He was a hell on wheels in jalopies, modifieds and midgets, rookie-of-the-year at Indianapolis, a builder, a fabricator, a designer, a thinker, a dreamer, a teacher, an innovator and a huge part of the fabric of American racing for five decades. He was also “Rotten Red.”
Don Edmunds, who passed away Wednesday at the age of 89, should be remembered as one of the most interesting and influential racers of the ’50s, ’60s. ’70s and ’80s, and is probably known more for his creative genius than his turn behind the wheel.
“He could do it all, and he could do better than most,” said Jim Luebbert, longtime IndyCar mechanic and former sprint driver who worked for Edmunds and raced against him back when Los Angeles was the hotbed of motorsports. “He came from California Metal Shapers and learned from Eddie Kuzma, and gave so many of us a home and an education in race cars.
“It’s hard to imagine all the things he accomplished.”
Growing up in Anaheim, Ca., Edmunds became enamored with cars, then the Bonneville Salt Flats, the California Roadster Association and United Racing Association. His ascension was quick – from jalopies to midgets to changing the right-front tire for Billy Garrett in the 1956 Indianapolis 500, to joining the starting field a year later.
“Indy was all we thought about back in L.A.,” said Edmunds during an interview with RACER back in 2013. “But you also knew there were a lot of good guys who never got a chance, so it was more of a dream than anything else.”
But Doug Caruthers, whose sons would team with Edmunds to win USAC midget championships, liked what he saw when Edmunds was wheeling a midget so he brought him to Indianapolis in 1957.
“We just didn’t have enough speed, so on the last day of qualifying at 3 o’clock I went looking for a ride,” recalled Edmunds, who hopped into a Kurtis/Offy owned by Roy McKay and made a few practice laps. “I think we ran 138 or 139, and that wasn’t fast enough, and other drivers were standing around waiting to grab the ride when I pulled in. So I came in and told them to give me two turns in the left rear, and I’ll put it in the show.
“I wasn’t sure what to do on an Indy car, but that’s why I always did in a midget to get better traction – and it worked.”
Edmunds qualified 27th and ran a steady pace until spinning out of lap 171, but was still awarded Rookie of the Year. In 1958, he returned to IMS and suffered a nasty crash in practice and missed the show. In 1959, his pal Bob Cortner was killed while practicing, and then Jerry Unser died from burns suffered in an earlier May crash.
“I decided if somebody as good as Jerry Unser could get killed, I didn’t need to be out there,” was Edmunds’ retirement speech.
What happened over the next 20 years was that Edmunds changed the face of midget racing with his sleek, lightweight and innovative creations. “Midgets were tubby-looking back then and kind of homely,” said Jerry Weeks, one of the last great metal men for the ages who worked with Edmunds in the ’60s before launching his own successful USAC career as a driver. “Don had a sense of design and good instincts about a lot of things, and his midgets were a product of that. They were fast cars, and I don’t think he ever made a homely car.”
Edmunds had early success with Parnelli Jones driving one of his midgets, and then the Caruthers’ boys and finally Steve Lewis, Stan Fox and the No. 9 armada of victories. He also found time to build sports cars, sprint cars, Super Fees, speedway bikes and add his touch to various Indy cars in the ’70s and ’80s.
He made friends all across the world of open wheel, short track and even helped Even Knievel with his sky cycle.
So why was he called “Rotten Red?”
“I think Slugger (Doug Caruthers) gave him that nickname because he had red hair and an unbelievable temper,” replied Luebbert. “When he threw a wobbly we all hid under our work benches because hammers would be flying across the shop and he would go berserk. Then, three or four minutes later, he was fine and we all went back to work. But he was a great guy and I’m glad we were friends.”