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The 1964 Indy 500 Tire Wars, part 1: Four become three

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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. Stay tuned for part 2 next week!]

When the Indianapolis Motor Speedway opened for practice on May 1, 1964, four different tire brands had moved into Gasoline Alley in pursuit of one of the biggest advertising and marketing prizes in sports – victory in the Indy 500.

Firestone, winner of every 500 since 1920, was the odds-on favorite, especially with defending champion Parnelli Jones as its lead driver. Newcomer Goodyear, coming off victories in the Daytona 500 and several major sports car races, was led by ’61 winner A.J. Foyt. Dunlop, the dominant tire on the Formula One circuit where it had won every F1 race since 1959, was on hand to supply tires for the new 4WD Ferguson Novi of Andy Granatelli and was talking to the race-favorite Lotus team. And Mickey Thompson had developed a tire for his radical “roller skate” cars, produced by the local Armstrong Tire Company and branded by Sears Allstate.

Eddie Sachs was among the first to discover just how serious Goodyear was about its Indy effort. One of the first drivers to understand and embrace the idea of public relations and sponsor promotion, Sachs was usually the first driver in line each May when the Speedway opened for practice. Although it meant nothing from a competitive standpoint, as officials imposed a speed limit until the track was cleaned of dirt and grime after a month of inactivity, Sachs knew the large opening day media turnout would focus on the first driver on the track and that his sponsors, including Firestone, would reap the benefits.

But when Sachs arrived in ’64, he discovered Len Sutton’s Goodyear-shod car already in line and Sutton strapped in. Sutton and his new Offy-powered rear-engine machine had been among the fastest cars in pre-season Goodyear tests. Both Sutton and Goodyear were determined to keep the momentum going and be first on the track.

As track officials scrambled to find the keys to unlock the gate and open the track for practice, Sachs jumped into his car. Rules required the cars be moved onto pit road before they were started and as the gate was finally unlocked and slowly slid open, the crews began pushing their cars, Sutton in the lead, towards the pits. Sachs, however, popped the clutch and started his Ford. He waved as he drove past Sutton’s stunned crew and out onto pit road, where his car promptly stalled. He had forgotten to open the valve on the gas fuel line. While Sachs’s crew frantically tried to restart the car, Sutton’s car was fired and drove onto the track, recording a dramatic first for Goodyear.

Once the speed limits were lifted after several days, Foyt and Goodyear built on the opening day coup and topped the speed charts for five consecutive practice days. It was a highly sought-after honor, as each day’s fastest qualifier received a free dinner and held forth at the popular White Front Restaurant and Bar, just down 16th Street from the Speedway.

The string was snapped by Jones and Firestone during a mock qualifying run, shattering the unofficial track one- and four-lap records, topping 156 MPH in the process. After his run, Jones, who like Foyt had decided to stick with a roadster rather than make the switch to a rear-engine car, couldn’t help tweaking Foyt about the tire situation.

“We haven’t been putting on soft tires like those Goodyear cars have,” said Jones, who had taken to wearing a cowboy hat with a big Firestone emblem on the front. “I don’t think you can put the reason for the big jump in speed on anything but the tires. Firestone told me they would go three miles per hour faster and I went 153 last year in practice. So it adds up to the tires, not me.”

After Jones posted his record speeds, the tire situation took an unusual turn. First Foyt went out to practice on Firestones. Then he ran several laps with Firestone tires on the front and Goodyears on the rear, before USAC officials flagged him off the track, telling him mixing tire brands wasn’t allowed.

Lotus, which had been running on Firestones up until that point, had Gurney run a few laps on Dunlops. Granatelli also got into the act, saying he was thinking about running his three Novis on three different brands, one on Dunlops, one on Firestones and one on Goodyears.

Foyt was becoming increasingly frustrated with a new group of Goodyear engineers who had been assigned to the Indy program. After spending nearly a year developing a tire for the Speedway, he suddenly found himself arguing with the new engineers, who said the tire was too soft and wouldn’t last 500 miles. As everyone was planning to run the race without a tire change, it could prove embarrassing for Goodyear if the tires had to be changed, or worse, had a failure during the race.

Foyt was adamant the tires would last, saying he’d put “about 1,500” miles on one set during a test. He also made it clear that while he had no love for Firestone after the previous year’s shenanigans, he’d run those tires if he wasn’t allowed to use the Goodyears he had developed.

Thompson’s cars, meanwhile, were struggling to get up to speed. Only it was the size of the tires — not their makeup – which was causing troubles. New USAC rules announced the previous fall mandated 15-inch tires for all cars. Originally designed to run with the smaller 12-inch tires used in ‘63, the team was testing several different front end designs, but had yet to solve the problem with front-end lift that the larger tires were causing.
With the Lotus team cars having a series of a minor problems that limited practice, Bobby Marshman began to emerge as the pole favorite in his year-old Lotus-Ford. Marshman had done the brunt of the driving for Ford’s engine development program and after trying the Goodyears, decided to stick with Firestone.

