The 48th International 500-Mile Sweepstakes was held at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Speedway, Indiana on Saturday, May 30, 1964. It was won by A.J. Foyt, but is primarily remembered for a fiery seven-car accident that resulted in the deaths of Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald. It is also the last race won by a front-engined "roadster", as all subsequent races have been won by rear-engined, formula-style cars. It was Foyt's second of four Indy 500 victories.
Jim Clark, who finished second the previous year, won the pole position in the Lotus 34 quad-cam Ford V-8. He took the lead at the start, and led for a total of 14 laps. However, a tire failure caused a broken suspension, and he dropped out on lap 47. Clark's Lotus teammate Dan Gurney was later pulled from the race after experiencing similar tire wear.
Bobby Marshman led during the early stages of the race, at one point stretching his lead to as much as 90 seconds. During his aggressive charge in front, he became uncharacteristically obsessed with putting A. J. Foyt a lap down. On lap 39, he went too low in turn one, bottoming out the car, and dropped out with a broken transmission oil plug. Parnelli Jones later dropped out after a pit fire. With Marshman, Clark, and Jones all out of the race, A. J. Foyt cruised to victory, leading the final 146 laps.
Race winner Foyt drove the whole 500 miles without changing tires. Goodyear supplied tires for some entries, but participated only in practice. No cars used Goodyear tires during the race itself. Foyt's 1964 winning car remains the only car in the collection of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame and Museum, regularly on display, that has never been restored to pre race condition.
Time trials was scheduled for four days.Saturday May 16 – Pole Day time trials
Jim Clark captured the pole position in his rear-engined Lotus 34. Rodger Ward was the first to make headlines, as he set a one-lap track record with a lap of 157.563 mph, and a four-lap average of 156.406 mph. Bobby Marshman upped the speed to 157.867 mph. Jim Clark secured the pole with a record-setting run. His second lap (159.337 mph) set the one-lap track record, and his four-lap average was a record 158.828 mph. Clark became the first foreign-born pole-sitter since 1919. The following weekend, Clark traveled to Europe and won the Dutch Grand Prix.
Sunday May 17 – Second day time trials
Saturday May 23 – Third day time trials
Sunday May 24 – Fourth day time trials
Dave MacDonald was driving a car owned and designed by Mickey Thompson, the #83 Sears-Allstate Special. It was a rear-engined car that first raced in 1963, updated with a streamlined body for 1964. The car utilized Allstate tires, manufactured by Armstrong Tire and Rubber Co. Due to rule changes by USAC for 1964, the car was required to utilize 15-inch tires (it previously used 12-inch tires). The wheels were most notably enclosed in the front and the rear by streamlined bodywork, intended to take advantage of aerodynamic effects to increase top speeds. However, it is believed that the wheel encasements, as well as the bodywork in general, made the car difficult to handle.
The fuel tank was located in the left sidepod of the car, and held approximately 44–45 gallons of gasoline. According to one of the mechanics, it was a single bladder, in a fiberglass shell supported by the fill neck and a moulded fibreglass body housing and a flat thin magnesium plate beneath the tank, braced by two steel straps hanging from the top rail of the frame. Following the crash, numerous erroneous accounts described the tank as oversized, some claiming upwards of 80 gallons, however, it is understood it was in the range of no more than 45 gallons. An urban legend circulated that Thompson was boasting plans to drive the entire 500 miles without a pit stop, using an oversized fuel tank, but this account has been proven false. The crash-worthiness of the car and the fuel cell was brought into question at the time.
During practice, it was discovered immediately that the car's handling was seriously flawed. Masten Gregory complained that aerodynamic lift reduced the steering response. Gregory suffered a crash on May 6, and quit the team due to what he believed was a terribly-handling car.
Dave MacDonald managed to qualify his car without incident. Eddie Johnson qualified the second team car. On Carburetion Day, MacDonald tested the car, with conflicting accounts on whether he ever drove with a full load of fuel. Other drivers in the paddock were known to be concerned about the car, and at least one account claimed that 1963 pole winner and reigning Formula One World Champion Jim Clark advised MacDonald to get out of the car. Another Formula One driver and future Indy 500 winner Graham Hill had actually tested the car at the speedway in 1963 but had refused to drive it because of its bad handling.
On the first lap, MacDonald passed at least five other cars. As he passed Johnny Rutherford and Sachs, Rutherford noticed MacDonald's car was handling poorly, zig-zagging, and throwing grass and dirt up from the edge of the track. Rutherford later said, watching the behavior of MacDonald's car, he thought, "he's either gonna win this thing or crash." Eyewitness accounts and film footage are inconsistent about the exact details of MacDonald's first two laps, but it is generally agreed he was attempting to pass many cars.
On the second lap, MacDonald's car spun coming off turn four, as he was turning down below the groove to pass Jim Hurtubise and Walt Hansgen. The car slid across the track and hit the inside wall, igniting the gasoline in the tank and resulting in a massive fire. His car then slid back across the track, causing seven more cars to be involved. Ronnie Duman crashed, spun in flames and hit the pit lane wall, and was burned. Bobby Unser hit another car, and Johnny Rutherford's car on its left rear tire, and crashed into the outside wall. Chuck Stevenson and Norm Hall also crashed.
