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The 1964 Indy 500 Tire Wars, part 2: Dunlop exits and Firestone takes the win

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Photos by Dave Friedman, courtesy The Henry Ford.

[Editor’s Note: In response to the positive reaction to the excerpt from Art Gardner’s book, “Black Noon: The Year They Stopped the Indy 500,” which ran here a few weeks ago, Art prepared two more followups, this time dealing with the 1964 Indianapolis 500 tire wars and their aftermath. If you haven’t already, make sure to check out last week’s installment.]

Among the first to arrive at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on race morning in 1964 was Firestone’s junior rep Humphrey “Humpy” Wheeler. One of his jobs was to obtain every driver’s signature on a release form allowing for the driver’s picture to be used in the annual Firestone “Win” ad.

Although a Firestone win wasn’t as certain as in past years when every car in the field rode on the tires, only the two Lotus-Fords of Jim Clark and Dan Gurney on Dunlop tires and the Thompson-Fords of Dave MacDonald and Eddie Johnson and Sears Allstate tires posed a challenge.

Wheeler’s predecessor had told him the best time for getting the signatures would be race morning, as the drivers were preoccupied and would sign anything. Armed with a handful of crisp new one-dollar bills, he’d hand each driver a release form and new dollar, saying it was “for luck.”

“Drivers will do anything for luck,” Wheeler figured. Most simply signed the form and shoved the dollar in their pocket. Only Foyt, who was wearing a new Goodyear uniform, gave him any trouble.

“He was giving me hell, but that’s just Foyt,” recalled Wheeler, who would go on to become one of motorsports’ top promoters. “He said he needed more than a buck. I finally told him he’d better take the money, he might need it halfway through the race. He laughed, signed the form and took the dollar.”

Wheeler was relieved to finally get all the signatures, but had grown increasingly apprehensive while making his rounds.

“I just didn’t have a good feeling. I’d been around enough death and destruction in racing to know it was part of it. But this was different. You could see the tenseness, feel the uneasiness.”

Once the race started Wheeler’s concerns proved to be well justified. Clark jumped out to a big lead on the first lap from his pole position, but as he entered the first turn on lap two, MacDonald was sliding out of control on the front straightaway. The Thompson car hit the inside wall and then slid back across the track, drawing a curtain of flames and black smoke behind it. MacDonald was hit by Eddie Sachs and the race was soon stopped for the first time in Speedway history by an accident that also involved Johnny Rutherford, Ronnie Duman and Bobby Unser.

Tires, however, had nothing to do with the tragic accident that took the lives of Sachs and MacDonald. Sachs was running on Firestones, while MacDonald’s Thompson was using the Sears Allstate-branded tires that had proved to be trouble-free during the entire month.

Once the race was restarted, Clark was soon passed by Bobby Marshman on lap seven. Marshman, in a year-old Lotus, began to rapidly pull away, repeatedly breaking lap records and knifing his way through traffic. He was also ignoring pit signs from his crew pleading with him to “Cool It.” On lap 37 it caught up with him, as he darted low on the track to avoid slow moving lapped traffic, his car bottoming out in the process. The impact severed a safety wire designed to hold the oil plug in place and knocked the water flange from bottom of the car. Within moments his car was trailing fluid and his race was over.

With Marshman out, Clark resumed the lead, but the Scot’s luck was also changing. His slower pace was the result of a vibration that worried him. He could see the right front tire, the one causing everyone concern before the start, but it looked fine. Still, something was wrong.

Coming out of the fourth turn on lap 46, Clark noticed a change in the vibration, and then the right front of the car was pointed skyward.

“I suddenly felt the rear of the car go limp,” Clark said. “I glanced over my left shoulder and found the rear wheel leaning at an odd angle, the rear suspension having broken.”

Like a tail wagging a dog, the front end of the Lotus jerked left and right as Clark fought for control, realizing that slamming on the brakes would send the car careening into traffic or a wall. He just missed hitting the wall at the entry to pit road and made the long and embarrassing drive down the front straight as he slowed the car, left rear wheel canted in and spraying sparks like a fireworks geyser. The crowd along the front straight rose as one, roaring as they realized his race was over. The roars turned to cheers as the World Champion managed to regain control, pulling the Lotus to the inside of Turn One.

A quick glance at the left rear told Clark all he needed to know. Large parts of the tire were missing. The chunking tire had started vibrating and literally shaken the rear suspension apart. From there he walked back to the Lotus pits to tell Chapman what had happened.

Gurney, meanwhile, was having trouble with the fuel tank selector switch and had made two early pit stops. The fastest car still in the race, he clawed his way back to sixth place on the same lap as the leader, A.J. Foyt, when he came in for his scheduled fuel stop.

The Lotus crew had been preparing to change Gurney’s tires as a precaution, but seemed surprised by his arrival in the pit. They raised the car on a manual jack, then dropped it. The gas hoses were attached. The car was raised and lowered again, then raised one more time and three tires changed, all except the right front that had been of so much concern. Sid Collins on the radio broadcast joked the crew was having “a spot of tea.” Finally, after more than two minutes, Gurney headed back down pit road, now hopelessly behind Foyt, who had spent just 14 seconds in his pit.

