Dick Rathmann was born in Los Angeles, California. He drove in the AAA Championship Car series in the 1949 and 1950 seasons with 4 starts, including the 1950 Indianapolis 500. His best finish was 6th position at Milwaukee in 1950.
In 1951, he moved to NASCAR, where he was a very successful, winning his first Grand National race in a 200-lap, 100-mile event on April 6, 1952 at the Martinsville Speedway driving a Hudson.
He was on pole ten times and won 13 races between 1951 and 1955, including Martinsville, three in a row at Langhorne, Darlington, and Daytona, then Daytona again in the 1952 season. He won five more races in 1953 (including two at Langhorne) and three more (including back-to-back spring races at Oakland and North Wilkesboro) in 1954.
He finished fifth in the points in 1952, third in 1953, fourth in 1954, and eighteenth in 1955, when he ran less than half the races.
He became the first driver in NASCAR history to go from last to first and win a race when he took the 250-lap event in Oakland in 1954, after qualifying dead last with a leaking gas tank. The faulty tank was replaced for the race and Rathman took the checkered flag.
In 1956, he returned to the USAC Championship Car series, racing in the 1956-1964 seasons with an additional 41 starts, including the Indianapolis 500 races in 1956 and 1958-1964. He finished in the top ten 21 more times, with his best finish in 2nd position in 1959 at Daytona.
Dick sat on the pole for the 1958 Indianapolis 500. On the first lap, he and fellow front-row starter Ed Elisian raced into turn 3 and started a chain-reaction accident which involved 15 cars and cost the life of Pat O'Connor. With that accident, Rathmann became the first Indy pole-sitter to complete no laps. This feat has been repeated only twice in Indy history, first by Roberto Guerrero and then by Scott Sharp.
Dick was the elder brother of 1960 Indianapolis 500 winner Jim Rathmann. Jim and Dick switched names in 1946 so that his younger brother could enter a race while underage. For what was supposed to be a short time, he adopted the name "Dick" and his brother adopted the name "Jim." The name change stuck for life.