Firestone was also quietly egging on Jones and crew chief Johnnie Pouelson, offering a $5,000 bonus for outrunning Foyt. It urged the team to use higher levels of nitro in its fuel blend during practice for added speed and promised to pay for any engines damaged as a result. The hope was Foyt would think the tires were making the difference and switch back to Firestone – and the plan was beginning to work.

In an effort to salvage the relationship with their star driver, Goodyear President Victor Holt made the short trip from Akron, Ohio, to visit the Speedway. Goodyear dealers were growing increasingly upset with what they referred to as the “Memorial Day Massacre” – when Firestone’s annual victory in the 500 was followed by “win” ad in seemingly every publication in the country, boasting of Firestone’s winning heritage. The ad also came right at the kickoff of the critical summer tire buying season. Holt asked Foyt if there was anything he could do to keep the Texan on Goodyear tires.

“If you let me run the tire I tested and did all the work with, I’ll be glad to run it,” Foyt said. “I’ll sign any kind of certificate, because I know those tires will do what I want them to.”

Foyt also warned that if he wasn’t allowed to use the tires, he could switch to Firestone, saying, “It means more for me to win the race.”

As this drama was playing out, Lotus continued to test both Firestone and Dunlop tires, but was having trouble doing back-to-back comparison runs. The two brands had only slightly different characteristics, but it was enough to force a time consuming gear change for the four-speed equipped Lotus. The two-speed roadsters had no such problem. Already pressed for track time because of the team’s late arrival at the Speedway, Lotus never did conduct a back-to-back test to establish which tire was the faster under the same track conditions.

As qualifying approached, the choice of which tire to run took on added meaning. Tires were one of the few constants required on a car from qualifying through the race. Qualifying with an alcohol fuel blend boosted by nitro and switch to gasoline for the race, as the Fords planned to do, was perfectly legal. Engine changes could be made. Aerodynamics could be adjusted. But no changes were allowed to the tires from qualifying to the race. The tires must be identical in brand, size and, most importantly, compound. And with every team planning to run the entire race without changing tires, making the right choice was critical.

Several Ford officials joined Colin Chapman in the Lotus garage to discuss the tire situation. While the team had run most of its laps during the month on Firestones, the fastest times were on Dunlops. National pride also was playing a role, Chapman preferring the British-made tires. The Ford execs leaned toward Firestone. One even mentioned that a member of the Ford family was married to someone in the Firestone family and wondered if that should be taken into consideration. In the end, however, the company decided to leave the decision to Lotus.

Foyt, who had spent most of the day in fruitless negotiations to test the third Lotus-Ford, was in a foul mood. But he felt he owed Goodyear one last chance to allow him to use the tire compound he’d developed for the 500. Bypassing the engineers, he called company president Holt at home.

“Vic, you gotta tell those guys to let me use that tire,” he said. “It’s the only chance we’ve got, and we’ve all worked too damn hard to blow it now.”

Holt said there was nothing he could do. It was company policy to abide by what the engineers said when it came to racing tires.

“Well they may be experts about building tires, but they’re sure as hell not experts about driving,” Foyt said. “That’s my job. I know that tire’s safe. I’ll tell you what. Let me use the tire and I’ll sign an affidavit taking full responsibility. It’s my judgment against my ass.”

Holt reiterated he couldn’t override the engineers.

Foyt had heard enough. “Okay,” he said, “I’m running Firestones.”

As word of Foyt’s switch to Firestone spread through Gasoline Alley, the other 13 cars that had been running primarily Goodyears in practice, scrambled to mount Firestones as well. If Foyt, Goodyear’s lead driver, wasn’t willing to take a chance on the tires, neither were they.

A slight mistake by Marshman cost Firestone the pole and allowed the Dunlop-shod Lotus of Jim Clark to post the fastest time with a new track record. Teammate Dan Gurney qualified the second car in sixth. Both Jones and Foyt, their engines hyped up on nitro, suffered problems, but still qualified fourth and fifth. Dave MacDonald, running his fastest times of the month, qualified 14th with his Allstate tires, directly in front of Eddie Sachs.

The euphoria in the Lotus/Dunlop camp lasted less than 48 hours. With Clark back in Europe, Gurney took to the track to begin testing with a full load of fuel. He was running very fast laps, some even faster than his qualifying run. But after just 60 laps of an expected 100-lap run, the Lotus was in the pits.

Word spread quickly through the garage area that Gurney’s Dunlop tires were showing evidence of “chunking” – or “chipping” as the English called it – losing large pieces of rubber from the tread.

“We knew right away,” said the young Firestone rep making his first trip to Indianapolis, Humphrey “Humpy” Wheeler, who would go on to be one of motorsport’s top promoters.

“Whenever anybody has a problem, they would try like the dickens to conceal it from the other competitors. But when you chunk tires, it’s not easy to conceal because all the track observers see it. It took about a millisecond for word to get through the pits that he had blistered a tire.”

