Rathmann died Wednesday at a hospice facility in Melbourne, Fla., nine days after having a seizure at his home, according to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Over the final 250 miles, he and Ward, the defending champion, engaged in a test of wills. They traded the lead 14 times in two hours, rarely running more than a few feet apart while fighting worn tires and guessing at fuel mileage relayed to them only by pit board.
With three laps to go, it looked as if Rathmann would once again finish second as Ward continued to lead the race. But when Ward noticed discoloration in the center of his right front tire signaling dangerous wear, he had to slow down just to stay in the top two. The relieved Rathmann nursed his car back to the lead, winning the race at a then-record speed of 138.767 mph to avoid the dubious distinction of being the only four-time runner-up in 500 history.
The son of a butcher, he was born Royal Richard Rathmann in Los Angeles on July 16, 1928. As an underage teenage driver in the mid-1940s, he borrowed the name Jim from his older brother so he could race at Gardena's Carrell Speedway, Saugus Speedway and other local tracks. The name stuck, and his brother later raced as Dick Rathmann.
Jim Rathmann moved to Chicago in 1948 to race hot rods in the Midwest for Andy Granatelli's Hurricane Hot Rod Assn.
A year later, Rathmann was driving IndyCars and over the next decade became a household name in racing circles. He started twice in the Race of Two Worlds in Monza, Italy, winning the title in 1958, and raced three times on the NASCAR circuit from 1949-51. In 1959, he won the 100-mile USAC national championship race in 35 minutes at a brand-new Daytona International Speedway.
He was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2007.
After retiring from racing, Rathmann moved to Florida and built hot rods before running a Cadillac and Chevrolet dealership in Melbourne. He became close friends with the early astronauts who were based at nearby Cape Canaveral and supplied Gus Grissom, Gordon Cooper, Alan Shepard, Wally Schirra, Scott Carpenter and others with souped-up Corvettes and other sports cars. He even persuaded one of the astronauts to place his car dealership's decal on a cart that was driven on the moon.
Rathmann's survivors include his wife, Kay; two sons, two stepsons, five grandchildren and one great-grandchild.