American auto racing exploded this season, both figuratively and, alas, literally. The year was barely two weeks old when Joe Weatherly hit a wall at Riverside, becoming NASCAR’s first reigning Grand National champion to die in competition. Another stock-car superstar, Fireball Roberts, was critically burned at Charlotte in May, developed blood poisoning and pneumonia, and succumbed in July. Jimmy Pardue was killed testing tires at Darlington. On Memorial Day weekend, with thousands in movie theaters watching the first closed-circuit Indianapolis 500 telecast and the whole nation listening on radio, the worst accident in Indy history claimed Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald. Top Fuel’s casualties included Southern California crowd favorites Boyd Pennington and John Wenderski.
Simultaneously, all types of motorized competition were enjoying unprecedented attention from folks besides traditional gearheads. Racing was rapidly expanding from a participant-oriented, niche activity into mainstream entertainment for sports fans who’d previously followed stick-and-ball games exclusively. The challenge presented to exotic European marques by American-made Corvettes, Cobras, and Cheetahs made sports car racing so appealing that one road course, Riverside International Raceway, was able to pull big crowds to meets staged just two weeks apart this October.