The 1962 Indianapolis 500, Fifty Years Later

After recapping Joe Dawson’s 1912 Indianapolis 500 win 100 years later, I decided to look back at the race 50 years ago. The 1962 race was full of excitement, drama, and dominating cars, but it was qualifying that stole the show that year.

The race in 1962 saw great change, as the bricks at Indianapolis Motor Speedway were replaced with long stretches of black top. The speeds continued to climb, and one driver made history during his qualifying run. Parnelli Jones was the first driver to hit the 150 mph mark during qualifying. Not only did he reach it on his first lap, but all four of his qualifying laps were of at least 150 mph  . Not one other driver was able to reach this speed for even one lap.

The front row of the 1962 Indy 500 included Jones, Rodger Ward, and Bobby Marshman. As expected, Jones was dominating the race early. He led 123 of the first 125 laps before he had a brake failure ruin his chances of winning. He still managed to bring his car home in seventh position, but the race now belonged to Ward.

Ward went on to win the race, his second Indianapolis 500 victory. Other drivers weren’t even fortunate to finish the race. Only 15 cars were able to complete the full 200 laps.

Ward had one of the greatest six-year stretches in Indianapolis 500 history. Beginning with his win in 1959, he finished second, third, first, fourth, and second in 1964. He was the only driver to complete six consecutive races and never finish worse than fourth.

While his career coincided with the roadster era, not many people realize that ward flew P-38s during World War II. They also don’t realize that his crew chief during the 1962 race was AJ Watson, one of the greatest designer/builder of cars we have ever seen. Watson designed and built the Leader Card Special that Ward drove to victory lane in 1962. He also designed/built the cars that won five out of six races from 1959 to 1964.

The brake failure did cost Jones a chance to win the 1962 race, but he himself had a very impressive run during the 1960s. The year prior to the ’62 race he won rookie of the year honors. Even better than that and the 150 mph barrier, he won the race the following year in 1963. He dominated the 1967 race before dropping out with four laps to go when a bearing broke on his Pratt & Whitney Turbine.

This May will mark the 50 year anniversary of this historic race. It’s amazing to see how much has changed over the course of these five decades. The speeds have climbed significantly, the cars aren’t even comparable, and the qualifying format is even different. Still, 1962 was a monumental bookmark in the incredibly thick book of Indianapolis 500 history.

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