Photo: Jim McWithey gets ready for his first 500 Mile Race. Photo from 1960 Indianapolis Motor Speedway program
Time moves at a glacial pace for the driver on the bubble. The clock never seems to move during the last hour of qualifying for the Indianapolis 500. As tough as it is for veterans, it is probably even tougher for a rookie. It’s hard enough being a rookie at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. You have to pass the rookie test, then get your car up to qualifying speed, and finally take part in the 500 Mile Race. Add to that the pressure of being the slowest qualifier with one hour left on Bump Day. In 1959, Rookie Jim McWithey got to experience such stress.
Normally the Bump Day drama is on the track. On this day it was in the pits, watching McWithey nervously pace and switch seats for the final hour. He needn’t worry. No one came close to knocking him off the grid.
McWithey qualified just a couple of minutes after 5 pm on Bump Day, May 24. He completed the 10 mile run, the car’s second attempt, as the slowest car in the field. With nearly an hour to go, three drivers in nine cars went out to try to knock the rookie out of the field. None succeeded.
Dempsey Wilson first tried with the Novi, then took the Sumar Special out for an unsuccessful try. He drove the Central Excavating Special too slowly to qualify. With just a few minutes remaining, Wilson took another shot in the Novi. When that attempt failed, he climbed back in the Sumar car. Wilson didn’t get another chance as the gun went off as he sat in line.
Shorty Templeman took three failed attempts in three failed cars. Eddie Russo went out in two different cars in 13 minutes. He was on track when the gun went off. His first lap was too slow, but he completed the run.McWithey was in the race.
Russo’s final attempt was in the car owned by J. C. Agajanian. 1959 would be the third consecutive year that Agajanian did not have a car in the race. He would be back, however, winning the race in 1963 with Parnelli Jones. Jones also was the first driver to crack the 150 mile an hour barrier in 1962.
The 1959 field was not one of the best fields in history. just two former winners, Jimmy Bryan and Pat Flaherty, started the race. There were three future winners in the field- Rodger Ward, Jim Rathmann, and A. J. Foyt. Oddly, this trio would each win a 500 from 1959-1961.
Ward started sixth and led 130 laps. Rathmann finished second. Ward began a streak in which he did not finish lower than fourth from this victory through 1964. McWithey finished 16th and completed all 200 laps. In that time period coming from last to the middle of the pack and completing the race was quite an achievement. McWithey made the race the following year, starting 32nd but only completing 60 laps. 1960 was his last 500.