Thursday, September 4, 2008

Eddie Sachs Reached For The Big Prize

‘Clown Prince’ Is Dead

Eddie Reached For The Big Prize

By Rick Johnson-Indianapolis Star, May 31, 1964

(Rick Johnson Photo)

They called him the “clown prince of racing” and now he is dead.

Eddie Sachs, always ready to play the buffoon for friends and the crowd but always intense behind the wheel, lost his last chance to win the biggest prize of all in a fiery crash on the second lap.

And so his followers came in a steady stream yesterday to Garage No. 53 in Gasoline Alley to look at the last spot that held a memory for them.

Where Eddie’s car had sat a few hours before, there was only a red carpet. Mechanics and Speedway officials walked around it and were silent.

Across 16th Street in the Holiday Inn Motel, his wife, Nancy, was closeted in a room with friends…unwilling for a time to share her grief. Some of her friends had gone to the motel after learning of his death to remove the race decorations.

A maid outside the room said in broken English, “I cry. They were awfully nice to each other.”

Later, after the crowds at the Speedway had vanished, they wheeled Eddie’s car into Garage No. 53.

The car…bent, burned and twisted out of any resemblance to an automobile and covered by a tarpaulin…rolled in on squeaky tires. The red carpet had been rolled back. Then the doors closed and the Venetian blinds were pulled.

Inside, only the mechanics, the car builder and some Speedway workers were there. One by one they added remarks:

“He had a chest injury…the fire didn’t kill him…just look at that roll bar. It’s still intact…the only way we’ll ever know what happened is to study the pictures.”

And so the end to a big dream came in half sentences from men who didn’t want to look each other in the eye.

The dream was to win the 500-Mile Race.

With that victory, 37-year-old Eddie Sachs planned to retire from racing.

Edward Julius Sachs had been on Broadway for years, "without really seeing the lights," as he put it.

Eddie's one great desire was to win at Indianapolis. If he had won he would have put racing, something he loved, far behind him.

Sachs had raced on practically everything resembling an oval since he began racing in the early 1950's. And as he put it himself, "NO GUY, and I mean NO GUY, ever went further on less ability than I."

"I am probably the world's worst race driver...but I've been lucky," Sachs has said.

And when Eddie first showed up at the Speedway he wasn't far wrong. He just refused to get serious about racing. It was too much fun to him.

Sachs spun out while trying to pass his driver's test in 1953 and was advised to get more experience before trying to take the test again. Sachs accepted the official decision but he wouldn't leave the racetrack. He stuck around, working as a stooge for several mechanics in the daytime and earned his meals by washing dishes at the restaurant in the evenings.

"I really learned a lot," Sachs said. "For instance, did you know that 90 percent of the time that hot (motor) oil and the gravy we had at the track was just as sticky?"

And Sachs would say with a flourish of his hands, "Every part I washed for any mechanic had to be rewashed, so you can guess what the dishes looked like."

After flunking his first attempt at the driver's test Sachs began to rip the sprint car circuit apart, running and beating such greats as Pat 0'Connor, Bob Sweikert and several others.

He was runner up for the Midwest sprint title three straight years and was also a red-hot midget driver.

After he had gotten his seasoning he came back to the Speedway in 1957 and qualified the Peter Schmidt Special for a spot in the front row. But Eddie couldn't finish. A broken piston knocked him out of contention after 105 laps.

Mechanical trouble KO'd Sachs in 1958 and in 1959 after he had qualified well for the race.

Then Eddie really got serious about racing and made up his mind to win at Indianapolis.

(Rick Johnson Photo)

He won the pole position for the 1960 and 1961 races.

In 1960 he dropped out after 132 laps with magneto failure and placed second in 1961 to A.J. Foyt when he completed the 500 miles of the race for the first time.

"This was my greatest disappointment," Sachs said. "I wanted to win that race so bad I could taste it, but I wanted to live even more. That's why I stopped for that tire."

Sachs actually had Foyt beaten in the 1961 race but stopped for a right rear tire on the 197th lap and thereby forfeited the race to Foyt.

In his own explanation of the incident Sachs said, "I looked down at that tire and saw fabric and kept on going. Then I looked down and it looked whiter and I slowed down. Then I looked at it and it looked like a white sidewall and I knew the next thing I would see would be air. So I didn't need to do anymore thinking. I stopped for a tire and lost the race, but I'm still here."

(Rick Johnson Photo)

Besides auto racing Sachs had two other loves: His striking blonde wife Nancy and their small son Eddie Jr.

"When I think of them," Sachs said, "it makes all the shit I've gone through worth it. Someday my kid will be able to tell those other kids on the playground that 'My daddy won the 500 Mile Race at Indianapolis.'"

(Rick Johnson Photo)

On the evening that Sachs made that statement he was standing, still dressed in his driver's uniform, at a friend's house in the Georgetown Apartments just north of the track.

He had just qualified his car for the race and was celebrating the fact with his wife.

He paused for a long time and wiped the side of his beer can off several times on his uniform and turned to one of his old mechanics Frank Glidden and said, "Frank, I've got a feeling that this is my year. I'm going to win it."

It wasn't your year Eddie. It never will be your year and we are all sorry.

After the race, the Gasoline Alley Highland Pipers, a group of bagpipers that play at various functions, paraded before the Tower Terrace and played “The Rowan Tree,” a mournful Scottish dirge reserved for those who are loved and will be greatly missed.


In the past, I have posted portions of this story on the intardnets from my dad's type-written rough-draft.

I recently found the Indianapolis Star issue which had the full story with some additions.

The above is an amalgamation of the original rough-draft and the actual published story.

-Paul A. Johnson

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