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Jim McElreath, one of Indy car racing’s tough guys


Jim McElreath, a legendary short-track racer who went on to become the 1962 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year and race in 15 Indy 500s, has died. He was age 89.

McElreath died Thursday in his sleep at his home in Arlington, Texas.


A statement from Indianapolis Motor Speedway read:

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“One of the last eight surviving drivers who could claim to have driven a front-engined car in the 500, McElreath was 34 years old and had been racing on short tracks for 16 years when he burst on the scene at Indianapolis in 1962.


Driving a six-year-old Kurtis-Kraft Offenhauser-powered roadster, once owned and driven by Ray Crawford, McElreath qualified seventh and went on to cause quite a stir by passing A.J. Foyt and Rodger Ward in the early stages to run second by Lap 20. He ended up finishing sixth, and many observers suggested he was hampered by pit stops performed less rapidly than those by the contestants ahead of him.”

Jim began his racing career in 1945 at the age of 17. He raced stock cars in Dallas, Texas. Jim would race in the local Texas bullrings for the next fifteen years while working as a bricklayer. It was in 1960 when he and fellow Texan racer Johnny Rutherford decided to race in the Midwest.


Both would eventually find supermodified rides in the International Motor Contest Association (IMCA). Jim did well enough that by late-summer 1961 that he was offered a ride by fame car owner Lindsey Hopkins in the Hoosier Hundred, a race at the Indiana State Fairgrounds on the United States Auto Club (USAC) National Championship Trail. He finished third in this race, an impressive start to his Indy Car career.


He raced in the 1961–1983 seasons, with 178 combined career starts, including 15 in the Indianapolis 500 in 1962–1970, 1973–1974, and 1977–1980. He finished 48 times in the top 5, with five victories. He was runner-up in the 1966 championship and third in 1963, 1965 and 1970. In 1962 he was named Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year, a result of his 6th-place finish.


Jim won the inaugural California 500 at Ontario, California on September 6, 1970, driving A.J. Foyt’s team car. He battled with Art Pollard for the last 10 laps after Al Unser and Cale Yarborough retired with mechanical issues.

Jim’s son, James Jr., was killed in a sprint car crash at Winchester in October 1977. James Jr. had attempted to qualify for the 1977 Indy 500 earlier that year. Alongside his father, they were attempting to become the first father and son combination to qualify for the same race. However, James Jr. was too slow to make the field.

Jim’s daughter, Shirley, married racing driver Tony Bettenhausen, Jr. The couple died when their private plane crashed in Kentucky in February 2000.

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McElreath retired from competition in 1984 and has been inducted into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame, the Texas Motorsports Hall of Fame and the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame. extends condolences to the McElreath family, as well as all fans of one of Indy car racing’s consistent and determined racers.

Sources- Wikipedia, and AFF

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