Winning Indianapolis 500 riding mechanic Dunham dies at 96
Jimmy Dunham, the riding mechanic on board for Kelly Petillo's storybook victory in the 1935 Indianapolis 500, died Friday, July 25. He was 96.
A truly delightful gentleman who had been living for the last few years in an assisted living facility in Santa Maria, Calif., the Ohio-born Dunham came from a family of automotive engineers.
He had just moved from Michigan to Los Angeles, and was supplementing his income with a milk route, when he stumbled upon the garage in which Curly Wetteroth, Harvey Ward and Petillo were building a car for the 1935 Indianapolis 500. No sooner had Dunham begun pitching in to help than he was offered the job of riding mechanic.
That Petillo should end up winning the race was considered a minor miracle at the time. He had apparently won the pole until it was determined he had exceeded the maximum allowable 3 gallons of fuel by 5/8ths of a pint. The qualifying runs at the time were 10 laps (25 miles). The second run ended in near-disaster when a rod smashed through the crankcase on the last lap, cracking three of the four cylinders, breaking the crankcase in two and wrecking the Offenhauser engine.
Running on an extremely limited budget, Petillo, Ward and Dunham spent the next 24 hours scrambling around town begging and borrowing spare parts, visiting junk yards and doing everything they could possibly think of to repair the engine. Although it has long since been reported that the engine was held together with baling wire - an absurd exaggeration - it was, nevertheless, a major patch-up job.
But it all held together, and they won.
Truly remarkable about Dunham's story was that not only was it the first time he had ever performed the riding mechanic's role, it was the only time. Instead of accompanying Petillo to the balance of that season's races, he cashed in his meager percentage of the winnings, purchased a brand-new Plymouth and drove it home to California and assumed a long career as an engineer with Lockheed Aircraft.
Equally remarkable is that Dunham made only one other trip to the Speedway, that coming in 2005, exactly 70 years after his victory. He became quite a media star and delighted in holding court. On the starting grid, shortly before the start, he was drawn to a particular car because of its paint job. He was befriended by the crew, which even lifted the engine cover so he could take a peek. He told the crew the car would win.
Dunham was correct. The car was Dan Wheldon's Andretti Green Racing entry, which would lead 30 laps and win under caution.
Dunham had an extraordinary memory and described his 1935 experiences in vivid detail. Riding mechanics generally tended to be a rather rough-and-tumble lot. The gentle, eloquent Dunham was almost professor-like in his approach.