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Vukovich – The greatest ever Indy 500 driver?

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Vukovich – The greatest ever Indy 500 driver?
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Mar 24, 2020, 11:10 PM

May 30 will mark the 65th anniversary of Bill Vukovich’s death. David Malsher-Lopez reflects on perhaps the greatest master of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

That 1955 was the worst year in motorsport history is surely beyond doubt. The Le Mans tragedy on June 11 that took the lives of almost 90 people, and injured around double that number, would have a long-lasting effect on how motorsport was perceived outside of the racing community.

But for those within it – team members, officials, devoted fans – the year had turned rancid two weeks earlier. On May 26, the fastest Formula 1 driver of the era, two-time World Champion Alberto Ascari, suffered a fatal accident while testing a Ferrari sportscar at Monza.

Just four days later, on Memorial Day, Bill Vukovich, a man who had dominated the Indianapolis Motor Speedway since 1952 in a similar manner to Ascari’s ’52-’53 scorched-earth campaigns in F1, also paid the ultimate price. But in this instance, there was enough evidence to confirm that the high-profile hero was blameless in his demise. ‘Vuky’ just didn’t make mistakes at Indy.

“I think Bill Vukovich was probably the greatest driver we’ve ever known,” said fellow two-time Indy 500 winner Rodger Ward, when speaking to ESPN Classic’s SportsCentury series. “In terms of his skill and his ability and his determination. He wasn’t really a big guy but I tell you what, I wouldn’t have wanted to tangle with him if I was nine feet tall with six-feet arms! The guy was tougher than anybody I knew.”

 

Photo by: IndyCar Series

‘Vuky’ wasn’t a quick-with-his-fists kinda guy, but it was wise not to use the “Mad Russian” nickname that many had lazily hung on him. He detested it because it showed profound ignorance of what he was all about. For one thing, he was California-born, and for another, his parents were immigrants from Yugoslavia rather than Russia.

Yvoan and Milka Vucurovic landed on Ellis Island in 1909, lived in South Dakota for four years, then headed west to Alameda, California. On Dec. 13, 1918, Milka gave birth to Vaso, who they decided to name Bill when he first went to school – just like they had changed their own names to John and Mildred and had simplified their last name to Vukovich.

One of eventually eight children, Bill was only two years old when John’s dream of becoming a land owner saw the Vukovich clan move 150 miles south to Kerman, a little farm town in Fresno County. But from barely treading water financially, the family started sinking when another move to a less fertile ranch a few miles east proved disastrous at the height of the Great Depression. At rock bottom and just two weeks before all his property was due to be repossessed, John shot himself. It was Bill’s 14th birthday.

He dropped out of high school aged 15, took on the mantle of father figure to his sisters, even those older than he, but found his interest in racing stoked when he and elder brother Eli helped eldest brother Mike convert a 1920s Chevrolet into a racecar. Hanging around the garages at the local dirt tracks, listening and learning, Bill befriended Fred Gerhardt and convinced the future Indy car constructor to let him race Gerhardt’s heavily modified ’26 Chevy. Within four events the combo won, spurring Gerhardt into buying a midget for this tough teenager to race.

In this booming category, Vuky became a sensation up and down the west coast. Yes, he had some bone-crunching accidents – bad enough to keep him out of the Army when America entered World War II – because finding the limit by exceeding them was a perilous methodology in an era when the cars and track facilities meant it was hard to have a non-injurious shunt. But in between times, he and the midget he’d dubbed ‘Old Ironsides’ blew away the opposition and once equipped with a Dale Drake-built Harley-Davidson-based engine he was virtually unstoppable – 16 wins in 1940, 17 in ’41.

By now, Bill had married Esther and the couple had two children, Marlene and William (Billy Jr.), but when the War brought motorsport to a halt, Bill earned his money maintaining trucks and tanks at the Army vehicle compound in Riverside. When the conflict ended and racing resumed, he picked up where he left off, winning 10 of the 25 United Racing Association’s ‘Red Circuit’ events (for non-Offenhauser-engined cars) to became URA champion, a feat he repeated in ’46. When midget racing’s popularity boom went bust, Vuky expand his ’48 campaign to take in the URA’s ‘Blue Circuit’ for Offy-powered midgets. Across both categories, he scored an astonishing 29 Feature wins.

After dominating the Turkey Night Grand Prix, Bill was approached by four-time Indy 500 polesitter and two-time American Automobile Association (AAA) champion Rex Mays.

Eldest brother Mike, speaking to author Bob Gates in the definitive biography Vukovich, recalled: “Rex told Billy he needed to go back east to run, and then go to Indianapolis. He told him, ‘Vuky, if you can make that little Offy talk like you did tonight, you should be able to make one of those big ones sing.’”

Vuky hated the idea of leaving Cali and delayed the move for almost a year, but the oversaturation of midget tracks in SoCal continued to dilute crowds and thus reduce prize money.

