The Curse of the Indy 500: 1958’s Tragic Legacy

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I’m ashamed to admit that I am way behind on my reading. Last spring, I got two books that I had heard great things about – Paul Page’s autobiography, and the well-renowned book by John Oreovicz on The Split. Then last fall, Susan gave me the Al Unser, Jr. book for my birthday, to add to my collection.

I always used to do my reading at night after I went to bed. I would usually get about fifteen to twenty pages read each night, before dozing off. For the past several years, I’ve been guilty of reading my iPad instead. Not only does this practice cut into my reading time, but it is much more hazardous as the heavier iPad falls down and hits me in the face when I doze off. Those three books are still sitting on my bedside table, waiting to be read.

For Christmas, Susan gave me a much smaller paperback book that I had never heard of – The Curse of the Indy 500: 1958’s Tragic Legacy by Stan Sutton (apparently no relation to Len Sutton), written in 2017. I had always been interested in that race, due to the infamous Lap One melee that involved fifteen cars – almost half of the field. It was also the rookie year of my favorite driver, AJ Foyt, who finished sixteenth. An added attraction to that race for me was that 1958 was the year I was born.

Curse

Looking at the back cover, it sounded fascinating. It has always been a gruesome bit of trivia that thirteen of the thirty-three starters in the 1958 Indianapolis 500, would meet their demise while racing; including the very popular Pat O’Connor, who was fatally injured in the opening-lap crash in Turn Three. It sounded as if the book would go into great detail of the 1958 race, and the events that had led to that troubled opening lap. The outside cover also gave the impression that each of those thirteen drivers who would perish, would be given ample space to have their story told by the author.

For the record, those thirteen drivers (in no particular order) were: Pat O’ Connor, Art Bisch, Jimmy Reece, George Amick, Jerry Unser, Ed Elisian, Jimmy Bryan, Tony Bettenhausen, Shorty Templeman, Jud Larson, Al Keller, Eddie Sachs and Johnny Thomson. Currently, there are still two surviving members of the 1958 starting field – Paul Goldsmith and AJ Foyt, who was one of eight rookies in the field that day.

This book really intrigued me by the topic, and the small size of the book. I thought I would knock it out in just a few days, then tackle the other three books that were gathering dust. I started reading it on Christmas Day. I finally finished it in mid-April, and probably two-thirds of the book was read in April. That’s how hard it is to make myself read these days (nights).

The first half of the book did not fully disappoint me. It was a little concise in its lead-up and description of the 1958 race, but given the size of the book (168 pages) – I figured most of the content would be on the drivers that had lost their lives in racing.

The halfway point was where the book took a turn. After what I thought was a less-than-satisfying overview of the race; I was surprised to learn that some of the “chapters” about each of the thirteen drivers who perished in a race car were even less satisfying. Sometimes they were barely more than a page. The chapter on Johnny Thomson contained only seven paragraphs. I felt like I was reading a Cliff Notes version of the race and the men who drove in it.

I felt like the author made things way too concise in the first half of the book. Rather than going back and expanding what he had already written, he started going in different directions. He wrote about other people involved with the 1958 race and the difficulties they faced in life much later. A section was devoted to Troy Ruttman, who had failed to qualify for the 1958 race. It describes his not-so-glorious career beyond 1958, some of his off-track struggles and how he died of cancer in 1997, as if failing to qualify in 1958 was tied to his death at the age of 67.

In a strange way, he did the same thing with broadcaster Sid Collins. You got the feeling that calling the “cursed” 1958 race for the IMS Radio Network, led to Collins being diagnosed with ALS in April of 1977 and his ultimate suicide on May 2 of that year.

After I sensed the author was running out of content, he started talking about the good things that happened to Rodger Ward and Jim Rathmann.

It was appropriate that he would spend time discussing the Sachs-MacDonald crash in 1964, since Sachs had finished twenty-second in the 1958 race. However, I failed to see why it was necessary to go into great detail about the ill-fated 1973 race that saw popular driver Art Pollard fatally injured on the morning of Pole Day, then crew member Arman Teran and Swede Savage suffer fatal injuries during the race. Teran died instantly when struck by an emergency vehicle in the pits, while Savage succumbed to his injuries thirty-three days later.

What I came to realize was this was setting the stage for almost every subsequent IndyCar fatality from 1973 through 2015, when we lost Justin Wilson. The second half of this book shifted from a history lesson regarding the 1958 race, to an attack on the safety of racing. He seemed to celebrate famed sportswriter, Jim Murray’s line that he coined; Gentlemen, Start Your Coffins”.

The author even included a chapter entitled Indy among Top-10 Dangerous Tracks, where he sites an obscure non-racing website (therichest.com) that lists the ten deadliest racetracks in the world. IMS is listed Number Three. The only other US track listed was Daytona (Number Six). Oddly enough, when I went to that site and did a search, that list did not appear.

From Page 94, this book quickly devolved into a diatribe of how dangerous racing is. He never called for the banning of the sport, but he never offered any solutions either. He did credit the SAFER Barrier and the HANS Device as being critical jumps in safety. He even credited IMS for developing the SAFER Barrier, which is never done on NASCAR telecasts. Obviously, the book was written before the aero screen was introduced in IndyCar in 2020.

I wish the author had stuck to what was promised on the back cover – digging deep into the 1958 race, and the ultimate fates of all of the participants. Most blame the start of the crash on Ed Elisian, a mysterious driver that was connected with several deaths, including Bill Vukovich, O’Connor and Bob Sweikert. There are several theories (including a possible gambling influence) as to what happened and why he was so intent in leading that first lap.

There is very little information out there on Ed Elisian, but I don’t think he was well-liked liked by his competitors. I was hoping to learn some new information about Elisian, but there was nothing but very basic information about him.

Would I recommend The Curse of the Indy 500: 1958’s Tragic Legacy by Stan Sutton? If you want some light reading with very short chapters, then yes I would. There is a lot of information in the book regarding some of the lesser known drivers that I had not heard before – so I did learn some things I was previously unaware of. I also saw nothing that was blatantly wrong. There were a couple of times he may have been off a year, but he later said the correct year for the same item, so I’m chalking those up to typos.

If you already know quite a bit about the 1958 race and are looking for a lot more in detail – you’ll come away disappointed. My wish is that he spent his time and efforts digging deep into the 1958 race, and completely left out his editorializing on the level of safety in racing. It would have been a much better book, in my opinion.

George Phillips

2 Responses to “The Curse of the Indy 500: 1958’s Tragic Legacy”

  1. James T Suel Says:

    That’s one I have not read. After your assessment think I will pass.

  2. Patrick Says:

    A few years ago I stumbled onto an article written the day after the 1958 race that stated that Ed Elisian didn’t want to talk to reporters and after the crash was sitting alone in his garage except for the company of Billy Vukovich Jr., son of the two time winner. I wrote to Robin Miller and requested he ask his friend Vuky about it. Robin replied that Vuky confirmed it and that Billy wanted to be friends with Elisian because Ed stopped his car in 1955 and tried to help his dad. I’d like to know more about the conversation but Robin didn’t go into detail because it would have probably taken up too much space in the mailbag. I think Ed Elisian is one of the most fascinating people in racing history. A book about the 1958 500 should have been written years ago when most of the drivers and mechanics were still alive to share their thoughts. I agree the book in question was a disappointment.

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