Historys Headlines

History's Headlines: Tragedy on the track

In 1962, the Saturday Evening Post magazine featured a story on Lehigh Valley race car driver Eddie Sachs. It began this way:

“One out of every three winners of the Indianapolis 500-mile auto race does not live to tell his grandchildren about it. Of the drivers who will be on the starting line this Memorial Day, one in eight will probably be killed in action before next year’s race. Death can come at any time to those whose job it is to break speed limits. Many race drivers insulate themselves and their nerves against the peril by ignoring it, but not Edward Julius Sachs Jr., the most controversial figure on four wheels. 'In the long run,' Sachs acknowledges, 'death is the odds-on favorite.'"

Since there are few people around who remember Sachs the man, who died in a fiery crash at the Indianapolis 500 on May 30, 1964, it is necessary to depend on the things he said and did in his 39 short years that were written about him. And as he was a larger than life figure who combined the talents of a skilled racing driver, a devil may care clown, and a hard charging businessman, some of it gets a little confusing depending on what source you read.

“Eddie Sachs didn’t need a public relations person to handle his interview schedule,” wrote Paul Reinhard, retired Morning Call sports editor in 2014 and who knew Sachs well. “He was a self-promoter extraordinaire.”

Sachs was born on May 28, 1927. Most sources claim Allentown as his birthplace, although some have him born in Bethlehem or say he was born in Allentown but raised in Bethlehem. In his 1994 article on Sachs, Reinhard states that he was born in Bethlehem to E.J. Sachs and Mary Sachs. Where the confusion comes from is unknown. Sachs told the Saturday Evening Post that his parents were divorced when he was 5, and perhaps that event explains it. His love affair with the automobile began early. At age 10, Sachs told the Post, he sat on his father’s lap and steered the family car. At age 12 he had his father’s permission to drive on country roads. “Two years later he was tooling along main highways at breakneck speeds,” said the Post, who called Sachs a “motor age Huck Finn.”

At that time Sachs was driving for his father who was working on government contracts and had a lot of territory to cover:

“He had to go from city to city, day after day,” he recalled. “He worked days while I slept in the hotel and I drove him nights while he slept in the back of the car. He forbid me to go less than eighty miles an hour. First thing he’d do when he woke up was look at the speedometer. If it was under 80 he’d snap ‘What’s the matter, what’s the matter?’ I’d go up to eighty again and he would doze off.”

During World War II Sachs joined the Navy but was medically discharged after a truck broke one of his legs. He then enrolled as a freshman at Edwards Military Institute in North Carolina, a junior college and boarding school that he had attended since boyhood. Then one day in 1947 he saw his first auto race in Greensboro, North Carolina. His reaction? “I thought it was ridiculous, but I also thought I could outdrive anyone there.” Traveling to Miami Beach he worked as a bellhop, getting together enough money to finance his career.

He started out small but early on he made the Indianapolis 500 his goal. Hitchhiking in 1952, Sachs got to the fabled track. His attempt to get a place in that year’s race failed when guards threw him out of the grounds because he lacked proper credentials. Sachs was furious. “I’ll be back,” he yelled at them. “Remember the name, Eddie Sachs.”

In 1953 and 1954 Sachs tried again to be accepted for the 500. “To be eligible for the qualifying rounds, a rookie had to pass a driver’s test,” noted the Post. “This involved making four, 25 mile runs in two days at speeds ranging from 110 to 125 miles an hour.” Sachs failed both times but in 1954 he was named Midwest Driver of the Year, the first of many awards. The late 1950s were the years that Sachs’ career took off. “In the 1950’s he started to win,” wrote John T. Cathers, of Allentown’s Evening Chronicle, “at Allentown, at Langhorne, at Trenton, and at many other Eastern and Midwestern tracks.” He also raced in Europe at the iconic Formula One track at Monza, Italy in what Cathers called “sensational” races.

Not only was he in several major races but off the track his life was good. In 1959 he married Nance Ann McGarrity of Coopersburg. He was also owner of the Old Mill Restaurant and become an executive in a trucking company. His wife pointed out a number of years after his death that her husband had a fun-loving side but also a quiet, determined side. “He also wanted to make money, he was very determined about that.”

Most of all Sachs  developed his larger than life personality and a flair for showmanship. He was behind stunts like inviting an entire Dixie Land jazz band to entertain at Langhorne’s  track where he was appearing. He was catnip for the racing press because he was always sure to say something quotable that was outrageous. “A lot of people think I’m silly, “ he told the Post. “I don’t mind. I’m having some fun, and they’re not. Others say I’m publicity happy. That’s not true. I’m publicity conscious. I’m selling a product, Eddie Sachs - he is incorporated -and I sell racing while I’m at it.”

But into the 1960s, the Indy 500- racing and Sachs’ holy grail- kept slipping away. It came closest in 1961 after seven previous attempts. He had a strong lead with ten miles left to go. But heartbreakingly he noticed one of his tires was disintegrating. No fool, Sachs stopped his car got a new tire and lost the race to A. J. Foyt. “ I’d rather be a live coward than a dead hero,” Sachs told the press. His wisdom was proven later when Firestone tested the damaged tire. It rolled for half a mile, and then burst apart.

By 1964 Sachs was set to try the Indy 500 again. Also in the race that year was Dave McDonald, a 26-year-old rookie driver from California. He had only won his first sports car race at Augusta, Georgia, on March 1st. Both he and Sachs were in rear engine cars with new gas burning Ford engines, unlike the alcohol-burning cars. The tragedy came at the second lap when McDonald lost control coming out of the fourth turn. His car began to slide, hitting the inside wall. This ignited the 45 gallons of fuel he was carrying. A huge fire ball burst from MacDonald’s car. Driver Bob Veith got through the gap, avoiding  McDonald’s burning car, but Sachs could not make it and hit the sliding car broadside. It was quickly followed by another huge explosion. Other drivers were soon caught in a seven-car pile-up.  It is not known for sure if Sachs died from asphyxiation, burns or blunt force trauma.

Sachs’ wife, looking from the grandstand knew her husband was severely injured if not dead. When someone said to her everything would be fine, she recalled in 1994 thinking “I knew then that it wasn’t.” At the Allentown Fairgrounds a crowd watching the race on closed-circuit TV was stunned into disbelief by what they had just seen. Wise-cracking, fun-loving Eddie Sachs was no more. For the first time in the race’s history the race was halted because of an accident. It was eventually won by A.J. Foyt.

Over the years his family and friends re-called Sachs. And they still do.

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