Saturday, May 16, 2020

1975 - McWithey recalls days as Indianapolis 500 driver

Jim McWithey - 1959

Anderson, Ind. (May 16, 1975)- The city of Anderson can point with great pride the accomplishments of several area athletes who have participated in the professional ranks Carl Erskine, Joe Campbell and Kenny Johnson are probably recalled the quickest in the minds of our sport oriented citizens.

Jim McWithey, one of the better race drivers of the late fifties and early sixties, has also brought recognition to our town.

Born on July 4, 1927, this natural firecracker starter his brilliant career in 1949 with the roaring roadsters of the Mutual Racing Association here in Anderson.

He stayed with the MRA for three years where he ran in three “Little 500’s” finishing third in one, fifth in another and dropped out of the third race with some bent equipment.

McWithey then turned to the sprint curs as a driver for Diz Wilson on the Central States Racing Association circuit. After a successful year with this group Jim moved up to the International Motor Contest Association (IMCA) where he set track records at Memphis, St. Paul and Des Moines.

After winning several features during his days with IMCA, Jim decided to turn to the USAC trail. With the USAC Sprint Division he became one of the top competitors setting records at such tracks as Salem, Terre Haute, and Winchester in Indiana, and Reading and Williams Grove in Pennsylvania. Jim was almost unbeatable on the dirt at Langhorne.

One of Jim’s victories that still stand out came at Terre Haute's half-mile dirt oval on August 16, 1959, when McWithey won the feature beating out seven-time sprint car champion Tommy Hinnershitz. Ed Elision finished third in that event. A year earlier at the same track on June 22, Jim set a new track record of 24.03 seconds in qualifying, a time that would be fast enough to get into any feature today. He then won the first heat and finished third in the feature behind Eddie Sachs and Hinnershitz.

During his USAC sprint car days he finished fifth in point standings in 1957 and third the next two years. Jim drove the Columbus, Indiana Auto Supply Store car in ‘57 and wheeled the Bob Estes owned sprinter in ‘58 and ’59. The chief mechanic for the Estes’ car was Jud Phillips who later turned the wrenches for Bobby Unser's winning machine at the 1988 Indy 500.

McWithey's first championship ride came at Indianapolis in 1957. Because of the wet month that year, Jim did not get to practice enough in the Dayton Steel Foundry Special, so he did not qualify for the race. He came back in 1958 and crashed the Federal Engineering Special during qualifications. In 1959 he joined the Ray Brady team out of Norristown, Pennsylvania, with Bill Cheesman his crew chief. Jim qualified his roadster in the 33rd and final spot and then impressed a lot of people with a fine 13th place showing. This gained him membership in the elite 100 mph club of which there is only 67 living members.

Again in 1960 Jim started on the tail of the Indy field and completed 66 laps before a broken brake line on the beautiful orange Hoover Motor Express Special forced him out of the event. He ran the Hoover car on the championship trail that year and finished the season 8th in point standings.

In 1961, Jim ran a limited number of championship races and finished 16th in the point chase. In the fall of ’61, a bothersome thyroid condition ended his driving career. He was never injured in a racing related accident with his most serious wreck coming at DeGraff, Ohio, when he flipped a roadster while racing with the Mutual Racing Association.

With over a 100 career wins to his credit, Jim was truly one of the best to ever strap himself into a race car.

“Of all the drivers I ran against,” recalls Jim. “I believe A.J. Foyt was the best overall. Don Branson was perhaps the best sprint driver with Tommy Hinnershitz being right up there with the best. Of today’s drivers on the sprint trail, Larry Dickson is about the best around. He proved that when he broke Branson's record for feature wins.”

Asked to compare the drivers of his days with today’s drivers Jim claims, “The drivers I ran against would all do well in today's races. The equipment we used was much heavier and harder to handle than today's cars. I really don't believe the speeds on the sprint trail have increased all that much, although today's cars are so much safer.”

His most exciting moment in auto racing?

“Qualifying for the Indy 500 is about as big a thrill as a race driver can have. Being able to finish the race and gaining membership in the 100 mph club is something that doesn't happen to everyone, so this was just as exciting.”

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