Art Bisch Thrilled The Milwaukee Fans In 1958

When the race crews drove up from Indianapolis at the Wisconsin State Fair Grounds on the weekend of June 8th, 1958, the face of IndyCar racing had changed a bit. Racing was a dangerous game back in the day and 1958 was no exception. Gone was popular Indiana driver, Pat O’Connor who was killed the week before in the horrendous multicar crash on the first lap of the Indianapolis 500. Taking his spot on the Sumar Racing Team was talented Len Sutton of Portland, Ore. Arizona hotshoe Art Bisch took Sutton’s spot in the light blue Central Excavating Special #81. A native of Mesa, Arizona, Bisch was a 31 year old WWII veteran and former Navy pilot who had flown torpedo planes off the USS Theodore Roosevelt. Bisch was relatively unknown to many in the Midwest but had built an impressive racing resume back on the dirt tracks in the southwest. When he wasn’t racing, Bisch formerly owned a sawmill, but had recently sold it and got in the chroming business in Phoenix. Bisch hustled Bruce Crower’s Helse Special into the “500” field after he took some well-heeded advice in finding speed from fellow drivers Jimmy Reece and eventual winner, Jimmy Bryan. However, Bisch’s first “500” ended in turn three as he was involved in the tragic first-lap crash.
Bisch and chief mechanic Andy Dunlop quickly figured out the correct set-up as Bisch qualified the Kuzma upright dirt car on the pole for the ninth annual Rex Mays 100 at the Milwaukee Mile. On the outside of the front row was young Billy Garrett of Burbank, Calif. In the #43 Chapman Special roadster. Popular Chicago driver, Tony Bettenhausen (“The Tinley Park Express”) was lined up third in the #35 Kurtis 4000, another upright dirt car. It was common even as the low slung Indy roadsters gained popularity at Indy and many paved tracks that many teams still brought the upright dirt cars to paved ovals like Milwaukee and Trenton. The crews liked the uprights on the one-mile ovals whether it was paved or dirt. It wasn’t until the early 1960’s when eventually, the roadster was the car to have on all paved tracks on the IndyCar circuit.

At the drop of the green flag, Bisch took the lead as Garrett and Bettenhausen battled for second. Veteran drivers, Jimmy Reece, Johnny Boyd and Jim Rathmann also battled in the top-5. Boyd and Garrett continued to battle for third as Bettenhausen chased after Bisch. Minor spins by veteran Eddie Johnson and a youthful A.J. Foyt spiced the action. On the 54th lap after Boyd had passed Garrett, the Bakersfield-native spun his Chapman Special hard into the turn three wall, hitting it twice, causing serious injuries. Unfortunately Garrett’s injuries left him in a coma. Garrett eventually recovered however his injuries kept him from ever driving a racecar again.

When racing resumed, Bisch and Bettenhausen continued their spirited duel. Bettenhausen surged into the lead, though Bisch would take it back several laps leader. The duo staged a spirited duel as they traded the lead. Bettenhausen found himself in the lead with fewer than ten laps to go. Bisch tried several times to pass the tough veteran, the determined Bisch finally passed him on the 94th lap. Shortly after Bisch took the lead, Dick Rathmann spun out in the first turn. Due to Rathmann’s stalled car, the race finished under yellow with the Arizona driver earning his first win. “That Tony’s a tough guy to beat,” an excited Bisch remarked in victory lane.

Bisch’s mechanic, Dunlop was quoted in the Tom Saal’s book, ‘Damn Few Died in Bed,’ “He (Bisch) led most of the race, swapping the lead with Tony Bettenhausen a few times but never dropping back farther than second. He did a great job in figuring out the weight jacker as the race progressed and finished first under the third yellow flag of the race, giving us two wins out of two starts for the season (Sutton won at Trenton before Indy) and the third time that the Kuzma dirt car had provided a first win for a young up-and-coming racer driver.”

Tragically, later that summer, Bisch died two days after a July 4th racing crash at Lakewood Park Speedway in Atlanta. Few who witnessed Art Bisch’s spirited duel with the legendary Tony Bettenhausen will forget that race. Bisch was elected to the Arizona Racing Hall of Fame in 1987. Art’s son, Art Bisch, Jr. drove in the USAC Championship Dirt Car, Sprint Car and Midget divisions in the late-1970’s and 1980’s.

Art Bisch’s Career Accomplishments

1950-1951, 1953 AMRA (Arizona Modified Racing Association) Champion
1952 Arizona Midget Owners and Driver’s Club Champion
1956 CRA (California Racing Association) Sprint Car Champion
1957 finished fifth in USAC Western Midget points
1957 finished third in his second USAC Indy Car race at Langhorne, PA
1958 qualified for his first Indianapolis 500 only to be involved in multiple car first lap accident not of his making.

Share Button