Sunday, May 11, 2014

Black Noon Review

I love to read, but sometimes my opportunities to do so are few and far between. That usually means that when I do get the chance to sit down with a book, I never like to put it down, and pretty much inhale it in a couple of days.

While most of the racing community has been buzzing about Jade Gurss' book BEAST (which I'm excited to read), up until about a week ago I knew nothing about Black Noon: The Year They Stopped the Indy 500, which is Art Garner's account of the Month of May in 1964, culminating with the race and the deaths of Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald.

This is the first book by Garner, who had spent more than 30 years working PR and communications throughout the automotive industry, and I have to say I'm inspired by the guy's story. He had worked on several books during his life but never was able to finish one, until he stumbled upon this one and decided it was the story that he needed to tell. That's my dream too, and hopefully I find a story like this one someday.

The book is very well-researched, and includes interviews from some of the surviving racers from that era, including A.J. Foyt, Dan Gurney, Bobby Unser, Johnny Rutherford and Mario Andretti (who was in the grandstands that day and raced at the Speedway for the first time the next year). I mean, how cool is that? Given the carnage of the era, the drivers that were lost along the way (seven drivers in the starting field -- counting Sachs and MacDonald -- were killed in racing accidents, and many more were at one time in their careers badly burned or injured) and the fact that 50 years has passed, it's amazing that four of the greatest drivers of all-time are still here to tell their story.

I think I will cover the 1964 race in another post, because it deserves one all of its own. What I will say is that race day was the culmination of a month of total turmoil, as controversies were a daily occurrence, whether it was dealing with tires, engines, chassis or drivers. Looking back it was certainly a turning point in the history of the Speedway.

That year was the bridge between the old guard of the 500 -- the roadster and its tried and true Offenhauser engine, not to mention Firestone tires -- and the new guard of rear-engine cars, constant innovation and the invasion of foreign drivers. Change was on the horizon, and the resistance to change is what added to the drama of the month.

The most important thing to note about the book is that less than 1/3 of it is spent on race day. The book actually begins with the 1963 race, won by Parnelli Jones, and works its way towards May, where it takes the form of a daily diary.

The book also dispels many of the rumors that over the last 50 years have taken on a life of their own. To this day, the Sachs/MacDonald crash is a subject of discussion and conspiracy theories, and the book does a nice job of finally putting many of those to rest. The author spoke to MacDonald's family extensively, especially Sherry, his widow, who told many heartwrenching details of that day for the first time ever.

One thing to note is that both the Sachs and MacDonald families had extensive input into this story, and both families have gone on record as being very happy with the finished product.

Most of all, I feel like it really humanizes Dave MacDonald. Prior to picking up Black Noon, I knew little of the man, and by the end of the book I ended up really liking him and feeling sad about his death, and how 50 years later it still has an effect on his friends and family, many of whom watched the accident happen via a closed circuit feed at the LA Sports Arena in Los Angeles.

I also discovered that solely blaming MacDonald for what happened is short-sided, as this accident was something that was the result of lots of different things converging on a specific moment in time, as things like these usually are.

I'll leave the rest of the book for you to read, and while it is a bit long at 350 pages, it's definitely worth the effort if you enjoy the history of the Speedway and want to learn more about one of the more significant eras of its past.

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