At some point in the preliminaries to last week's decisive 100-mile, big-car auto race at Phoenix, the U.S. driving champion was introduced as "Old Bigfoot." Now, there is no reason to believe that the right, or accelerator, foot of James Ernest Bryan is oversize, nor is Bryan, at 30, a graybeard. Still, Old Bigfoot is a pretty good name for Bryan. Mark down the "old" as a typical southern-western way of fleshing out a bald phrase ("That old dog, possum," etc.) and the "bigfoot" as testimony to Bryan's boldness and skill with the loud pedal.
Never did Bryan need the magic of his good right foot more than at Phoenix, his home town, where his struggle to repossess the championship he had won in 1954 and 1956—in doubt until the 11th hour—sent the crowd into a patriotic delirium.
All in all, it was a day to remember, a marvelously clear and balmy day on which two men besides Jim Bryan had a chance for this country's highest professional racing honor: the championship in the 13-race series which begins with the Indianapolis "500" and then travels from coast to coast on both dirt and asphalt tracks.
Bryan, muscular and blue-eyed, very widely regarded as the best dirt-track driver in circulation, third finisher at the Brickyard and first in the stormy Indianapolis-at-Monza "500," came into the vital Phoenix race with 1,450 points. Next stood the red-haired Jim Rathmann, a cool old pro from Miami who was second at Indy, with 1,390. Primarily a pavement driver, Rathmann joined the dirt-trackers in the season's next-to-last race, at Sacramento, when his chance for the title looked promising. Then came little George Amick of Venice, Calif., with 1,380 points.
First place would yield 200 points and second 160; the scoring then would proceed by jumps of 20 to seventh (worth 60 points) and by 10s to 12th (10 points). Bryan knew that to win the championship outright he must place third or second if Amick won the race and second if Rathmann won. Calculating the combinations for Rathmann and Amick had sporting statisticians in a mathematical lather.
By odd coincidence, the three contenders recorded qualifying-heat times which placed them nose-to-tail on the starting grid—Amick on the outside in the third row, Bryan behind him and Rathmann behind Bryan. Poor qualifying heats put Jud Larson of Hickman Mills, Mo., a dangerous competitor in any race, in the last row, after causing considerable anxiety that he would be bumped from the 18-car lineup altogether by faster qualifiers.
Up front were heady Rodger Ward of Los Angeles, winner of three 1957 races, who had the pole, and Johnny Boyd of Fresno, trying once more for the first dirt-track victory ever for a roadster, the kind of racer which has made today's dirt-track cars obsolete on the pavement at Indianapolis. Behind Ward sat Indiana's Pat O'Connor, a lad with the face of a choir boy and the nerve of a bank robber, who had won the pole at Indianapolis.
As a matter of fact, half the starters, with mouths and chins masked by handkerchiefs against the dust, looked ready to dip into the nearest Brinks vault. The one-mile Arizona State Fairgrounds track had been converted overnight from a deep, yielding strip for Thoroughbreds to a hard speedway, but loose dirt remained near the inner and outer rails.
Now the big Offenhauser engines throbbed into action and the 18 drivers rolled through the pace laps—each buckled into a tiny cockpit, clutching a steering wheel that vibrates to the circumference of a baseball bat, seated in front of a tank holding 40-odd gallons of volatile fuel, maneuvering nearly a ton of bucking machinery.
At the starting flag Johnny Boyd kicked the roadster into the lead, and O'Connor moved quickly to be second. Amick found a hole to take third, followed by Bryan, whose white No. 1 racer, built in 1955 by California's Eddie Kuzma, had been superbly prepared by Mechanic Clint Brawner, a fellow Phoenician. After 10 laps Rathmann lay eighth, and Larson, handicapped by his last-row start, 13th.
Round and round they roared, looming fast as distinct, bouncing fishtailing shapes and receding into hurrying blurs of color—accelerating into a crescendo of exhaust noise on the short straightaways and growling through the turns in a series of controlled slides, with drivers ceaselessly calculating, by instinct, how to pass the man ahead ("If you stopped to think," says Amick, "it would be too damn late to do it").
O'Connor demonstrated how in the south turn of the 35th lap, leaving Boyd neatly trapped on the inside by a car that was being lapped. By then Bryan had slipped past Amick into third place, and Larson, driving as if spurred by demons, was seventh, as Rathmann dropped to ninth. Both Boyd and Bryan caught O'Connor on the 50th lap. With Boyd again leading, only five seconds separated the seven front-runners.
