Feature

Jim Rathmann, 1928–2011

The Indy champ with the right stuff

Jim Rathmann was a notorious prankster. The champion race-car driver once stashed an alligator in a rival’s bathtub on the night before a race. But Rathmann himself was pranked by an astronaut he enlisted to teach him to fly. Col. Gordon Cooper told him of the risks of flying under a seagull, as the bird might excrete on his plane. To prove his point, he flew a terrified Rathmann so low under a flock of gulls that the propellers cut the marsh grass beneath the plane. Upon landing, Cooper pointed at the spoor-spattered fuselage. “I told you,” he said.

Royal Richard Rathmann was born in Alham­bra, Calif., said The New York Times, and became a renowned drag racer while still a teenager, “receiving 48 traffic tickets before he was 18—four during one lunch break.” He upgraded to hot rods, then stock cars. In the mid-1940s, Rathmann was told he was too young to compete in a race, so he switched driver’s licenses with his brother James in order to compete. “From then on, Dick Rathmann was Jim; Jim Rathmann, Dick.” He made his Indianapolis debut in 1949, claiming to be 24 when he was in fact 20.

Though Rathmann took second place in the Indy 500 three times during the 1950s, said the Los Angeles Times, it was the 1960 race that made his name. Rathmann engaged in “a back-and-forth duel” with Rodger Ward, trading the lead 14 times in two hours and “rarely running more than a few feet apart.” Ward was forced to give up the lead when one of his tires wore out with three laps to go. Rathmann won at a then-record average speed of 138.8 mph, after a duel “often called the most exciting race in Indy’s history.”

After retiring from racing, Rathmann opened a car dealership in Florida, said the London Guardian. Having become friends with astronauts like Gus Grissom and Alan Shepard, the former driver persuaded General Motors to buy each of “NASA’s national heroes” two new cars a year from his dealership. In return, one of the astronauts reputedly stuck Rathmann’s decal on a NASA landing vehicle, making him “probably the only car dealer to see his company’s logo land on the moon.”

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