INDIANAPOLIS — Don Freeland, an eight-time starter in the Indianapolis 500 from 1953-60 and the third-place finisher in 1956, died Nov. 2 in San Diego after a period of declining health. He was 82.
Freeland had perhaps his best Indianapolis 500 run in 1955, when transmission failure robbed him of finishing second only 22 laps from the end. He also finished seventh in 1954 and 1958.
A U.S. Navy veteran who had served as a diesel mechanic in the South Pacific during World War II, Freeland began his racing career shortly after the war with track roadsters in Southern California. Migrating to the Midwest with many of his colleagues in the early 1950s, he divided his time for a brief period between driving AAA sprint cars and serving as a self-proclaimed "stooge" on the Bob Estes Championship car that was under the joint care of Jud Phillips and A.J. Watson. Whenever Watson and Phillips needed a driver, they all joked, Freeland was ready to jump in, the Estes "ride" becoming his for five of the next six years.
A steady and reliable driver in AAA and USAC National Championship events who was almost invariably around at the finish, the iconic Freeland scored 36 top-10 finishes between 1952 and 1960. He won four poles, led 134 laps of competition and had 10 finishes of either second or third. He ranked third in the 1956 USAC championship points standings.
For several years in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Freeland was one of several drivers who made quite an impact as a member of the Champion Spark Plug Company’s Highway Safety program, in which "500" drivers would visit the nation’s high schools to give safe-driving tips to students.
He is survived by his wife, Jan, and a daughter, Deana, who reside in Torrance, CA, where Freeland spent most of his life.