How Eddie Sachs Should Best Be Remembered

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Whenever most of us, myself included, hear the name Eddie Sachs – we immediately recall images of a horrible fireball at the end of Lap Two of the 1964 Indianapolis 500. There is good reason for that. Google his name and you are immediately shown a seemingly unlimited choice of videos of the crash that took the life of Sachs and Dave MacDonald. Practically every article about Sachs is centered on every minute detail about the crash or the excellent eulogy that was delivered by Sid Collins over the IMS Radio Network. If you go to Wikipedia, you get a few sentences about the life and career of Eddie Sachs before you are bombarded with multiple paragraphs about the fatal crash.

For those that like to watch and read about horrifying crashes, they’ll definitely get more than their fill. Even compared to graphic footage of the fatal accidents of Dan Wheldon, Greg Moore and Bill Vukovich; the Sachs – MacDonald accident ranks as the most horrible that I’ve ever seen.

What is lost in all of the inferno and carnage that we are all so familiar with, is that Eddie Sachs should be remembered for so much more than some fiery footage on You Tube. Although he never won the Indianapolis 500, he won the pole two years in a row and finished second in 1961, in an epic duel with eventual winner AJ Foyt; and third the following year.

Although Sachs flunked his rookie test at Indianapolis in 1953, 1954 and 1955 – nothing to be ashamed about in those days; he was making a name for himself at other tracks that included Salem & Winchester. He performed admirably at these high-banked venues against well-established names like Bob Sweikert and Pat O’Connor. In fact, Sachs finished second in the demanding AAA Midwestern division in 1954.

Always wearing his emotions on his sleeve, Sachs never had trouble sharing his opinions. Once at a speaking engagement at the end of that season, Sachs ran afoul of AAA officials by sounding off on a variety of subjects that raised the ire of the sanctioning body. He earned a suspension that was actually extended after a somewhat backhanded and sarcastic apology. He was later reinstated after a more humble apology was offered.

The following season in 1955, Sachs finished second again, this time to the reigning Indianapolis 500 winner Bob Sweikert. In 1956, Sachs finally passed his rookie test at Indianapolis and was the first alternate starter. He finished second for the third time in what had then become the USAC Midwestern division, after AAA ceased to sanction auto racing following the deadly 1955 season that saw Bill Vukovich lose his life at Indianapolis followed by the deadly crash at Le Mans which saw 80 spectators lose their lives.

Eddie Sachs finally started his first Indianapolis 500 in 1957. He didn’t do so as a backmarker hanging onto the back of the field. Instead, he put his Offenhauser powered Kuzma chassis in the middle of the front row, before a failed fuel pump ended his day on Lap 105 relegating the rookie to a twenty-third place finish. Later that year, Sachs was seriously injured and was hospitalized for nearly four months. Although he only made six sprint car starts that season, Sachs finished tenth in points in the USAC Midwestern division.

Sachs finally had his big breakout season in 1958. He was finally able to win that elusive USAC Midwestern championship, beating names like AJ Foyt and Don Branson He also led a lap in his second Indianapolis 500 before a broken U-joint sidelined him on Lap 68.

1959 saw Sachs in the middle of the front row again at Indianapolis. He was still running at the end and was the first car off of the lead lap (although he was eighteen laps down at the finish) and finished seventeenth. That season, he finished fourth in the USAC Midwestern standings behind Don Branson, AJ Foyt and Bud Tinglestad.

Sachs won the pole at Indianapolis in 1960. He led twenty-one laps before a bad magneto put him out of action on Lap 132, earning him a disappointing twenty-first place finish for all of his fine work throughout the month. This would also be the last year that Sachs drove sprint cars, choosing to focus strictly on championship car races.

1961 is how I choose to remember Eddie Sachs. He won the Indianapolis 500 pole for the second year in a row. And drove what many believe should have been a winning race, had it not been for a re-fueling mishap on AJ Foyt’s winning car.

Foyt and Sachs battled throughout the day, swapping the lead back and forth throughout the second half of the race. When Foyt came in for what should have been his final pit stop, the fueling mechanism malfunctioned and Foyt took on only a partial load of fuel. Not realizing the problem, Foyt’s lighter car was much faster than Sach’s car, which was carrying a full load and Foyt began to pull away. Sachs wondered how Foyt could be so much faster all of a sudden and he began to drive harder to try and keep pace.

