Monday, May 5, 2014

Review: Black Noon (2014)

By Art Garner

Auto racing really wasn't on my radar while growing up. I was too busy playing and watching baseball, football and basketball at a young age to notice such competition.

Then I picked up one of the endless sports magazines that my parents bought for me while growing up, which was a review of recent events. There, in an issue that came out in the fall of 1964, was a recap of the Indianapolis 500. It was complete with pictures of the terrible crash that took the life of two drivers.

You have to remember that the Indy 500 wasn't even shown on home television back then, going the closed-circuit theater route (the equivalent of pay-per-view today) to protect track attendance and increase the fan base. So it was a little easier to avoid if you didn't know much about it.

The race and article must have made an impression, because I have remembered the names of Dave MacDonald and Eddie Sachs - those two drivers - ever since. Therefore, about 50 years later, I felt a need to pick up Art Garner's book on that race, "Black Noon," if only to find out what happened.Garner writes a lot about that fateful May day in Indiana, and the days before and after it. The book offers a good education, particular for the casual fan.

Garner splits the book into three parts. The first devotes some time to the lives of Sachs and MacDonald, but it also covers the era. Auto racing consisted mostly of small tracks with drivers bouncing around to pick up a few dollars here and there to feed their competitive urges and love of cars. The NASCAR circuit was just getting organized as we know it, for example.

The Indy 500 was the exception, the glamour event of the sport. The crowds were huge, and the payouts were, relatively speaking, enormous. It's fun to read about names like A.J. Foyt, Dan Gurney and Parnelli Jones, drivers who worked their way up the ladder to stardom.

What's more, auto racing - particularly at Indianapolis - was going through something of a revolution around the time of the 1964 race. The rear engine cars were coming into the picture, and they carried something of a feeling of inevitability that they were the wave of the future. But the technology hadn't been quite worked out yet, particularly to cope with the pressures of a 500-mile drive. Plus, the speeds were going up quickly. The 1964 cars ran more than 150 miles per hour.

Put experimental cars and high speeds together, and you get accidents - lots of them, sometimes big ones. That cost plenty of drivers their lives in that era, when the sport hadn't quite learned to try to improve all possible safety measures yet.

Part Two of the book centers on the month of May. That's when the race teams gather to tinker and practice, trying to find those extra couple of miles per hours in the cars. It was a particularly busy time in 1964, as experts were still trying to figure out what tires and fuel mixtures worked better in concert with the rapidly changing machines. While this section does cover the cast of characters in the race, it does bog down a bit in spots in technical talk that slows the narrative.

But then it's race day, Memorial Day 1964, and the story comes back to life. Garner does something close to a minute-by-minute recap of the events of that fateful day. That includes drivers who were behind MacDonald after the crash, who thus had to drive through something resembling the gates of hell to get away from the inferno. Several others check in as well, including family members of the two drivers. It's still heart-breaking, a half-century later.

Garner recaps the rest of the race - would they have gone on with it today? - and reviews the after-effects of the incident. Safety measures were increased, starting a process that continues to this day. Risk is always present in these races, but at least we're minimizing it whenever possible. The author even make his best guess at what actually happened, which is instructive.

"Black Noon" happened a long time ago, but Garner is correct is saying that this is a story worth telling. It was an important day in auto racing history, and deserves the good treatment that this book provides.

Four stars

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