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The Start is the Most Dangerous Part of the Race

Gary Congdon (#53) has just vaulted over Don Branson as several cars seek to sneak past just after the green flag flew in the 1966 Indy 500. [Photo courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway]

Sometimes you get lucky.  In 1987 on the first lap, Josele Garza (#55) narrowly missed eventual winner Al Unser, Sr. (#25) as he spun on the first lap, eventually contacting Pancho Carter, however both were able to continue.   [Photo courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway]

Sometimes you get lucky. In 1987 on the first lap, Josele Garza (#55) narrowly missed eventual winner Al Unser, Sr. (#25) as he spun on the first lap, eventually contacting Pancho Carter, however both were able to continue. [Photo courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway]

The start is usually the most anticipated, exciting and dangerous part of an auto race. The noise, the closeness of the cars, the spectacle of it will have fans on their feet and the drivers on edge. Yesterday’s start of the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis featured the first standing start at the historic Indianapolis Motor Speedway since Formula One left after the 2007 race.

The start saw pole sitter Sebastian Saavedra’s car stall when the green flag was waved and was impacted shortly thereafter by drivers Carlos Munoz and Mikhail Aleshin causing wheels, suspension bits and carbon fiber to be exploded to various directions. Thankfully no one seriously injured. It brings back memories of other starts that didn’t go as planned.

The 1958 Indianapolis 500 was marred with a first lap accident that saw rookie Jerry Unser go over the wall.  [Photo courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway]

The 1958 Indianapolis 500 was marred with a first lap accident that saw rookie Jerry Unser go over the wall. [Photo courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway]

In 1958, racing officials decided to grid the cars on pit road and start them single file before going into their traditional rows of three. The first row got in front of the pace car and the second row actually became row one. It wasn’t until just before the start (as the cars exited T4) that the first row got into correct position. It was Katy bar the door as Dick Rathmann and Ed Elisian raced into the lead and got themselves in trouble in turn three when Elisian spun into Rathmann causing a huge pile-up. Tragically, popular Pat O’Connor was killed in the melee.

In 1966 its Canadian Billy Foster who gets the blame for the pile up on the front straightaway as he tried to squeeze between Gordon Johncock and the wall. In the ensuing collision, Johncock’s nosecone came sliding across the field causing many to avoid it, but hitting other cars in the process. Seventeen cars were involved, thankfully with no serious injuries, except to A.J. Foyt’s cut finger (when he scaled the retaining fence).

David “Salt” Walther became a footnote in history of the Indianapolis 500 when he touched wheels with Jerry Grant and flipped into the retaining fence and slammed upside on the track spraying fuel as he and the car pirouetted down the straightaway. Several spectators were burned and Walther spent the summer in the hospital recuperating. Thankfully, not until 1982 was another start on the front straight marred with a collision.

Yesterday’s race justifies the racer’s concern, they never knew what may happen.

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Steve Zautke, a Milwaukee, WI native, was raised in the sport of auto racing. His father, Bill, was a movie photographer that shot racing footage at tracks such as the Milwaukee Mile and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the 1960’s and 1970’s Steve’s first professional job in racing was as an Emergency Medical Technician at tracks such as Angell Park and Hales Corners Speedway (1988-1991). Steve has also worked for the Milwaukee Mile as videographer, in media relations and historian (1993-2011). Steve also has worked as a reporter for Racing Information Systems (RIS) and has written features for ‘Vintage Oval Racing’ and ‘Victory Lane’ magazines. Most recently, Steve has written a book on Road America for Arcadia Publishing. ( http://www.amazon.com/Road-America-Nascar-Library-Collection/dp/1467111457 ) Steve co-hosts “Sparky’s Final Inspection” a motorsports-based radio show with hosts, Steve “Sparky” Fifer and “NASCAR Girl” Summer Santana on Sports Radio 1250AM in Milwaukee and is also available on the internet at www.Sportradio1250.com. A member of the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame Induction Committee, Steve follows all types of racing from the dirt tracks to Formula One.