As the obituaries about his life flowed in, Jim Rathmann, who died November 23 at the age of 83, was remembered most of all for winning perhaps the 1960 Indianapolis 500, the most nail-biting 500 ever contested. That race should have been enough to ensure immortality for anybody. But Rathmann also ought to be recognized for winning the second, and final, Race of Two Worlds in 1958, a non-point showdown between Indy and Formula 1 stars that took place on the lethal Monza circuit in Italy.
Rathmann has a tough racing upbringing. He was born Royal Richard Rathmann in Los Angeles, then moved to Chicago in 1948 to race in Andy Granatelli’s Hurricane Hot Rod Association. He was part of Indy’s rookie class of 1949, which also included future winners Troy Ruttman and Pat Flaherty. In an aside, Rathmann began using the name of his brother, James, to hide the fact he was under age from AAA officials. Later, Jim won the 1958 Indy 500 pole as “D***” Rathmann, a subterfuge that lasted for years. In 1952, Jim Rathmann collected the first of his three runner-up 500 finishes.
Many historians flatly call the 1960 race the greatest ever. The battle between Rathmann and defending winner Rodger Ward began after Ward stalled on a mid-race pit stop and had to play catchup. Both drivers traded the lead again and again as their tires wore away. With third-place Johnny Thomson closing in fast, Ward finally backed off, with three laps to go. If Ward had stayed on it and his tires had held out, Rathmann might have become the only driver to finish the race second four different times.
Ward ultimately retired, opened a car dealership near Cape Canaveral, and became friendly enough with NASA astronauts that they put a Rathmann Chevrolet-Cadillac sticker on the first lunar rover. There’s a somewhat sad side to this whole tale. In the above photo, the pit crewman in the black hat is the legendary Smokey Yunick, who said he became the Ken-Paul team’s co-crew chief at Rathmann’s request. At the winner’s banquet, Yunick’s name was never mentioned. The winning crew chief of record is the guy whose helmet is barely visible on the left, the famous mechanic and Offy builder, Takeo “Chickie” Hirashima. Smokey returned to Indy several times with Rathmann, most memorably with his City of Daytona Beach roadster that featured a high wing. Rathmann never set the record straight about the 1960 race, according to Yunick, who profanely excoriated him in his memoirs and had never forgiven him when Yunick died in 2001.