Rathmann Celebrates 80Th

Jim Rathmann just turned 80 years old. Besides being a really great guy, he has particular significance around Daytona, and Florida in general, not to mention his win in the 1960 Indianapolis 500.

Rathmann actually formed his career in the mid-1940s, running roaring roadsters in California before heading to Indiana with them for better pay. He took his first stab at Indy in 1949. He got hooked up with Andy Granatelli, who backed the NASCAR roadster Rathmann ran at Davie, Florida, that year. In the early 1950s, the duo successfully fielded stock cars at Soldier Field in Chicago.

Jim got established in Miami with his own speed shop, and catered to all forms of racing, from go karts to marine to stocks and hot rods. He was also chosen to head the quiet Chevrolet factory racing involvement in NASCAR out of Atlanta. He tells the story of how he negotiated being awarded a Chevrolet dealership by winning the 1957 NASCAR Cup Series championship with Buck Baker as driver. The infamous Black Widow black & white 1957 Chevrolets in NASCAR competition were funneled through Rathmann and SEDCO (Southern Engineering Development Company) out of Atlanta.

Rathmann won the only Indy car races ever staged at Daytona, during the speedway's first year of operation, 1959. There were two 100-milers on the same day, and Rathmann won both, setting a record for the world's fastest auto race at an average of 170.261 mph. The previous record was the one he had set at Monza, Italy, in 1958.

Jim Rathmann Chevrolet in Melbourne, Fla., continued to be a large supplier of racing motors and equipment through the 1960s. He took over the agency soon after his Indy win, and just recently retired and sold it off. That's 46 years of service!

In 1960, Rathmann was marketing a racing go cart called the Xterminator, which was state-of-the-art for the times, and had teenager Bobby Allen piloting it. The pair entered and won the world title in NASSAU that year, with Allen repeating the following year in his dad's kart. Allen went on to become a major figure in World of Outlaw sprint car racing.

Some of Rathmann's other accomplishments have included winning at Monza in a champ car, driving at Sebring, Peru, and in the Mexican Road Race. He drove AAA stock cars as well, and even competed on the sands of Daytona Beach in a NASCAR Cup Series event. NASCAR, however, was primarily covered by his brother, Dick.

The brothers switched names at a very early age so that Jim could use the ID and enter racing underage. They never switched back. Their relationship was tumultuous at times and competitive all the time. Dick preferred to spell his last name with one "n" to differentiate himself from his younger brother. Dick died in 2000 at age 74.

In 1961, Rathmann and crew put together a 1959 Chevrolet two-engine experimental car driven by Tom Pistone. It was originally intended to be a Firestone tire test car, but its most notable appearance was at Daytona International Speedway for an attempt at the closed circuit record and $10,000 posted by Bill France Sr. The 181.561 mph record ended up going to the Mad Dog machine built by Bob Osiecki and chauffeured by Art Malone.

Despite all of his achievements, the one big thrill Jim still talks about are the relationships he had in the 1960s with many of the NASA astronauts. He would provide each one with a loaner Corvette when they were in Central Florida at Cape Canaveral, plus socialize with them, and even partner with a few in racing endeavors. Pete Conrad drove a Formula Super Vee at Daytona under Rathmann's sponsorship, and Jim was partners with Gus Grissom and others on the Indy car LeeRoy Yarbrough made his attempt at Indy with in 1969.

Happy birthday, my friend!

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