Top 10 Indy 500s, No. 1: Jim Rathmann and Rodger Ward’s 1960 epic
(Editor’s note: NBC Sports has selected the Top 10 Indy 500s of All-Time through an esteemed panel of former drivers, broadcasters, journalists and historians.)
Over 60 years later, Jim Rathmann vs. Rodger Ward resonates as the greatest one-on-one showdown for the win in Indianapolis 500 history.
But this showdown didn’t mask an otherwise pedestrian race. Far from it.
The 1960 race produced 29 lead changes, which stood as an Indy 500 record all the way until 2012.
The five drivers who produced those 29 lead changes were no slouches, either.
Rathmann had been a three-time Indy 500 runner-up. Ward was the defending champion from 1959. Eddie Sachs was the 1960 pole-sitter and and te beloved ‘Clown Prince of Racing’. Troy Ruttman was the 1952 Indy 500 champion, and Johnny Thomson was the third-place finisher in 1959.
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All of them had turns at the front during the race’s first half, but Ward had to rally back into contention after stalling on an early pit stop.
As the second half unfolded, Ruttman and Sachs were eliminated by mechanical issues. That left Rathmann and Ward to duke it out up front, while Thomson trailed.
For a time, Ward settled into second behind Rathmann, who was running a slightly slower pace in front. Ward hoped that would help his tires keep whatever life they still had left.
But when word got to both drivers that Thomson was gaining on them, strategy went out the window, and both Rathmann and Ward picked up the pace while continuing to swap the lead.
Engine woes ultimately forced Thomson to slow down (he finished fifth), and with seven laps to go, Ward passed Rathmann for the lead once again.
But with four laps to go, it was Ward’s turn to slow down. His right-front tire was now down to the cords. Rathmann took the lead and went on to win, while Ward nursed his fading tire and claimed runner-up for his efforts.
After they swapped the lead 14 times in the last 100 laps, Rathmann finally had his Indy 500 win. It was a tough break for Ward, but he later would consider this race as the best of his career – even ahead of his first win in 1959 and second in 1962.
Times have changed dramatically for the Indianapolis 500 since their classic battle more than 60 years ago.
But a classic always endures.
NBC Sports has ranked the Top 10 Indy 500s through a panel that judged through scores of 1-20 in five categories: quality of racing, memorable moments, strength of competition, historical impact and spectacle.
Here’s a look at No. 1 on the list:
Winner: Jim Rathmann
Margin of victory: 12.67 seconds
Lead changes: 29 among five drivers
Cautions: Not available
Other contenders: Paul Goldsmith took advantage of Thomson’s misfortune late in the race to climb to a third-place finish. It would be his best finish in six career Indy 500 starts.
Winning move: Rathmann took the lead from Ward with four laps to go, as the latter slowed in order to save his right-front tire - along with his second-place position.
How the voters saw it: All but one voter had the 1960 Indy 500 in their top 10, putting it atop the poll by a wide margin (its point total was nearly 20 percent higher than second place).