With fifteen laps to go, Foyt’s team signaled for him to pit – knowing he couldn’t make it to the finish with more fuel. Foyt was disgruntled, feeling that a mistake in the pits had taken a certain win away from him. But by the time Foyt rejoined the race in second place, Sachs began seeing cord showing through his tires. In his haste to catch up to the lighter and faster Foyt, Sachs had abused his tires. With only three laps to go, Sachs pitted while leading handing the lead and the win to Foyt. Sachs settled for second in what was one of the more memorable late-race battles in 500 history.

In 1962, Sachs overcame a poor qualifying effort that placed him in the twenty-second starting spot on the grid and he ended up with a respectable third place finish behind winner Rodger Ward and Len Sutton.

The 1963 race had some controversy involving Sachs, who started tenth, and eventual winner Parnelli Jones. A crack had developed in the oil tank of Parnelli Jones as he spewed oil onto the track. Chief Steward Harlan Fengler was about to display the black flag for Jones, but car owner JC Agajanian convinced Fenglar that the oil level was now below the crack and oil was no longer leaking.

One who was affected by the oil was Sachs, who spun in the oil on Lap 160 but managed to not hit anything. Jones went on to win the race. During breakfast at the Speedway Motel the next morning, Sachs let Parnelli know his feelings about the situation and called Jones a cheater. Jones shrugged off the initial comments, but Sachs continued to chatter until Jones decked him and Sachs ended up on the floor. Once again, the emotional Sachs had voiced his opinion just a little too much.

For 1964, Sachs switched to a rear-engine car developed by Ted Halibrand. The Halibrand Shrike was powered by the new DOHC Ford V8. Sachs qualified the good-looking gold and white American Red-Ball Special in the middle of the sixth row. At the conclusion of Lap Two, rookie Dave MacDonald lost control coming out of Turn Four and slapped the inside retaining wall and exploded, before collecting Sachs. Both were fatally injured.

Although the way his life ended was horrible and tragic, I think it is unfair to Eddie Sachs that almost fifty years later – the end of Lap Two in 1964 is what he seems to be most remembered for. A USAC championship after finishing second three times in the championship has been all but forgotten. The fiery crash at Indianapolis has practically erased the fact that Eddie Sachs won two poles in four front row starts at 16th and Georgetown along with a second and third place finish in his eight races at Indianapolis.

As we learned last month, tragic circumstances blur our vision at times. History has yet to determine Dan Wheldon’s racing legacy. Hopefully, racing historians will remember him for a series championship and his outstanding record at Indianapolis that included two wins, two seconds and a third in nine starts. Otherwise, his racing stats will dim in comparison to the sensationalism caused by endless replays of his crash on You Tube for years to come. The outstanding career of Eddie Sachs could not overcome the dramatic power of grisly videos. Unfortunately, the fiery crash is about all most people know him for. Hopefully, Dan Wheldon’s legacy will not suffer the same fate.

George Phillips

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31 Responses to “How Eddie Sachs Should Best Be Remembered”

  1. Even though he’s before my time, Eddie Sachs has always fascinated me as a driver. I’ve done as much reading up on him and asking around as I could. He certainly wasn’t a saint, but neither was he just the “clown prince” moniker bestowed upon him. He was a real person, not a caricature, and that’s something that gets lost at times talking about him (for what it’s worth, I think the same thing happens with Jim Hurtubise to a point).

    1961 stands out to 500 fans and buffs as one of the greatest duels in history, and Sachs truly is one of the Legends of Indy. Thanks for the posting this article, George!

  2. When I was just a wee lad of about 9 or so, Eddie spoke at a father-son function (maybe a Rotary luncheon?) which my father and I attended. He certainly earned his moniker of the “clown prince” of auto racing as he was truly funny, even for a kid my age who was just beginning his lifelong love affair with racing.

    It must have been after the 1963 Indianapolis 500, because he told a very funny story about the “cheater” thing with Parnelli, making himself like like something of an idiot.

