Jim Rathmann won seven times on auto racing’s biggest stages.
An elusive win at Indianapolis in the historic 1960 race finally turned him into a star.
His son Jimmy Rathmann said in an e-mail message to Indianapolis Motor Speedway officials that his father died Nov. 23 at a hospice facility in Melbourne, Fla., nine days after having a seizure at his home. He was 83.
Mr. Rathmann was a regular on the IndyCar circuit from 1949 to 1963 but had to settle for second in 1952, 1957 and 1959 at Indianapolis. Then, in 1960, he broke through in one of the greatest two-man battles in 500 history.
Over the final 250 miles, he and defending champion Rodger Ward engaged in a test of wills. They traded the lead 14 times in two hours, rarely running more than a few feet apart while fighting worn tires and guessing at fuel mileage relayed to them by pit board.
With three laps to go, it looked as if Mr. Rathmann would once again finish second as Ward continued to lead the race. But when Ward noticed the discoloration in the center of his right front tire, he had to slow down just to stay in the top two.
The relieved Mr. Rathmann nursed his car back to the lead, winning the race at a then-record speed of 138.767 mph, thus avoiding avoid the dubious distinction of being the only four-time runner-up in 500 history.
Although Mr. Rathmann revered Indianapolis, there was more to his career.
Born Royal Richard Rathmann, he borrowed the name Jim from his older brother to race underage in the mid-1940s. The name stuck, and his brother later raced as Dick Rathmann.
In 1948, he moved from California to Chicago, where he raced hot rods in Andy Granatelli’s Chicago-based Hurricane Hot Rod Association.
A year later, he was driving IndyCars. Over the next decade, Mr. Rathmann became a household name in racing circles. He started twice in Italy’s Race of Two Worlds, winning the title in 1958, and raced three times on the NASCAR circuit from 1949 to 1951. He won the 100-mile USAC national championship race in 35 minutes at the brand-new Daytona International Speedway, and he drove the famed Granatelli brothers’ car in 1952.
In 1993, he was inducted into the Auto Racing Hall of Fame. He was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2007.
But it was the Indy win that vaulted Mr. Rathmann to the national spotlight.
He became close friends with the early astronauts and even persuaded one of them to place his car dealership decal on a cart that was driven on the moon. Mr. Rathmann also became part of the GCR Corp. team that raced in the USAC Series in 1966 and 1967. The “G” represented Gus Grissom, the “C” represented Gordon Cooper and the “R” was for Mr. Rathmann.