Black Noon: They Year They Stopped the Indy 500 by Art Garner is a book that is extraordinarily hard to put down, so much so that I read it in just a few days. Garner has done a wonderful job describing the 1964 Indianapolis 500, a watershed race in IndyCar racing history. Garner tells two intertwining stories: one about the tragic crash that took the lives of two racers and one about a change in the sport. It very much reminded me of one of my other favorite motor sports history books – Go Like Hell by A.J. Baime (given that the two books cover a similar time and include some of the same personalities I would suggest Go Like Hell as an excellent companion read to Black Noon).
Black Noon doesn’t just focus on Dave McDonald and Eddie Sachs, the two racers killed in the crash that is the climax of the book. He also includes other racers such as A.J. Foyt, Parnelli Jones, Dan Gurney, Jim Clark, and Bobby Unser and tells the story from their perspective. Owners such as Agajanian, Chapman, Granatelli, and Thompson are pivotal as well. The race is also described from the perspective of wives and family members. Two other perspectives worth mentioning are those of Humpy Wheeler, then doing PR work for Firestone and Donald Davidson, the fan who would become the official historian of Indianapolis Motor Speedway. One of the things I enjoyed the most was how the author didn’t just drop these personalities into the narrative; he took the time to develop their personalities and backgrounds. Ultimately, the book doesn’t attempt to pin blame for the crash on a driver, car or owner. The facts are presented and perspectives are offered but it never tries to blame it one person or thing; as a matter of fact after reading the book it’s easy to come to the conclusion that the crash was caused by a confluence of multiple factors.
Garner doesn’t just develop personalities. He also develops the transition from the front engine race car to the rear engine race car, which is the book’s second plot line. While not being overly technical, he describes the advantages and disadvantages of the two types of cars in a way that non racing fans or casual racing fans would understand. He also tells the story of the competing types of fuel and the tire competition between Firestone, Goodyear, and Dunlop. Garner develops the race as a pivotal point in Indianapolis 500 history, he shows how things were stagnant in the years leading up to the 1964 race and how rapid change in not just performance technology but safety as well began after the 1964 race.
I come away from reading Black Noon with better knowledge of what happened in the Indianapolis 500 and better insights into the personalities involved. It also reinforced my belief that controversy in motor sport is nothing new under the sun, be it real or perceived impartiality on the part of officials, resistance to change, or slow reaction to safety issues. It was an excellent read and a great motor sports history book. Whether you’re a fan of the racers or a fan of the cars (or even, like me, a fan of both), this is a book for you; I’d highly recommend it to any motor sports fan, especially IndyCar and Indianapolis 500 fans.