— Region Racers at the Indianapolis 500 — The Rathmann Brothers …

Posted: May 23, 2013 in Uncategorized

Region Racers at the Indianapolis 500 — The Rathmann Brothers
Speedway Sightings

By: Wm. LaDow
Daily Trackside Reports from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Published in the Post-Tribune — Chicago Sun-Times Media Company —May 23, 2007


Racing greatness usually comes from years of commitment and challenge.

Because of this, history has recorded some remarkable stories of families who have gone on to excel in American racing. Commonly, young drivers are the offspring of their father’s racing careers, developing into a legacy of sorts. Michael Andretti, Marco Andretti, Al Unser, Jr., and P.J. Jones were all “born into the trade” if you will.

But even more uncommon is the development of great racers, who are brothers. Bobby and Al Unser surely come to mind for many. But for two brothers to have outstanding parallel careers is not often seen, especially for those whose family had no connection whatsoever to racing in the beginning.

Such was the case with James M. Rathmann (born 1924) and R. Richard Rathmann (born 1928.)

The Rathmann boys were the offspring of Cecil Rathmann, born in Porter County, Indiana, in early 1902. Cecil Rathmann’s parents, Henry and Lizzie, were farmers, with their youngster eventually becoming a meat cutter by trade. The 1920s found young Cecil employed in a retail grocery store in Los Angeles, California, a city where he had started a career and a family.

Brothers Jim and Dick, as they were initially christened, became infatuated with automobiles in car-crazy California at an early age. Speed on the streets proved intoxicating. Jim said, “I think I held the record for the most speeding tickets in Los Angeles. At one time, I had accumulated forty-eight outstanding tickets, four of which I managed to collect in one lunch hour.”

It didn’t take long for both brothers to take up jalopy and hot rod racing in their teens, and this is where the story takes a unique turn. Dick, the youngest (born in 1928,) signed an entry form for a race at Carrell Speedway in Gardena, California. The problem was that Dick was only 17 years of age and not old enough to legally enter the competition. So, without hesitation, he signed in as his older brother Jim, listing his age as being three years older. To make matters more interesting, Dick (now Jim) began to race with excellent results. Upon learning what was going on, his older brother Jim figured he might as well join in the fun and started signing in for his races as Dick. In a couple of months, as the brothers raced at different California tracks, Dick had become Jim, and Jim had become Dick.

As they both began to race nationally, the names stuck. Only the most astute racing fan knew the real story. From then on, there was no turning back. Dick was Jim, and Jim was Dick.

In 1947, Jim Rathmann moved to the Midwest and became active in racing in the Chicago area, a hotbed for midget, sprint, and stock car racing. His performance soon gained the attention of the owners of GRANCOR Racing, the Granatelli Brothers, Andy, Vince, and Joe. Not only did the Granatelli Brothers race, but they got into the business of staging and promoting races, most prominently at Chicago’s Soldier Field. Before Jim Rathmann knew it, he was not only winning his fair share of those races, but he also entered into several business partnerships with the Granatellis, who always had a knack for making money. These opportunities continued into the early 1950s.

In 1949, Dick began to race selected AAA Indycar races. He ran in his first Indianapolis 500 in the City of Glendale Special (also known as the “Pots & Pans Special”) in 1950. A year later, he moved to a young, new race-sanctioning body to race in called NASCAR. His 5-year stock car odyssey saw him register a stellar performance of 13 race wins, 13 Poles, and 79 Top Tens from 128 races.

In the meantime, Brother Jim ran at Indianapolis three times with moderate success. In 1949, he was only 20 years old when he drove in his first Indianapolis 500. In 1952, he joined the Belanger Team of Lowell, Indiana, to chauffeur the No. 99 Belanger Special on the AAA racing circuit.

With the Rathmann Brothers seemingly racing everywhere, the famous racing quote of the day became, “Which has the best racing, AAA-USAC or NASCAR?” The answer: “Looks like a standoff; they both got a Rathmann!”

Dick Rathmann returned to Indianapolis in 1956 and ran eight Indianapolis 500s in a row, with the high point being the pole-sitter for the 1958 Indy 500. He continued Indy car racing through 1964, starting 40 races, gaining 21 Top Tens, with a career-best finish 2nd at Daytona in 1959.

In 1957, Dick Rathmann became an integral part of the Daytona stock car project managed by Ray Nichels, which saw Nichels Engineering capture the 1957 NASCAR Beach Race victory with driver Cotton Owens and the Pole with Banjo Matthews. Rathmann’s stock car experience, along with the engine and chassis knowledge of Dale “Tiny” Worley, proved unbeatable.

In 1959, Jim Rathmann worked for Ray Nichels as part of the Nichels Engineering Firestone Test Team. The team consisting of drivers Glenn “Fireball” Roberts, Paul Goldsmith, and Rathmann set a series of closed-course American speed records on the newly constructed Daytona International Speedway. Rathmann stunned the racing world when behind the wheel of the Nichels Engineering, Pontiac-powered, Kurtis-Kraft roadster clocked laps at 170 miles per hour. Only once before had someone run that fast on a banked superspeedway. That was Pat O’Connor. At Monza, in the Nichels Engineering Firestone Test Team Kurtis-Kraft Chrysler Hemi-powered Roadster two years prior. In the same car that Sam Hanks piloted to a closed-course world record speed of 182.50 mph in 1954.

Rathmann’s run was with a much newer Kurtis-Kraft Roadster, assembled with Nichels in-house at the Bakersfield, California plant; Ray then installed a custom-built, hand-crafted Pontiac powerplant built by Dale Worley and himself.

— The Nichels Engineering Firestone Test Team — 1959 Daytona — Drivers by their cars: Glenn “Fireball” Roberts, Paul Goldsmith, Jim Rathmann — Ray Nichels is in the center of the back row, with Dale “Tiny” Worley on the right. — from the Nichels Engineering Archives.

Jim Rathmann’s focus was always Indianapolis, and he ran eleven of them in a row. From 1957 through 1960, he ran Indy as well as anyone, garnering a fifth-place finish, two second-place finishes, and winning what some believe to be the most exciting Indianapolis 500 ever run, the 1960 classic battle with Rodger Ward.

It was estimated that from 1949-1963, Jim ran 7,000 competitive miles at the legendary Brickyard. He also was the victor in the 1958 “La 500 Miglia di Monza (500 Miles of Monza),” known as the “Race of Two Worlds.”

In the 1940s, their father, Cecil Rathmann, returned to live on his own farm on US 30 in Valparaiso. Cecil and Henry had witnessed their boys become two of the most respected racers in the world. At the end of every race season, Jim and Dick (Dick and Jim) would return to the Calumet Region to sit with their father and grandfather to talk about their accomplishments.

Henry Rathmann passed away in Valparaiso, Indiana, in March of 1960.

Cecil Rathmann passed away in Florida, near his sons, in January of 1983.

Dick (James) Rathmann passed in February of 2000 in Melbourne, Florida.

Richard (Dick) Rathmann was the oldest living winner of the Indy 500 till his passing in 2011