Bryan finally barged past Boyd at the end of the home straight as the 71st lap began. O'Connor, with his Irish up now, nailed Amick and Boyd and set sail for the flying Bryan. The never-say-die Larson, a remarkable fourth to Amick's third on the 84th lap, both having passed Boyd, bumped little George's car in his eagerness to get on. Both crashed through the four-by-four stakes which rimmed the north turn and retired.
That left Bryan and Rathmann to dispute the title. It was all Bryan until, slightly more than three miles from home, he slid high into the north turn's four-by-fours as he tried to lap Rathmann on the outside. As the crowd loosed an agonized roar O'Connor streaked through on the inside, passing Bryan but still behind Rathmann. Bryan just managed to horse his car back onto the track; he shed lumber all down the homestretch.
Now it was O'Connor who appeared to be the certain victor (although Bryan, if he kept second place, would win the championship). But if this race had anything, it had an obstinate plot. With just over a mile to go the critical situation was restaged, but this time it was O'Connor who failed to get past Rathmann and Bryan who squeezed through on the inside—and stayed in front to take the checkered flag.
After the tide of joyous fellowtownsmen ebbed a bit, Old Bigfoot, reflecting on how close he had come to losing the race and the title, said, "They'd given Jim the move-over flag for four laps. I went to drive around him anyway because I knew Pat would close in if I got hung up. The guy ran me out into the loose stuff, and I got all tangled up in the fence. Larson and Amick had already taken out a lot of the four-by-fours. Well, I made a fresh hole of my own and then drove over what they'd knocked out. It was like driving through a forest. If Rathmann hadn't done the same thing to Pat, Pat would have won for sure.
"Sometimes I think working for a living would be easier."
The week had more in store. Not in the memory of the most thoroughgoing enthusiast had an American sports car race, with the exception of Sebring's international, attracted so fine a field as did last Sunday's at Riverside, Calif., on the occasion of the final Sports Car Club of America national race meeting of the season.
If Phil Hill, the West Coast's outstanding driver, had been able to find a ride, it would have been truly a dream race. Dreaming aside, the lineup for Sunday's 25-lap feature (climaxing a full-scale SCCA program embracing 98 cars) was impressive enough.
From Rome came Masten Gregory, by way of Venezuela and its world championship sports car race earlier this month. Gregory, a onetime Kansas Citian, had tied for fifth place in the 1957 world driver standings in his first season in Grand Prix cars. He brought to Riverside a 425-hp, 4.5-liter Maserati which had been bored out to 4.7 liters.
From Texas came Carroll Shelby, the outstanding U.S. driver of 1956, who had been having an in-and-out season, with a 400-hp, 4.5 Maserati, and from New Jersey, Walt Hansgen, this year's SCCA champion in big-bore events. His 3.8-liter D Jaguar, theoretically overmatched at 305 hp, was still an extremely fast car in the hands of a notably aggressive driver.
Along with them came 26-year-old Dan Gurney, a home-town Riverside driver, recent graduate from smaller cars, who seemed to have surprised himself as much as his viewers by his adroit handling of a big 4.9 Ferrari; Richie Ginther, in his 4.9 Ferrari; John von Neumann's 3-liter Ferrari; Max Balchowsky's 5.3-liter Buick Special; Pete Lovely's 2-liter Ferrari; the Mercedes 300SL roadster which New York's Paul O'Shea (the only non-Coast driver in the race besides the leading three) has driven so well all year; Bob Drake's Aston Martin; Jack McAfee's 3.5-liter Ferrari; and nine others, whose chances for trophy silver were remote, indeed.
No one was surprised to see Gregory leading on the first lap, followed closely by Hansgen, Shelby and Gurney. But when Hansgen screamed past Gregory in the south turn on the next lap, using the D Jag's superb disc brakes to the limit, 20,000 fans got set for superlative action.
There were electric moments when Shelby overtook Hansgen, when he spun and dropped to sixth place on the fifth lap, and when he began a magnificent comeback; more of them in Hansgen's dogged hold on the lead through the 14th lap. But the moment of moments came in the 15th when all four leaders were dicing in the south turn at the same time. Shelby skidded ahead of Gurney on the 17th lap and increased his advantage to five seconds, having averaged 87.8 mph for the race. Gurney's astonishing performance took second place with the bitterly disappointed Gregory third, and Hansgen a distant fourth.
BIG JIM won but tangled with the fence; working for a living would be much easier.