20 Best Dirt Track Racers Who Won The Indy 500: #18 Jim Rathmann

Jim Rathmann. Photos from IMS Museum.

The 103rd Indianapolis 500 event is scheduled to take place on Sunday, May 26, 2019, at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indiana. The legendary event has been the premier event for American open wheel racing for decades with roots deeply imbedded in dirt track racing. To honor this heritage, we plan on counting down the top 20 dirt track racers that have won the Indianapolis 500.

We continue our countdown with #18 Jim Rathmann. Born as Richard Rathmann in Los Angeles, just ahead of the stock market crash and Great Depression. Near the end of WWII, a 16-year-old Rathmann joined younger friend Troy Ruttman racing hot rods. Ruttman altered his birth cirtificate and Rathman switched identities with his older brother James, who was two and a half years older. This is how Dick became Jim, and visa-versa.

Jim went on to have a legendary racing career and colorful life with his new name. He was a three-time champion of the Midwest track roadster series and a popular driver in Andy Granatelli’s Hurricane Hot Rod Association running mainly out of Chicago’s Soldier Field. 

He came in Third in the 1955 AAA National Stock Car standings and almost won the title in 1957. Giving up on dirt tracks, Rathmann set his eyes on Indy.

Jim Rathmann ended up competing in 14 Indy 500 races, finishing second three times (1952, 1957, and 1959) before finally taking the win in 1960. This is what many claim as the greatest Indy 500 of all time, with Rodger Ward and Rathmann battling each other the entire way. The two drivers swapped the lead 14 times before Ward had to slow with worn tires and three laps remaining.

Rathmann set up a Chevrolet dealership in Florida, where he became close friends with many of the Mercury and Apollo astronauts. He organized a race team with Gus Grissom and Gordon Cooper called GCR Racing (Grissom-Cooper-Rathmann), in an effort to enter the USAC Championship Car Series and the Indy 500. They failed to qualify for either race.

Rathmann continued to be an ambassador for the sport and continued to show up each year for the race until 2011 when failing health prevented him from attending. He was elected into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 2007. Rathmann died on November 23, 2011.

About the author

Bobby Kimbrough

Bobby grew up in the heart of Illinois, becoming an avid dirt track race fan which has developed into a life long passion. Taking a break from the Midwest dirt tracks to fight evil doers in the world, he completed a full 21 year career in the Marine Corps.
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