    When it got down to the q & a at the end, I recall one of the fathers in attendance inquiring of him just how important winng the 500 was to him. He said he was going to “win the 500 or die trying.” Another question had to do with his lap 197 pit stop in 1961, to which he replied, “You can’t win the 500 if you’re dead!” The combination of those two answers makes one think he had an obsession with death. Far from it. He simply was trying to make the point that Indy was EVERYTHING to him.

    That next May, when he was killed, was the first time that I had experienced the downside of racing. Even though my hero, A. J. Foyt, would go on to win the race, it was dampened by the loss of Sachs and MacDonald.

  3. Jack in NC Says:

    I was there in Grandstand J when Sachs died in 1964, right in front of our seats. It was my first Indy 500 (I was eleven years old) and I remember being overwhelmed with shock. There were people openly weeping and I realized how much most fans LOVED Eddie Sachs. They were sad over Dave McDonald, but were devastated about Sachs.

    • I was in “B” that day and I was bowled over that someone larger than life was gone in the blink of an eye. The race, however, was a good one.

  4. George, it’s stuff like this that helps provide perspective for fans who don’t quite go so far back. No offense, but for some of us younger farts, Rutherford, Sneva, Sullivan, and Rahal (as in Bobby) are the old guard.

    Heck, for some of the newest fans, Montoya and Villeneuve are part of the old guard. Pretty soon, TK, Dixon, and Dario are going to be considered that; they’re already thought of as sort of elder statesmen, believe it or not. :-S

    Anyway, stuff like this is excellent to remind us of the Indianapolis 500′s rich past. Nowadays, people don’t seem to have that sense of raw history about the track or the race. They know it’s there in a very superficial sort of way, but they just don’t *think* about it. Don’t hesitate to write about the history of the race; I think we need more writers who’re willing to do that.

  5. One of the best photos in the large and ever expanding IMS photo vault is the 1961 shot of the first row. Eddie Sachs.

    Nice one George.

  6. I enjoyed the article, but for me, it rehashed many of the things we have recently discussed. You have a great talent for linking the present to the past, and I look forward to that aspect of your blog. This should be required reading for those, like myself, who only paid attention to one Indy Car race each year (The Indy 500). This type of article re-enforces your argument that Indy Car is a sport with a rich and storied history. Continue to do what you do so we

  7. When I was a young boy, I came to know of the 500 by listening to the radio broadcast with my father. Eddie Sachs was one of his favorites–he wasn’t too much of a Foyt fan. In 1961, I learned as a fan you can actually yell at the radio to cheer your favorite driver! Sadly, it didn’t seem to help that day…. Thanks for providing more history about Sachs, George!

  8. Excellent article George! It brought back many memories for me, some good, one horrible of course. Tony Bettenhausen was the overall USAC champion in 1958, even though he did not win a race. (shades of Matt Kenseth). What did the USAC midwestern championship consist of that Eddie Sachs won?

    I guess we know who to look to when Don Davidson retires:)

    • Jim in Wilmington Says:

      The USAC Midwestern Championship was the sprint car championship which was a huge deal in those days.

      Jim

  9. Little known fact, I believe to be true, 1964 was the last time a “Sears” sponsored car was ever driven at Indy. Even though it was the “Sears Allstate Special” that day, Sears would sponsor the “Die Hard” room for years and supply garden tractors for towing of the cars, but no cars sponsored at Indy after that day.

  10. james t suel Says:

    Eddie was a great driver,a selfmade racedriver. Ive been at indy for every 500 since 1960. I also seen eddie at salem in a sprint car. Eddie was a bad ass in a sprint car. There is a good book on his life ,you can get at the speedway! Good article!!thanks

    • Jim in Wilmington Says:

      That book is also avalable from the on-line store for this site. Just click on the “Shop Our Store” link near the top of the page. I think the Sachs book is on page 2 of the listings.

      Jim

  11. Here is an artical/blog that I came across this morning at TF. It was written recently by a boat racer and it gave me something to think about while I walk this planet.

    http://www.powerboatmag.com/the-dash-between-born-and-died-–-11/10/11.html

  12. I was 10 years old in May of 1964 and was just 6 months after the Kennedy assassination. My sports heros were Mantle, Bart Starr, Bob Cousy and Eddie Sachs. I listened to the 500 on the radio, as I did every year. My memory of the crash is the black and white television footage on the news–flames and black smoke.