Sachs aimed for an opening along the outside wall, but MacDonald's burning car slid into his path. Sachs hit MacDonald's car broadside, causing a second explosion, and died instantly of blunt force injuries. Despite Sachs' body being trapped in the burning car, his driver's suit was only scorched and he received slight burns on his face and hands. The car was covered with a tarp before being towed to the garage area for removal of his body. A lemon that had been on a string around Sachs' neck was found inside Rutherford's engine compartment after the crash.
MacDonald was pulled from the wreckage and taken into the infield hospital. Though very badly burned, he was alive. His lungs were seared from flame inhalation, causing acute pulmonary edema. He died at 13:20 after being taken to Methodist Hospital.
The crash was well documented in film and still images, and shown worldwide. For the first time in its history, the Indianapolis 500 was stopped because of an accident. Partially in response to media pressure, USAC mandated cars carry less fuel (and crafted the rules to effectively eliminate the use of gasoline, effective for the 1965 season). This resulted in a change to alcohol fuels first methanol but a switch to ethanol starting in 2006, although gasoline was partially restored in 2012 with the current E85 formula of 85% ethanol, 15% gasoline. Another response to the crash was the 1965 introduction of the Firestone "RaceSafe" fuel cell, with technology used in military helicopters.
The Sachs/MacDonald crash came just six days after the fiery crash of Fireball Roberts at the World 600. Roberts would succumb on July 2.The sense of gloom within the American racing community was further compounded when, just a week after the tragedy at Indianapolis, popular driver Jim Hurtubise was critically burned at Milwaukee.
The crash deeply disturbed the MacDonald family. Members of MacDonald's family avoided visiting the Speedway, with Sherry MacDonald, Dave's widow, and Richie MacDonald, Dave's son, making their first appearance at the track in 2016, with the two taking photographs with Sachs' son at the Sunoco sign at the pit lane entrance, near the site of the crash which since 1974 has become a safety apron.First alternate: Paul Russo (#21)
For the first time ever, the race was shown live, flag-to-flag, on closed-circuit television in theater venues across the county. Charlie Brockman served as the anchor. A few minutes of filmed highlights appeared a week later on ABC's "Wide World Of Sports"
The race was carried live on the IMS Radio Network. Sid Collins served as chief announcer. Fred Agabashian served as "driver expert." Lou Palmer conducted the winner's interview in victory lane. The broadcast was carried by a record 558 affiliates in the United States. With the addition of WJAR-AM in Providence, Rhode Island, for the first time, the broadcast was carried by at least one affiliate originating in all 50 states. Previously, listeners in Rhode Island (and elsewhere) may have only been able to hear the broadcast from a signal from a neighboring state.
Bernie Herman departed the crew, and newcomer Chuck Marlowe was stationed at the backstretch location. During the broadcast, a young Donald Davidson visited the booth, and made a brief appearance for an interview. Charlie Brockman left the radio crew permanently in 1964 to take over anchoring the MCA closed-circuit television broadcast. John DeCamp joined the booth to serve as statistician. Other guests in the booth included Pete DePaolo, and Indiana Governor Matthew E. Welsh.
During the live radio broadcast of the race, IMS Radio Network anchor Sid Collins drew critical praise for an impromptu on-air eulogy for Eddie Sachs. During the red flag, track public address announcer Tom Carnegie made the official announcement of the death of Sachs (MacDonald had not yet expired, and his death was not announced until later). The announcement was simulcast on the radio feed.
Silence was heard on-air for about five seconds, and at that point, Collins chimed in with a solemn, unprepared eulogy:
"You heard the announcement from the public address system. There's not a sound. Men are taking off their hats. People are weeping, over three hundred thousand fans, here; not moving; disbelieving. Some men try to conquer life in a number of ways. These days of our outer space attempts, some men try to conquer the universe. Race drivers are courageous men who try to conquer life and death, and they calculate their risks. And in our talking with them over the years, I think we know their inner thoughts in regards to racing: they take it as part of living. No one is moving on the race track. They're standing silently. A race driver who leaves this earth mentally, when he straps himself into the cockpit, to try what for to him is the biggest conquest he can make, is aware of the odds; and Eddie Sachs played the odds. He was serious and frivolous. He was fun. He was a wonderful gentleman. He took much needling and he gave much needling. And just as the astronauts do perhaps, these boys on the race track ask no quarter and they give none. If they succeed they're a hero, and if they fail, they tried. And it was Eddie's desire, I'm sure, and will to try with everything he had, which he always did. So the only healthy way perhaps we can approach the tragedy of the loss of a friend like Eddie Sachs is to know that he would have wanted us to face it, as he did: as it has happened, not as we wish it would have happened. It is God's will, I'm sure, and we must accept that. We're all speeding towards death at the rate of sixty minutes every hour. The only difference is that we don't know how to speed faster, and Eddie Sachs did. So as since death has a thousand or more doors, Eddie Sachs exits this earth in a race car. And knowing Eddie, I assume that's the way he would have wanted it...
...Byron said 'who the gods love, die young.' Eddie was 37. To his widow Nance we extend our extreme sympathy and regret. And to his two children. This boy won the pole here in 1961 and 1962 [sic], and was a proud race driver. Well, as we do at Indianapolis and in racing: as the World Champion Jimmy Clark I'm sure would agree, as he's raced all over the world: the race continues. Unfortunately today, without Eddie Sachs. And we'll be restarting it in just a few moments."
Collins received over 30,000 letters requesting a transcript of the eulogy.