Jim Rathmann: The True Racer

It was almost fitting that Jim Rathmann passed away the day before Thanksgiving. That way, very little attention would be paid to him. With most amateur bloggers and real journalists tucked away with family and away from their keyboards for the long holiday weekend, his death would sort of slide under the radar – almost the way history has treated his racing career.

Most of us know Rathmann for winning the 1960 Indianapolis 500, which is considered one of the most classic battles in the ninety-five races that have taken place. It was an epic duel with Rodger Ward, where the two swapped the lead back and forth fourteen times before Rathmann finally came out on top. Still many focus more on the better known Ward and the fact that he stalled on a pit stop and overworked his tires while trying to catch up, rather than on the understated Rathmann.

Jim Rathmann didn’t have the public persona of Rodger Ward, who went on to become a two-time Indianapolis champion. To his friends, he was a cut-up and a prankster, but to the public – he was quiet and reserved. Although he was the ultimate winner of that famous race, he is remembered as “the other player” in the duel with Ward.

The IndyCar community lost a key link to the past with the passing of Rathmann, for more than just the loss of another Indianapolis 500 champion. Jim Rathmann was not only the oldest living Indianapolis 500 winner; his victory was the furthest back for any living winner. Now, both of those distinctions belong to AJ Foyt.

Rathmann was also the last living Indianapolis 500 driver to have driven in the 1940’s. The link to that decade is forever gone.

Before winning the 1960 Indianapolis 500, Rathmann was also runner-up in the event three times – 1952 behind Troy Ruttman, 1957 following Sam Hanks and in 1959 when he finished behind Rodger Ward, whom he bested in 1960. Altogether, Rathmann had fourteen starts at Indianapolis  that stretched from 1949 until 1963.

Another one of Rathmann’s more notable accomplishments was winning the second of only two “Race of Two Worlds” held on the high-banked oval at the Monza Autodromo outside of Milan. This was an event in which ten American USAC stars took on European Grand Prix drivers in what was meant to be a showdown in comparable equipment. The purpose was to introduce European fans to American style oval track racing.

1957 was the first year of the event, yet the Grand Prix drivers never showed up. Finally, a team of Scots who had finished first and second at Le Mans agreed to run. The American delegation consisted of names such as Tony Bettenhausen, Pat O’Connor, Andy Linden, Johnnie Parsons, Troy Ruttman, Eddie Sachs and Jimmy Bryan who won the inaugural event.

The second and last Race of Two Worlds was run the following year, with most of the previous year’s American drivers along with others including Jim Rathmann, Rodger Ward and AJ Foyt. This time however, the Europeans did show up. The 1958 race featured Formula One Grand Prix names like Stirling Moss, Phil Hill, Masten Gregory and Luigi Musso. Rathmann won while Jimmy Bryan finished second. The Race of Two Worlds failed to capture the imagination of Europeans and the idea was abandoned for good following the 1958 event.

Probably, the biggest compliment to Jim Rathmann came from his peers. He was regarded as a true racer among his contemporaries. Most of the top drivers from those days weren’t free with their compliments for their competitors, unless they were considered truly something special. Rodger Ward had the utmost respect for Rathmann, saying that if he had you in his sights, he could find that elusive extra mile an hour and run you down.

One well-documented oddity about Jim Rathmann involved his older brother Dick Rathmann, who also raced and was the pole-sitter for the 1958 Indianapolis 500. Jim Rathmann was actually born with the name Royal Richard Rathmann. His older brother had the name James Rathmann. In order to race as an underage driver, he borrowed the identity of his older brother James for what was supposed to be a temporary situation. From that point forward however, Richard Rathmann always raced as “Jim”, while James Rathmann raced as “Dick”. Dick Rathmann died in 2000.

Jim Rathmann and I had one thing in common. We both loved racing and the Indianapolis 500, but we were also infatuated with the US Space program of the 1960’s. After he retired, Rathmann owned a Chevrolet-Cadillac dealership in Melbourne, FL – just outside of Cape Canaveral and Cocoa Beach. He supplied free cars (usually Corvettes) to the original seven Mercury astronauts, and many of those in the Gemini and Apollo programs. If you’re ever on the moon and come across the lunar rover that is still sitting there – upon inspection, you’ll find a Rathmann Chevrolet decal attached to it. After his career was over, he actually owned a short-lived race team with astronauts Gus Grissom and Gordon Cooper, called CGR Racing – utilizing the last initials in each of their names.

