Hanks, 79, Winner of ‘57 Indy 500, Dies : Auto racing: Alhambra High product retired from the event immediately after his victory.
Sam Hanks tried 12 times before he won the Indianapolis 500, but when he finally did, he pulled his car into Victory Lane, kissed his wife, Alice, took a swig of milk and announced his retirement.
That was 1957 and Hanks was 42, the oldest 500 winner in an era when drivers rarely lived past 40.
On Monday evening, two weeks shy of his 80th birthday, Hanks died of complications arising from a series of illnesses that have incapacitated him the last three years. He was at his home in Pacific Palisades with his wife at his side.
After driving George Salih’s Belond Exhaust Special to victory over Jim Rathmann and Jimmy Bryan in that ’57 500, Hanks told the cheering throng, “Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve loved every minute I’ve been here, but this is my last one.”
No one before or since has announced his retirement before climbing out of the winning car. Although he retired as a driver, Hanks remained a fixture at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for more than 20 years. He was director of racing from 1958 to 1979 and drove the pace car for six consecutive years. He also was director of racing for Times-sponsored races at Riverside and Ontario from 1958 to 1980.
“I had almost retired the year before, when I finished second,” Hanks said a few years ago while attending a meeting of the Speedway Oldtimers Club. “I only decided to run in ’57 when George Salih told me he was building a new car in his garage in Whittier and he wanted me to drive it.”
Salih’s car had a radical design that lowered the center of gravity by placing the engine--a four-cylinder Meyer-Drake Offenhauser--on its side instead of in an upright position.
“When we arrived at Indy, the guys called me ‘Horizontal Hanks,’ ” he recalled. “We were behind, like most guys were back then when the cars were built in a guy’s garage, and missed the first day of qualifying. But once I got going, that little car was a beauty.”
Hanks started 13th, but was up to fourth by the 12th lap and on lap 36 he passed pole-sitter Paul Russo, in a Novi, to take the lead for keeps, except for pit stops.
“The car was a real gem,” he said. “It not only was lower and lighter, but it allowed me to see better. Salih wanted me to come back and defend my championship, but I’d been dreaming about winning Indy for 17 years--ever since I first went there in 1940--so when I finally won it, I decided it was time to hang up my goggles for keeps.”
Hanks also finished second in 1956 and third in 1952 and 1953.
His career spanned both sides of World War II, in which he served as a first lieutenant in the Army Air Corps after learning to fly as a teen-ager. He was a graduate of Alhambra High.
After the war, he won the Pacific Coast championship in 1946 and the AAA national midget crown in 1949. His biggest victory was a 250-lap feature in the Coliseum.
Hanks also drove stock cars, winning Pacific Coast titles in 1956 and 1957. He finished the ’57 season after his retirement announcement, fulfilling a contract with Ford, and won at Paramount Ranch in Malibu and the L.A. County Fairgrounds in Pomona.
“I think the most remarkable thing about my career is that I was never seriously injured,” Hanks said. “I only flipped a car once at Indy, in 1941, and I was thrown clear. I was back racing three weeks later.”
A memorial service will be held at noon on July 9 at the Best Western Airtel Plaza Hotel, 7277 Valjean Ave., Van Nuys, in the southwest corner of Van Nuys airport.
The family has requested that donations be made in remembrance to the USAC Benevolent Foundation, 4910 W. 16th St., Speedway, Ind. 46224, or to the Indianapolis 500 Oldtimers Club, P.O. Box 24404, Speedway, Ind., 46224.