    What drew me to Sachs was his personality, which I remember as being friendly, funny and a bit off-center. Anyway, thanks for the reminder George.

  13. All I’m going to remember from this post is that George hates YouTube.

    Seriously, though, great post, and some well needed perspective here. I’m too young (there’s a phrase I don’t get to use much anymore) to have experienced any of the Eddie Sachs era first hand, but I’m thrilled to be able to read the stories anywhere I can.

  14. No, Dan Wheldon will always be remembered first for winning this year’s Indy 500 in a one-off entry, beating all the series regulars in the process. That was glorious. It’s still tough to know he is gone, though.

  15. Chris Lukens Says:

    Was 1961 the year that Eddie Sachs stood up in his car so that he could wave to the fans in the stands?
    The person who my heart really went out to was Eddie Sachs’ wife, who was the widow of Gordon Reid, a racer that perished about 10 years earlier in a particularly gruesome racing accident at the old Dayton Speedway.

    • J Louis Frey Says:

      Chris Lukens you are close but mistaken. It was Eddie who married Gordon Reid’s widow. They later divorced and Eddie met and married Nancy McGarrity in 1959.

  16. Thanks for the great article on Eddie Sachs. Like me he was from Pennsylvania. He won at least 1 sprint car race at Williams Grove Speedway which is near my home. Eddie also did well at the defunct Trenton Speedway, winning a few Champ car races. A great book to read is “Eddie Sachs The Clown Prince” by Denny Miller.

  17. [...] How Eddie Sachs Should Best Be Remembered [Oilpressure]Speaking of “old-school,” George gives us a very nice recap of Eddie Sachs’ career before his tragic death in 1964. And naturally, it’s relevant as all hell to today, notwithstanding the fact that most kids who Google “Sachs fire” hit Eddie’s life story by accident because they were actually looking for that video of a frat guy frying his balls with lighter fluid. [...]

  18. As a 65 year old life long race fan I can recall Eddie Sachs grabbing the baton from the drum major of the Perdue band and leading them down the main stretch; I can remember him taking time to answer fan letters or go out of the way to speak to even critical news members. And, more importantly and as witnessed by some of the above posts, in those days one could see him live at places like Sellings Grove(local) and Salem and Winchester(regional) before he went to Indy. My point is that we loved him so much because he was one of us and we watched him and others like him climb the ladder. Now they just show with sponsorship with backgrounds we aren’t familiar with and, all to often, names we can’t pronounce. Now my local heroes all wind up topping out in the Outlaw circuit or they gravitate to NASCAR. I don’t just miss Eddie-I miss that entire era. I’m not sure Champ racing will ever get it back.

  19. Didn’t Eddie sometimes drop out of races due to a “hunch” or am I thinking of someone else? I thought he once pulled into the pits on a hunch and as the car wash pushed away, the spokes fell apart from the hub and rim.

  20. rich imlay Says:

    Eddie Sachs should be remembered as an all time great. Won in champ car, sprint car, midgets and stock cars. What may be most impressive is he won at Langhorne which may have been the roughest track of them all

  21. Vaughn Kershner Says:

    Eddie Sachs was a very colorful and excellent driver back in the day when a driver could make a difference. Eddie worked long and hard to become a good driver. He paid his dues. The 1961 race was a great race. I was there as a very young teenager. I also had the pleasure of attending the 1960 race that had Eddie on the pole and an exciting back and forth duel between Jim Rathman and Roger Ward. I was also there in 1963 when the officials refused to black flag the oil spewing Parnelli Jones due to their prejudice against Colin Chapman and Jimmy Clark. Again, Eddie was right. The officials cheated. I loved Eddie Sachs. Eddie was a man that I best remember as persistent while always being the crowd pleasing life of the party. There is a very good book “The Clown Prince of Racing” that is worth reading. It covers Eddie’s racing career. Long live the memory of Eddie Sachs, “The Clown Prince of Racing”! Eddie Sachs made many of his peers and we, his many fans, much the better for sharing his short time on this earth. Eddie Sachs got more out of life in his short 37 years than most of us get in twice that time. Rest in Peace Eddie! You are loved, missed, and never forgotten!

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