If you’ve ever seen footage of Jim Rathmann in Victory Lane at Indianapolis in 1960, you are struck at his calm demeanor. Instead of winning the Indianapolis 500, he looked like he was about to mow his grass as he hardly cracked a smile. This carried over into interviews about the race many years later. In the excellent “Decades” DVD series put out by IMS, there are interviews by both Rathmann and Rodger Ward. If you didn’t know the outcome, their demeanors would have suggested that Ward had won. Ward was animated, and was sounding excited just talking about it decades after the race. Rathmann, on the other hand, stoically described the win as if it were no big deal. That was the public Jim Rathmann we all came to know, but his friends knew him as fun-loving and with a unique sense-of-humor. But no one ever questioned his devotion for the sport, or especially his love of the Indianapolis 500.

But apparently, the quiet side is what he wanted us to see. The mild-mannered, soft-spoken man was also known to be very modest. Maybe that’s why he downplayed his emotions in Victory Lane. Whatever the reason, Jim Rathmann ended up being one of the lesser-known winners of the 1950’s and 60’s. Although most die-hard racing fans know about the famous race in 1960, many are hard-pressed to tell you much more about the man other than he was the winner that day. His name is swallowed up in the midst of great winners from that era like Bill Vukovich, Sam Hanks, Jimmy Bryan, Rodger Ward, AJ Foyt, Parnelli Jones, Jim Clark, Graham Hill, Bobby Unser and Mario Andretti.

Still, the more you read about Jim Rathmann – the more you realize that he actually preferred to stay out of the spotlight. That’s why I think it is fitting that he passed away the day before Thanksgiving. That way, it would not be in the news so much and fewer people would read about it. Somehow, I think that may be just the way he wanted it.

George Phillips

9 Responses to “Jim Rathmann: The True Racer”

  1. It’s always a pleasure reading oil pressure.com Thanks for another gem George!

  2. Very nice piece George. I didn’t know that he was the one that supplied all those astronauts with corvettes. Very cool! Thanks for taking the time write all these insightful historical pieces about the Indy 500. So many newer fans I meet don’t realize how rich it’s history is. Thanks again George.

  3. Thinking of the lunar rover with a Chevy dealer sticker attached is pretty cool.

  4. billytheskink Says:

    Another wonderful piece, George.

    The day I heard the news, my dad was looking through the photos stored on his camera and came across a photo he had taken during this year’s 500 weekend. It was of the Ken-Paul Special on display on the pedestal in the middle of the IMS Hall of Fame Museum… He asked me who drove it…

    And please forgive me for picking the nit, but I believe Parnelli Jones is a couple years older than AJ, and thus, is the oldest living 500 winner now.

    • Oilpressure Says:

      Ouch! You’re right. Parnelli is about a year and a half older than AJ. Good call. I apologize for the error. Such is the price I pay for relying on an old and fading memory. – GP

  5. james t suel Says:

    George let me thank you for a great story on a real racer Jim RATHMAN. The 1960 500 was my first and it sealed the deal for me;as ive been to every race since! There is a great old book called {OF MEN AN CARS} i found when i was in the 8th grade.It has a good story on Jims victory at MONZA in 1958.

  6. jim bray Says:

    You comment that A J is now the oldest & oldest date 500 winner. Actually Parnelli is older than A J . Also in some of the articles on Jim they say he moved to Florida and started his dealership after he retired. The way I remember it he had a hot rod shop in Miami and when got the dealership he had to stop driving at the request of General Motors (like Penske) Also the picture in one of the obit sites show a picture of Dick rather than Jim and they say that the 1960 car was a Watson I thought it was a Watson copy built by Chickie (despite what Smokey claimed) and also omitted was that in the early 1960’s Jim did the undercover distribution for Chevrolet for their NASCAR owners support. It was nice reminiscing with him when one dropped into the dealership.He was a great guy, an unbelievable competitor, and a real gentleman with a great sense of humour. It was nice what you wrote about him. Thanks Jim Bray

  7. I worked for Jim sr back in the 80s-90s and he was a great guy to work for , for us mechanics. He was a tough and fair , but he
    Really was a joker at heart with us. He did have a rod shop in Miami , I no because he used to till me story’s of the shop while
    I was working .now for the rumour of the car on the moon with
    A dealer sticker on it ,Mr rathmann said its true and was done by NASA workers .my employee hand book from back in the day
    Even states its in the book list of things about Jim rathmann sir.
    Me and all the mechanics that ever work for Jim sr will always
    Miss him.

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