In 1949 there was literally no more dangerous profession in the United States of America than “professional race car driver”. More than 1/3 of men who strapped into race cars as pros during the era from the 1930s-the early 1950s died on the track. Competing mainly on horse tracks of varying lengths at fairgrounds across the country, these guys were as hardcore as they came and most all of them accepted that death was a part of the business, although they all figured it would happen to someone else and not them. One of those guys was Rex Mays, who by 1949 had established himself as one of the greatest drivers in American racing history. During this era of death and destruction, Mays had proven himself more skillful and talented than virtually anyone else out there. He was a two time American Automobile Association (they were the primary sanctioning body in all of American racing at the time) champion, a three time pole sitter at the Indy 500 and he recorded a best finish at Indy of second in 1940. Like many early 1940s sporting greats, WWII cut into the prime of his career and while he was “laid off” from racing during the middle 40s as WWII raged, he came back with a vengeance, his post war form seeming to match his pre-war success.
While he became nationally known for tearing around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Rex Mays became truly famous as so many guys did in those days by literally racing every possible minute that he could. Local promoters and horse track owners would stage car races because they’d draw a crowd. It was a dirty business in the sense that often wrecks would fling helpless racers out of their cars because the prevailing thought at the time was that you’d be better off free of the tumbling car than inside it. This logic was so effective that (as mentioned above) a significant percentage of competitors would wind up dead in the prime of their lives from gruesome injuries sustained at these races.
The dirt tracks were rutted and rough. The cars themselves were very basic with solid axles and leaf sprung suspension systems that weren’t all that much more advanced than the stuff that had supported horse buggies a few decades before. They were powerful, loud, slid sideways, and blazed faster than the spectators who watched them race could possibly imagine. They were also fun to gamble on, which certainly helped pack the stands at the horse racing venues.
Speaking of horse racing venues, in 1937 Bing Crosby got together with a guy named Pat O’Brien and tapped into Paramount Studios for some sponsor money to build a one mile horse racing oval in Del Mar, California. Only yards from the beach and built on the 370 acre Del Mar Fairgrounds, this was pretty much a dream spot for horse racing enthusiasts to come and race at because there was plenty of Hollywood style money around, the setting was gorgeous, and you just never knew who you were going to run into. For more than 10-years the track hosted only horse racing events. Then, in 1949 through Crosby’s enthusiasm for auto racing and some lobbying by the American Automobile Association, track management agreed to host a 100-mile Champ Car race at the track. This was to be the one and only auto race that would ever be held on the track and the results were so bad it was the last time a Champ Car race would be held in Southern California for some 18 years. The ironic thing isn’t how many people died, just who died.
The last statement wasn’t meant to be crass or unfeeling, but honest. There were races held where multiple people were wounded or killed and the show just kind of went on. Outside of local newspaper reports, racing deaths didn’t even really hit the headlines anymore because of the frequency that they were occurring at unless the person that happened to die was seen as some sort of heroic figured in the sport like Rex Mays was. Oh, Mays also had the misfortune of suffering his fatal accident at a race that both LIFE Magazine chose to show up and cover and one where a newsreel team was filming the action. Both entities caught the gruesome and all too familiar end of Rex Mays through their lenses in the highest clarity of the era.
There were a reported 20,000 people in the stands of the track that day and undoubtedly many of them were there to see the Indy hero, 36-year old Rex Mays dash ahead of the field and sprint to victory. It was going to be an important weekend for the AAA where it would start to build a Southern California fan base and continue the expansion of the Champ Car brand of racing. There were 18 cars on the course that day and they were vying for a piece of a nearly $12,000 total purse. When you consider a family of four earned about $5,000 a year in 1949, you can understand that these guys were racing for real money (although most of them barely squeaked by from race to race).
Rex Mays was running hard in second place with roughly 20% of the race completed when his car made a strange move to the inside line of the course and the left front wheel caught one of the posts that made up the rudimentary rail fence that separated the course from the infield. This cause the car to turn broadside and begin a series of rolls, pitching Mays all the way out of the car and into the middle of the track. If this wasn’t bad enough, since he was running so far up front, the rest of the field was yet to pass and spectators were helpless to do anything but watch drivers wildly scramble to avoid striking Mays, which seemed like it was going to be the case until he was struck in the head by a passing car and died there, laying in the middle of the dirt track.
The story went national as quickly as was possible at that time and the LIFE photo sequence feature, along with the newsreel footage (also shown below in all of its grainy and indiscernible glory) made such a sensation that there was not another “big car” or Champ series race in Southern California for 18-years. Mays was a California native who had survived racing at “killer” Ascot Speedway where dozens of drivers died in the 1920s and 1930s. He had survived the war as a pilot flying planes to the front, and he had even survived an wreck in 1947 where he drove his car into a wall on purpose to miss a driver lying on the course in Milwaukee, but he didn’t survive this one.
We were reminded of this story after writing the earlier item about the huge wreck at the start of the Indianapolis Grand Prix and decided to dive into it, not to be macabre but to illustrate the point of how amazing the advances in race car design and technology have been in the last 75 years. From motorized buggies that would kill drivers with impunity to today’s carbon fiber wonders that can sustain full throttle impacts and leave drivers walking away from accident scenes, it is through stories like that of Rex Mays that these advances have come. The road to safety is paved with the tombstones of dead drivers, which is a sad but all too true statement. The sad end of Rex Mays is certainly but one block in a path paved with thousands.
SCROLL DOWN FOR THE NEWSREEL VIDEO AND A LOOK AT THE LIFE PHOTO SEQUENCE –