MELBOURNE, Fla. (AP) — 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.
Son Jimmy Rathmann said in an e-mail message to Indianapolis Motor Speedway officials that his father died Wednesday at a hospice facility in Melbourne, nine days after having a seizure at his home. He was 83.
Rathmann was a regular on the IndyCar circuit from 1949-63, but had to settle for second in 1952, 1957 and 1959 at Indianapolis. Then, in 1960, he finally 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 only by pit board.
With three laps to go, it looked as if 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 Rathmann nursed his car back to the lead, winning the race at a then-record speed of 138.767 mph to avoid the dubious distinction of being the only four-time runner-up in 500 history.
And though Rathman 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.
One year later, he was driving IndyCars and over the next decade, 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 1949-51. He won the 100-mile USAC national championship race in 35 minutes at a 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, and he was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2007.
But it was the Indy win that vaulted Rathmann into the national spotlight.
He became close friends with the early astronauts and even convinced one of them to place his car dealership decal on a cart that was driven on the moon. Rathmann also became part of the GCR Corporation 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 Rathmann.
In recent years, though, Rathmann's health problems prevented him from making his annual journey back to Indy, where he often played golf with former competitors such as Ward, Lloyd Ruby and Parnelli Jones and actor James Garner. With Rathmann's death, Jones is now the oldest living winner of the 500.
Rathmann also drove the Indy pace car six times, before making his last Indy appearance in February 2009 at the speedway's Centennial Era Gala.
He is survived by wife Kay, sons Jimmy and Jay, stepsons Zack and Tosh Pence, five grandchildren and one great-grandchild.