Gurney was soon back in the pits, called in by Chapman. After inspecting the tires, the Dunlop engineers said the problem Clark experienced could also happen to Gurney. If the tires came apart and the suspension broke in the corner, rather than on the straight as had happened to Clark, it could spin Gurney into the wall.

Clark leaned into the cockpit and broke the news to his friend. Gurney climbed out of his car, spoke again to Clark, then went after Chapman, unable to hide his disgust. All chance at victory was lost, but Gurney wanted to continue. He had run half the race on one set of tires, and with the new tires he could finish. He argued he could manage the tires. It was worth the risk.

Chapman, however, was adamant. They were out of the race.

There was an edge to Gurney’s voice when a radio reporter caught up with him walking back to Gasoline Alley.

“Colin Chapman asked me to come in and stop running,” Gurney said. “Primarily a safety problem. We decided it wasn’t prudent to continue racing. So we just stopped. Indications were that on our pit stop prior to that our temperatures were a little bit overboard. Jim had a little bit of a problem with this. And Colin felt he didn’t want to take the responsibility to leave me out there with the same sort of proposition.”

Gurney’s retirement also eliminated the final challenge to Firestone. Foyt cruised home to victory in is roadster, finishing more than a lap ahead of Rodger Ward, who was driving the only rear-engine car in the top 10.

Wheeler was among those in Victory Lane to greet Foyt. Another of his jobs was to arrange a photo of the winning driver wearing a Firestone hat. As Foyt stood in the seat of his race car, Wheeler pushed through the crowd and held out the hat. Foyt might have on a Goodyear uniform, but hopefully he’d have on a Firestone hat too.

“A.J., you’ve got to put this on for me,” Wheeler pleaded. At first Foyt seemed to balk. Then he took the hat, put it on for a moment as the cameras clicked away, then just as quickly tossed it aside.

Foyt was also gracious. Spotting company chairman Ray Firestone in the crowd and knowing he would soon be retiring, Foyt went out of his to thank him for all that he’d done for the sport.

In the aftermath of the race. Ford President Lee Iacocca personally ordered the company’s racing execs to take control of future tire selection, openly wondering what kind of payment Chapman had received to use Dunlops. It was one and done for Sears-Allstate. After MacDonald’s fiery death, the retailer had no interest in returning to the Speedway.

Goodyear, however, decided to go all in on its Indy 500 program and immediately began testing for the 1965 season. The company also turned to Carrol Shelby of Cobra fame and poured $50 million into the coffers of its longtime ally, targeted at winning Indy. Shelby, already consumed with running Ford’s Le Mans and sports car programs, tabbed Gurney, who had become disenchanted with Chapman’s operation, to lead the Indianapolis effort, and the pair used some of Goodyear’s money to form All-American Racers.

Foyt again led the Goodyear contingent in 1965 and this time he delivered, qualifying on the pole with a new track record. Twelve Goodyear cars in all made the race. But ’65 belonged to Clark and his Lotus-Ford, now running on Firestones.

By now the tire war had reached nuclear proportions, with Firestone matching Goodyear nearly dollar-for-dollar and costs rapidly escalating. The two companies vied for drivers to represent their brand and invested heavily in technology – and not just tire technology. Tire dollars helped fuel the developments in supercharging and turbocharging and even revived the Offenhauser engine, once left for dead.

In 1966 the field was nearly split equally between the two tire companies, but a first lap accident damaged 11 cars, including those of Goodyear’s top drivers, Foyt and Gurney, and Graham Hill was the surprise winner on Firestones.

It appeared to be more of the same in 1967 as Parnelli Jones dominated in the STP turbine with Firestone tires. But Jones’s gear box failed four laps from the finish, allowing Foyt, fittingly, and Goodyear to finally reach Victory Lane.

The following year saw just how crazy things had become. After drivers Clark and Mike Spence were killed in racing accidents, Andy Granatelli turned to Bobby Unser and offered him a million bucks to drive a new Lotus turbine in the 500. Just four years earlier Unser had driven a Novi for Granatelli for $1,500 and a used Studebaker pickup truck with a camper shell on the back. Unser was forced to turn Granatelli down as he was under contract with Goodyear. It worked, however, as the turbine failed again within sight of the finish line, Unser – and Goodyear – benefiting this time.

Firestone and Goodyear also took leadership roles in improving the safety of auto racing. Initially their efforts centered on the development of rubberized fuel tanks. With helicopters playing an increasingly critical combat role in Vietnam in the mid-‘60s, the development of a fuel tank that was hard to tear and self-sealing was already a top priority and both companies began looking at adopting the technology for race cars. Tire inner liners were developed to guard against failures. Ray Firestone even challenged his engineers and scientists to develop a rubber coating for race track walls. It would take 40 years, but the concept of safer walls would eventually be applied first at Indianapolis and then at race tracks across the county.

By 1969 Firestone began to back away, no longer signing drivers and teams to massive contracts. By 1974 the war was over, Firestone pulling completely out of Indy car racing. It would eventually return, more than 20 years later, but the tires wars of the ‘60s and ‘70s would never be repeated.

[Art Garner’s “Black Noon: The Year They Stopped the Indy 500” is available on Amazon.]