Racing lost one the few remaining drivers from the rough and tumble days of the 1950’s and 60’s with the death on May 18 of 89-year-old Arlington, Texas driver, Jim McElreath.
McElreath started his Indy 500 career in a front engine car and ended it in a rear engine car.
He found success in both types of car as he was the 1962 Rookie of the Year in a front engine car and completed his Indy career in 1980, long after the front engine cars were relegated to history.
McElreath started 15 Indy 500’s, qualifying for the race from 1962 to 1970 and again from 1973-1980 and he was generally respected by his rivals as a low-key guy at the track
Bobby Unser offered his opinion on McElreath.
“Jim didn’t talk much but if he or Rube [Lloyd Ruby] stood up in a drivers meeting we all shut up,” Unser said with a laugh. “He was a nice man but you didn’t want to get Jim mad at you.”
McElreath’s racing career began in 1945 when, at age 17, he raced modified stock cars at Devil’s Bowl Speedway in Mesquite, Texas.
From modifieds, he progressed to IMCA sprint cars, and in 1961, won the prestigious Little 500 sprint car event at Anderson (Ind.) Speedway.
Following his 1962 sixth-place finish in the “500”, he continued racing sprint cars and Champ Cars with his best year being 1965, when he scored wins at Trenton, Langhorne and Springfield, driving for John Zink.
The following year was also successful as he won the season opening race at Phoenix and finished third at Indianapolis.
But the biggest win of his career did not come until 1970 when he was victorious in the inaugural Ontario (Calif.) 500, while driving for A.J. Foyt.
“He was a helluva lot better than people thought he was,” said A.J. Foyt. “He was hard to beat; he was tough but he was a good guy.”
It was in 1977 that the first of several tragedies struck the McElreath family. Jim’s son James, a talented sprint car driver in his own right, was killed in a sprint car crash at Winchester (Ind.) Speedway.
“Jim was as tough and strong as they made ’em but James’ death really hit home and he literally cried on my shoulder,” recalled Rutherford, who came up through the IMCA ranks under McElreath’s guidance.
The previous May, James attempted to, but did not, qualify for the Indy 500, which would have made Jim and James McElreath the first father-son combination to qualify for the same race.
Jim last qualified for the “500” in 1980. Following his retirement, he spent his time restoring vintage race cars at his Texas home.
His retirement was not peaceful however, as more misfortune struck the family in February 2000 when his daughter, Shirley Anne McElreath Bettenhausen and her husband, Tony Bettenhausen Jr., were killed in a plane crash in Kentucky en route to Indianapolis from a Florida Indy Car test.
The misfortune did not stop there for the family as, shortly after his daughter’s death, McElreath’s wife, Shirley, suffered a debilitating stroke which affected her speech and put her in a wheelchair.
Following her stroke, Jim spent his time caring for his wife and in his last few years, Jim also needed continual care but he did not leave her side for the past 17 years.
Even though McElreath was no longer a part of racing, the sport did not forget him as he was inducted into the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in 2002, the Texas Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2007 and the IMS Hall of Fame in 2014.
Foyt said it best: “Jimmy was a helluva man.”
McElreath is survived by his wife, Shirley and daughter, Vicky Thornton.
(Special thanks to Robin Miller and Racer.com for the Unser, Foyt and Rutherford quoted used in this article.)