Speculation that the Dunlop tires were made of a softer compound than the Firestones had started as soon as Clark qualified. Designated a D-12 compound, the tires featured a deeper tread than the other tires being used and were similar to Dunlop’s Formula One rain tire in design. A softer tire with deeper tread may allow for faster laps, but the tires also wear out quicker as they rub against the track surface in the turns and heat up. Normally the rubber gradually wears away in tiny pebble-size pieces, often called marbles. An overheated tire with a deep tread design, however, could shed rubber in larger chunks, and that was a problem.

With virtually every team planning to run the 500 without changing tires, it suddenly appeared Team Lotus would have to change tires at least once and maybe even two or three times. A second pit stop, the most the roadster teams were planning, would negate any mileage advantage Ford and Lotus hoped to gain by running on gasoline. A third stop would doom the team’s chances.

Officially, Team Lotus scoffed at the talk of tire troubles.

“We have no tire problem,” Chapman said. “We plan to run the race on one set of tires. It is normal.”

“We had no tire problems,” said team crew chief Dave Lazenby, singing from the same songbook. “Sure we threw off some rubber, but we were running some tests and trying different air pressures in the tires. We’re all right.”

Official measurements, however, suggested otherwise. Using a durometer, an instrument to check rubber hardness – the tire’s compound – USAC recorded the Firestones used on the qualified cars with hardness ratings of 70 or 71. The Dunlop tires recorded a 66 rating, the five-point difference indicating a much softer tire.

Reporters soon tracked down Henry Banks, USAC director of competition and asked him if Lotus would be allowed to change tire compounds before the race.

“Only if the tires failed completely would we consider that,” Banks said. “These tires just blistered. They won’t be permitted to alter the types of tires or compound of their tires. This is set forth clearly in the entry blank. They will have to run the race more slowly than they planned, or make pit stops they hadn’t planned on.”

Despite all their other problems, Mickey Thompson’s team seemed very happy with its Allstate Tires.

“I believe that these tires could race 1,000 miles,” Thompson bragged, noting the team was putting more than 600 miles on a single set of tires during practice.

“They were amazingly good,” said crewman Peter Bryant. “We never experienced excessive heat. MT deserves all the credit. He designed it and it was wider than anything else anyone had ever seen. He wanted to put as much rubber as possible down on the road.”

The Allstate tires even earned the grudging respect of the Firestone engineers.

“Our engineers thought it wasn’t bad tire,” Wheeler said. “It was very similar to ours. It might have been a little harder, but tires were not an issue. They had all kind of other issues, but tires were not one of them.”

With Firestone, Dunlop and Allstate all in the race and the final weekend of qualifying approaching, Goodyear engineers reversed course and made the tire developed by Foyt available to those cars not yet qualified. With a durometer reading of just 60 points, it was softer than even the Dunlop tires. Bob Veith, making his first laps in a rear-engine car, began recording times that would have put him on the second row. The move quickly brought a howl of protests from other teams, complaining the tire had not been previously available.

“This is not a new tire,” Goodyear said in a statement. “We’ve had it here since May 1 and tested it along with all the others last year. We didn’t offer it at first because it was designed and built for use only on rear-engine cars. We didn’t want to cause a fuss by giving it to only the rear-engine drivers and not to the roadster drivers. It does have a softer compound than the others, but it has been fully tested and we’re sure it can do the job.”

The issue continued to simmer, however, and Veith’s MG Liquid Suspension team decided to avoid the possibility of protests and went back to the Firestones.

As a result, when qualifying ended for the 1964 Indianapolis 500, the field was made up of 29 cars on Firestone tires, the two Lotus-Fords of Clark and Gurney on Dunlops and the two Thompsons of MacDonald and Eddie Johnson on Allstate tires.

The Lotus team received good news as it prepared for the final “Carb Day” tune-up prior to the race. The chunking problems Gurney experienced with the Dunlop tires had been traced to a production error and a new shipment of tires were due to arrive at the track in time for the final warm-up and race.

As the cars took to the track for the two-hour practice session, both Clark and Gurney were planning long runs to look for any sign of tire wear. Both cars, however, were bothered by minor problems and neither driver was able to run enough laps at speed to really test the new tires.

Despite the lack of a full run, the Dunlop engineers declared the new tires fit for the race. The team was assured that “all four tires should last the entire 500 miles.” But when mechanics stripping the cars to prepare them for the race noticed the right front showed signs of elevated temperatures, the Dunlop engineers conceded that yes, the team should ready to change that tire.

Later, at the driver’s meeting, Sachs brought up the subject of the Lotus tires.

“I would like to make sure that everyone understands the tires you qualified on are the tires you race on, and that you can’t change after the race has gotten underway,” Sachs said. He was afraid the Lotus team would change tire compounds and then say they didn’t understand the rules, asking for forgiveness in Victory Lane.

Chief Steward Harlan Fengler seemed irritated Sachs would bring up the question again, but as the crews began to head to their Gasoline Alley garages for final preparations he warned the teams one last time, the same tire used in qualifying must be used throughout the race.

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