How Eddie Sachs Should Best Be Remembered
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.