Black Noon: The Year They Stopped The Indy 500

They say timing is everything, so it is fitting that 50 years after the 1964 Indianapolis 500-mile race, a new book has come out detailing the tragic month of May, 1964.

Art Garner’s book, Black Noon: The Year They Stopped The Indy 500 is a very well written and informative book.  Mr. Garner’s detailed narrative has the ability to place you back fifty years ago laying out the entire month of May, day by day to race day that took place on Memorial Day, Saturday May 30th.  He’s done a fine job recounting the backgrounds of the main players involved, the car owners, chief mechanics, supporting characters and of course the drivers.  1964 was a transitional year, with many types of cars (front-engine vs. rear-engine) and a mix of sage veterans and new drivers (traditional USAC dirt-track and road racing types).

The book sets the stage with the particulars of the 1963 Indianapolis 500 and the players involved in that controversial race.  The reader gets a front row view of Parnelli Jones’ win, the debut of the Colin Chapman designed rear-engine Lotus-29 driven by the Scotsman, Jimmy Clark.  Later we get a glimpse how shortly after the race plans for next year’s race were in play as the Ford Motor Company was moving forward with plans for their powerful four-cam engine. We see how Mickey Thompson the drag racing legend and land speed racer from California started working on latest radical design.  And of course we see the developing tire war with Firestone and Goodyear and how Dunlop and Sears were also involved.  There’s also the ancillary stories such as the Andy Granatelli and his popular Novis, Smokey Yunick and his ‘sidecar’ and eventual winner, A.J. Foyt.

There are a few pleasant surprises, such as promoter extraordinaire Humpy Wheeler who was then a young Firestone representative.  We also get the insights from a young English mechanic Peter Bryant who later became celebrated for designing the captivating Shadow Can-Am cars who worked the month of May with Thompson and his driver, Dave MacDonald.  These two give us an interesting view on the month as both worked the event as “rookies.”  

My favorite part of the book is the extensive background given on the talented driver, Dave MacDonald. An outsider at Indianapolis, the young driver was on the verge of superstardom and had won in every step up the racing ladder. We get insights from his wife Sherry as well as other family members. We also get a behind the scenes look on the popular Eddie Sachs. Much has been written on Sachs, however we get an insider’s look at his month leading of to that tragic race and the crash that took their lives.  The majority of the book involves the story of the month of the May (practice and qualifying) leading to the race and the second-lap accident.

This book does dispel many myths that have grown in the years, such as how much fuel the cars involved in the crash were carrying and several others. It does a great job of separating fact from fiction. However as some books do, there are a couple of small inaccuracies.  Speaking with Mr. Garner last month at Indianapolis, he was open to these minor criticisms and said they would be updated on subsequent printings.

It’s chilling to read how the drivers spent the week leading up to the race especially the morning of the race.  Garner also shows us the understanding that fellow drivers had of the risks involved. But as Sid Collins said in his impromptu eulogy of Sachs, “We are all speeding toward death at the rate of 60 minutes every hour, the only difference is we don’t know how to speed faster and Eddie Sachs did.”

As a student interested in the theories of “what happened” and one who has been active in dispelling myths and embellishments of that tragic day I found it refreshing that Garner and I come to the same conclusion on the why the crash happened. Garner saves that for the final chapter.

This book is highly recommended to both the casual racing and the hard-core motorsport historian types. This book transfers you back to May of 1964, a time many of us would like to go back to, however perhaps shortening the month by two days.

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