Having finished fifth in the AAA-sanctioned Pacific Coast Championship in the fall, he headed for Indiana in 1950 and after winning at Kokomo Speedway, Vukovich was approached by his first hero, 1925 Indy 500 winner Pete DePaolo, and three-time Indy winner Wilbur Shaw, president of Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Between them, they persuaded this hotshot he was ready to tackle the biggest race in the world.

 

Photo by: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

He was, too, but the car that DePaolo’s team IRC Racing prepared for him was not – it was the Maserati 8CTF in which Shaw had twice won the 500 but a whole decade earlier! Unsurprisingly Vuky failed to qualify but there was some consolation. One of his main rivals on the California midget scene, Walt Faulkner, became the first Indy rookie to earn pole and another ex-West Coast midget ace, Johnnie Parsons, won the event. By implication, that boosted Vukovich’s credibility and his self-confidence.

And this toe-in-the-water foray to the Speedway was all it had taken for Vuky to fall for the magic of the 500. Henceforth he needed to be there and while he went on to clinch the 1950 National Midget Championship, he was already seeking his next ride for Indy. That came from Pete Salemi, a former racer whose Central Excavating Special, a Trevis-built Offy-powered car, was neither particularly fast nor reliable. It expired due to a failed oil line on the 29th of the 200 laps at Indy in 1951, but experienced observers had noted Vuky’s rapid rise from 20th on the grid to ninth in the first 70 miles – and three of those watching were team owner Howard Kech, his crew chief Jim Travers and chief mechanic Frank Coon. This became particularly significant when their driver, Mauri Rose, a three-time 500 winner, shunted due to a wheel failure and announced his retirement from driving. Vukovich got The Call.

He didn’t need much convincing, but the clincher was that Kech had given Travers and Coon the go-ahead to design an all-new car for Kurtis Kraft to build. It would be the first of the roadsters – engine canted over 36 degrees and set to the left, so rather than straddle the driveshaft, its driver could sit to the right and low down, allowing a far more streamlined shape. Travers’ and Coon’s Fuel Injection Special – named for their regular partner Stu Hillborn’s company – was inspired function resulting in beautifully simple and simply beautiful form. And it was fast.

But it was late in arriving, so not until the second weekend of qualifying was Vuky able to attempt a run. However, rain in the first weekend had allowed only seven cars to set a time, so he still had a chance of claiming a high spot on the grid and he duly delivered. With the car weight-jacked like a midget, the inside front wheel pawing the air through the turns, Vuky nailed it with new IMS one-lap (139.427mph) and four-lap (138.212mph) records. Vuky and the radical all-new Fuel Injection Special had qualified eighth.

And come race day, this combo was out front by Lap 7, and by Lap 50 he had lapped everyone except Troy Ruttman. Despite one very slow pitstop, Vuky was leading by half a minute when, on Lap 192, a steering pin failed. The car pushed up the track on the exit of Turn 3 and ground along the wall and to a halt, handing the lead and the win to Ruttman. A devastated Vukovich quietly seethed but there were no undignified histrionics.

“We were all in shock,” Travers told Gates. “Naturally we were all disappointed as hell. But we talked about it, and it just made all of us, even Howard, more determined than ever to go back and win the next year.”

A couple of dirt races in the Fuel Injection Special proved it was unsuitable for anything but hard surfaces, although that was fine by its driver: Vukovich never showed great interest in pursuing the full Champ Car trail. But when Ruttman broke an arm in a shunt, his car owner JC Agajanian, who’d been a helpful friend to Vuky, asked if he minded coming aboard as replacement, and again Vuky proved exceptional, delivering two wins and a third place in his six races.

Back at Indy in ’53, he picked up where he left off and despite completing his four-lap qualifying run in the rain, he still took pole. On race day, one of the hottest Indy 500s of all time, one driver died of heat stroke and only five finishers managed to do so without the aid of a relief driver. But one of those was winner, Vukovich, who had led 195 laps. Another was runner-up, Art Cross, who finished 3min30sec adrift…

The 1953 Indy 500 was hot, the '54 race was barely better. Vuky wouldn't even consider a relief driver and the efforts made are clear.

The 1953 Indy 500 was hot, the '54 race was barely better. Vuky wouldn't even consider a relief driver and the efforts made are clear.

Photo by: IndyCar Series

A large reason for Vukovich’s tenacity in extreme situations was that he was in great physical shape, having realized that a key to winning was to not have his brain distracted by faltering stamina. In an era when even some of the top-level drivers were shaped like chefs who liked to sample their own products, Vuky did daily pushups, pullups, rode his bicycle for miles on end and rarely drank or smoked.

Over the following winter, Travers and Coon sought more power for their three-year-old car, spotted that Chrysler Corporation’s MOPAR Indy car engines had air trumpets on top of the engine to ram air through to the combustion chamber, and enlisted Douglas aircraft company to build something very similar. They added another 40hp on the dyno, but failed piston rings and a cracked block forced seven engine rebuilds over the course of the Month of May in 1954, and Vukovich was only 19th on the grid.

Vuky was a man on a mission from the drop of the green flag, but without the power improvement promised by the dyno figures, it took until Lap 92 for him to catch and pass the leader, his friend Jack McGrath, but pitstops aside, the gray #14 car would never be headed again. He beat runner-up Jimmy Bryan by a lap.

