Time Capsule – 1955 Indianapolis 500
The 1955 Indianapolis 500 played a pivotal role in that tragic season. In the second paragraph of “Against Death and Time” – Brock Yates’ novel about that brutal season begins with an encounter between the narrator and a character who happened to be a photographer:
“We were on the third floor of a rooming house three blocks from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on the second day of May in 1955. I was sharing a room with my old high school pal Tom Medley, a photographer and sometime cartoonist for Hot Rod Magazine, a Los Angeles-based monthly that had been started seven years earlier by a struggling Hollywood press agent named Bob Petersen.”
While Yates takes a bit of creative license in much of that ‘graph, the part describing Medley being a Hot Rod Magazine photographer was spot on, as he covered the Greatest Spectacle in Racing from 1950 through 1964. In fact, Yates interviewed Medley during his research. Anyone who knew Medley remembers him sharing stories of the Indy rooming houses and racing fellow boarders to the communal bathrooms. One such roomie was driver Billy Vukovich, who won the 500 in 1953 and 1954 before dying in a horrific crash here in 1955 — the event that triggered Yates to explore that tragic year.
Tom Medley passed away a few years ago, leaving behind a mountain of cartoons and photographic images. Among the archive was an 8 x 10-inch Kodak paper box with the words “1955 Indianapolis Negs and Prints” scrawled on the top. Inside were a dozen or so black-and-white prints and 36 envelopes, each holding negatives from a single roll of 35mm film. All together, there were more than 1,000 images.
Shooting with a German-made Vogtlander Prominent 35mm rangefinder camera (a rival to Leica; sharp lenses, clunky mechanics) and a 50mm normal lens, Medley focused his attention on the garages, the mechanics, and the cars, mostly in the pits and in the garages. Medley’s friendly personality allowed him to talk his way into unrivaled garage access. The archive includes hundreds of rare shots of cars being worked on, disassembled, and prepped for the grueling 500-mile race.
Nineteen fifty-five was the heyday of the Indy “roadster era,” front-engined behemoths powered by Offenhauser 4-cylinder engines. The tires were shockingly skinny and tall. The suspensions relied on solid front and rear axles. Steering wheels were the size of hubcaps. And safety equipment? A soft half-helmet, no fire suit, no roll bars.
While Hot Rod Magazine gained popularity covering street roadsters, customs, and speed trials at Bonneville and the lakes, its location in Southern California put it in the middle of the predominant makers of roadster chassis that dominated Indy. Quin Epperly, Frank Kurtis, Eddie Kuzma, Lujie Lesvosky, and A. J. Watson were the five most well-known — all located within a 25-mile radius in So-Cal. In 1958, all 33 cars that took the green at Indy 500 hailed from LA.
Hot Rod and Tom Medley were there that entire era, capturing this unique period of motor racing history.