuing through the 500, and ending with NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte, NC.

It's also the 50th anniversary of the crash that killed Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald*, commemorated in a great new book by Art Garner, Black Noon.  There is something about that 1964 race that stays in the mind; many will say that racing was never quite the same after it.  Sachs and MacDonald were not the first drivers to die at Indianapolis, of course, nor are they the last.  The race had claimed 16 lives prior to 1964, and Swede Savage was killed in a particularly ugly accident in 1973; other deaths have occurred at the Speedway as recently as 2010.  Speed has always been prized at Indianapolis and 1964's pole-winning qualification average was over 157 miles per hour, a speed that seems primitive compared to this year's winning average of over 231 mph (which isn't even a record).

*And of Fireball Roberts, the great NASCAR star, who died as a result of a fiery crash at the Charlotte race the week before.

So why do we remember 1964?  Perhaps because two drivers were killed in the accident, the only time it's ever happened at the 500.*  Maybe it's due to the fame of Eddie Sachs and the promise of Dave MacDonald, combining with cars designed to go as fast as possible while carrying as much flammable gasoline as possible to create a Greek tragedy.

*On three occasions accidents caused multiple deaths, but each time those killed were the driver and his riding mechanic

Or maybe it's the memory of those pictures, first seen 50 years ago in the pages of a peach-colored sports section, the flames and smoke blotting out the sun and causing the blue noontime sky to turn black - more awful in some ways than even the actual film footage.  Tragedy often comes to us in the midst of triumph, death shattering the tranquility of life.  Amid the flags and balloons and fireworks, the cheering of hundreds of thousands of fans, death came to the old Brickyard in 1964, and the memories remain; the pictures never change.


  1. Eddie Sachs III (son) still visits Indianapolis today. Sherry MacDonald won't even think of going there. Two of Dave's granddaughters played NCAA Division I softball in the 2000's. Seeing the photos of Sherry, Rich, and Vicki in recent years mingling with Dave's competitors has the question asked: As Indianapolis Motor Speedway increases the number of car shows, would it be appropriate for Eddie Sachs III and Rich MacDonald to have their fathers' classic cars posed together and the sons meet?

  2. For decades the sports pages of THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE were printed on green paper and called "The Sporting Green" (later changed to white, with a green stripe along the side)

  3. Do you think A.J. Foyt truly enjoyed his second win...or the new Mustang?


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