Former Indy 500 Steward Binford Remembered
14 January 1999INDIANAPOLIS - Former Indianapolis 500 Chief Steward Thomas W. Binford, who steered open-wheel auto racing through some of its most glorious and perilous times, died Thursday in Indianapolis.
Binford succumbed to a cerebral hemorrhage. He was 74.
Binford served as chief steward of the Indianapolis 500-Mile Race from 1974 through 1995, longer than any other person.
"Tom Binford has been recognized as one of racing's most highly respected leaders for four decades," Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Tony George said.
"His unique leadership was recognized by my grandfather, Anton Hulman Jr., and the two worked closely together in building our type of racing, as we know it today. Mr. Binford was a great help to me in starting the Indy Racing League, and we will all miss the wise advice and counsel he brought to our sport.
"We extend our sincere condolences to his wife, Kai, his family and many friends throughout the world."
Binford was named commissioner when George formed the Indy Racing League. However, Binford's involvement in Indy-type racing goes back to the 1950s. He was one of the founders of the United States Auto Club in 1955, after the AAA removed itself from the sport, and served as USAC's president from 1957 through 1969. He has been a director throughout the organization's existence.
"It is with deep sadness that the USAC family receives this news," USAC President Johnny Capels said. "Mr. Binford's leadership helped guide our organization through its formative years, and his insight into our sport will be irreplaceable. His enthusiasm will be sorely missed."
Four-time Indy 500 winner A.J. Foyt had many encounters with Binford over his 35-year career, but each had true regard for the other. "He was a very good friend," Foyt said from his Houston home. "He did a lot of good for racing and always had good ideas. He was a fine gentleman, a true sportsman, very honest. I respected him highly. It's a shame to hear of his passing."
Binford, who attended the USAC awards banquet Jan. 8, is most recognized by racing fans around the world for his role as the calm and collected chief steward of the "500" in three different decades.
He assumed the position from Harlan Fengler in 1974 when the Speedway faced one of its stiffest public relations situations. The previous year's "500" had been plagued by rain delays and crashes, and editorial comment around the world had been severely critical.
In addition, this was at the height of the mid-1970s energy crunch, and the Speedway had condensed the normal two weekends of qualifying into one. A safe month and a popular winner in handsome Texan Johnny Rutherford turned the negative publicity into positive in 1974.
"I knew he was going to make it when Al Unser and I lost engines in practice on the morning of the first day of qualifying," recalled Rutherford, a three-time Indy champion and now working on special projects for the Indy Racing League.
"We arrived at Tom at the same instant. Tom interpreted the rule of where we should be in line differently than Harlan. We rolled our cars out after record-setting engine changes expecting to get our spots in line, but we were told we had had to be in line to qualify. We were told to go to the end of the line, to the third-day qualifiers.
"After what Al and I said to him I knew when he was still there the next year, he was going to make it."
Rutherford termed Binford as a real gentleman who didn't "stampede" quickly. He added that as a driver you could approach him and he would listen to both your complaints and recommendations.
During his tenure as chief steward, Binford made two decisions affecting the race winner that received worldwide headlines.
In 1981, Binford changed the winner from Bobby Unser to Mario Andretti after an all-night review of the racing tapes indicated Unser had violated the blending rule while exiting the pits, passing several cars under yellow in the process.
In those days, the official finish wasn't posted until 9 a.m. the day after the race. The media, including television, had reported around the world that Unser won. The next day was the Memorial Day holiday, and all afternoon news outlets had truncated deadlines that provided little time for the necessary complete makeovers.
Binford stood by his ruling as USAC denied the appeal of car owner Roger Penske. The case then went to a hearing ruled over by three judges, who reversed Binford's decision and returned the victory to Unser by a 2-1 count the following October.
Then, in 1995, Binford's final ruling again denied victory to the driver who crossed the finish line first. And this time it stuck. Scott Goodyear, leading the race during a late yellow, accelerated in the north chute anticipating a green and at the head of the front stretch passed the Pace Car pulling toward the pits.
Goodyear was black-flagged -- he had to report to the pits for a penalty stop before continuing the race -- and he ignored it. He continued on to charge across the finish line first. However, his scoring had been discontinued, and he was placed 14th. Jacques Villeneuve then was given the checkered flag.
"I felt it was time for me to step down as chief steward of the '500' and make way for new leadership," he said about his departure later that year. "After all, I have served in the position longer than any of my predecessors.
"But retirement? I am not ready for that. The Indy Racing League presents the perfect opportunity for me to contribute."
Binford not only served with the Speedway and USAC, but he also acted as president of ACCUS (Automobile Competition Committee for the United States) for eight years. He served as a delegate to the FIA and was a director for both organizations.
Binford also was a director the 500 Oldtimers Club.
During his career, Binford was involved with his companies, Binford Lumber and D.A. Lubricant. He also served as an Indianapolis bank president and as a college president and was involved in many civic endeavors in Indianapolis. He played an important role in founding the Indiana Pacers pro basketball team in the old American Basketball Association and helped steer the team into the NBA.
Funeral arrangements are pending.