“Guys were saying you can’t win two in a row,” said Vukovich to the Indianapolis News. “I didn’t say anything. I just let them talk. But I knew Rose and Shaw won two in a row, and they weren’t supermen.

“I plan on driving a couple more years here anyway. And a guy can keep on winning here. He’s got to have luck, sure, and the right combination. But it’s not impossible. Nothing is impossible.”

Polesitter and now two-time third-place finisher Jack McGrath reportedly told his wife, “I’ll never win a 500 as long as Vuky’s in it.”

On the way to another dominant win in 1954.

On the way to another dominant win in 1954.

Photo by: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Even with their extraordinary driver, however, Travers and Coon weren’t going to wring a third win out of a late-’51 design and so the ‘Whiz Kids’ devised an ambitious closed-wheel streamliner, akin to what Mercedes-Benz had done in Formula 1 with the W196. When the lateness of the car and then the lateness of its engine pushed its putative debut to 1956, Kech lost enthusiasm and shuttered his team. Suddenly the defending two-time Indy 500 winner and his ace engineers were on the market; just as suddenly car owner Lindsey Hopkins swooped at the chance to sign Vukovich and the Whiz Kids to campaign his one-year-old Kurtis-Offy.

Unlike many tuners of the time, Travers and Coon refused to run nitromethane in their engines, given its propensity for offering power at the expense of reliability, so Vukovich did well to get the Lindsey Hopkins Special to qualify fifth in ’55. The early stages of the race distilled down to a battle between polesitter Jack McGrath (running nitro) and Vukovich. On Lap 26, Vuky hit the front for the final time and on Lap 54 the fading McGrath pitted for the final time with magneto failure. At the end of the 56th lap, Travers signaled to Vuky from the pit wall that his major rival was out and Vuky gave him a wave of acknowledgement. Travers would never see his friend again.

Exiting Turn 2, Ward, in an upright sprint-type car, was caught by a gust of wind and spun into the outside wall, his car digging in and rolling twice. The lapped cars of Al Keller and Johnny Boyd and leader Vukovich were next on the scene and rookie Keller appeared to overreact, jamming on his car’s hand-brake. His car slewed down to the infield and, still out of control, back across the track where it struck Boyd’s car, pushing him into Vukovich.

Boyd launched over Keller’s machine and struck the backstraight bridge with the underside of his car. Vukovich launched and hit the bridge cockpit-first, dying instantly before the Lindsey Hopkins Special tumbled out of the track, barrel rolling over vehicles in the car park and coming to rest upside down and on fire. Such an accident had never been anticipated and it took an age for the fire services parked within the oval to make their way out to the parking lot.

By then it mattered little; a legend was gone and a brief era of extraordinary one-man dominance was over.

This writer is normally one to avoid getting caught up in stats without context; as the great Vin Scully once observed, ‘Statistics are used much like a drunk uses a lamp post: for support, not illumination.’ But some stats,  such as Vukovich’s at IMS, are simply breathtaking: of the 676 race laps Vuky turned at the Brickyard, he led 485 of them – an astonishing 71.75 percent. Post-war, no one else is in the same ballpark – Jimmy Clark and Parnelli Jones are next best, each on 43 percent.

Vuky’s son, Bill Jr., went on to have a fine career as a midget racer, scoring 23 wins and also making 158 starts in Indy car, earning Indy 500 Rookie of the Year title in 1968 and winning one of the Michigan 125s in ’73. His son, Billy Vukovich III, would emulate his pop by gaining Indy 500 Rookie of the Year honors in ’88, as well as becoming the first third-gen driver to qualify for the 500, but in 1990 tragedy hit the family again, as Vuky III died in a sprint car crash in Bakersfield, California, when his throttle jammed open during a practice session.

Vuky II, who turns 76 this week, still visits Indy every May, frequently attending practice, qualifying and the 500. He does so without ceremony, sitting quietly in the media center, keeping track of what’s happening on track and occasionally chatting with other oldtimers such as the not-so-quiet Bobby Unser and also legendary journo Robin Miller, with whom Bill has lunch once a week.

Back in 2001, Bill Jr. told ESPN, “I think about Billy every day, I think about my dad every day. I haven’t come to terms with the death of either of them, and I probably never will.

“There’s not gonna be more Vukoviches in a racecar, and … that suits me just fine. I still like racing a lot, but as far as dwelling on the three Vukoviches, I don’t do that much any more because they’re bad memories.”

Understandable – as is the bias expressed in another comment about his father.

“Some say he was Indy’s greatest driver. I say that he was… And I’m very proud of that fact.”

In fact, even the unbiased would struggle to come up with more than four names from 770-plus participants of 103 Indianapolis 500s that are worthy of being ranked with Bill Vukovich.

 

Photo by: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

The author recommends the biography “Vukovich” by Bob Gates, published by Witness Productions in 2004.
A version of this story originally appeared in Autosport magazine last May.

 

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Bill Vukovich
Author David Malsher-Lopez