By Thomas O'Keefe, U.S.A.
Autosport-Atlas Senior Writer
Appearing in only five races that counted for the World Championship, he qualified on pole once, won two races, set three fastest laps, and led a phenomenal 485 laps of 676 race laps, a higher percentage even than Jim Clark. So who is this driver with a winning percentage record that Fangio and Schumacher would be proud of? Thomas O'Keefe looks at the career of Billy Vukovich, possibly the best driver ever to race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, whose tragic loss 50 years ago foreshadowed a summer of tragedy for motorsport
No one has ever won the Indianapolis 500 three times in a row but 50 years ago last Indy 500 weekend, on May 30, 1955, Billy Vukovich looked very much like the man who would be the first to do it.
Billy Vukovich was born on December 13, 1918, and grew up as a child of the Depression working in the grape fields of San Joaquin Valley. He lived on a hardscrabble family farm near Fresno, California, with his brothers Mike and Eli, his five sisters, his father John and his mother Mildred. The parents were Serbo-Croatians who came from Yugoslavia through Ellis Island in 1909, a classic immigrant story.
But the American Dream turned sour for the Vukovich family in the winter of 1931 when the raisin crop was a disaster and the 20-acre family farm near Sanger, California was slated for foreclosure, pursuant to a notice delivered in December 1931; the holder of the mortgage was owed a mere $200. John Vukovich took this setback very much to heart and, depressed at the prospect of losing all he had worked for 23 years, committed suicide in the month when Billy turned 14 years old.
After these traumatic events, Eli, 15, and Billy, 14, then a sophomore in high school, both quit school to provide for the family. By 1939, the mother of the Vukovich brood had also died of a heart ailment after being sick and in the hospital for some time, and it fell to Billy in particular to look after his unmarried siblings.
As California teenagers imbued with the emerging hot rod car culture of the time, all three Vukovich brothers discovered racing, but it was the youngest, Billy, that turned out to have the goods. While working long hours in the fields to support the family, in his spare time Billy went to the local racetracks, keeping his eye out for a race car and a car owner that would try his luck on the young Yugoslavian.
One summer day in 1936, when he was still only 17, Billy found the car and the car owner he had been looking for. Fred Gerhardt, a young man from a Fresno farming family living on his father's farm, was a mechanically-minded tinkerer and was building up a race car from a 1926 Chevy roadster. Billy came by Gerhardt's barn/race shop and first offered to help work on the car and then asked to drive it.
Gerhardt in time agreed to give the raw teenager a chance and that was the beginning of one of the most successful owner-driver relationships in history; like Chapman/Clark, Agajanian/Jones, Dennis/Senna and Penske/Mears, only this time in the hurly-burly world of dirt track midget racing in California when it was at its height. The amount of genius displayed by these two Fresno farm boys who somehow found one another would turn out to be stunning.
Gerhardt would go on in the rear-engined Indycar era of the 1960's and 1970's to design his own Gerhardt-Offy race cars, driven at the Indianapolis 500 by the likes of Jim Hurlibise, Gordon Johncock, Don Branson, Mel Kenyon and Gary Bettenhausen. And his young cub of a driver, Billy Vukovich, would become a legend at Indy, outshining all the rest.
After only a few races in the Chevy modified (which, ironically, was the same type of vintage cut-down Chevy with which Juan Manuel Fangio got his start in racing on the dusty roads around Balcarce, Argentina), Billy began to transform himself into the captivating driver that both the press and the fans would in time erroneously label the Mad Russian and then "Vuky." What the crowds loved was the effortless-looking but spectacular passing moves Vuky was famous for at California dirt tracks like Newton, Chowchilla and at Goshen Speedway.
For the 1937 season, Gerhardt decided to move up a class and bought a used midget, with a Henderson 4-cylinder motorcycle engine, for $600, a miniaturized-looking Indianapolis car that ran at racing emporiums like Gilmore Stadium in Hollywood, where all the stars turned out to see the dirt fly. Billy enlisted his brother Mike as crew to help prepare and race the midget. In the end, Vuky and Gerhardt ran this little red midget car, winner of over 130 features, for 10 years, christening it "Old Ironsides." By 1945, 27 years old Vuky had stashed away enough to buy Old Ironsides back from Fred Gerhardt for $750.
But Vuky's rise to the top ranks of midget racing had not been without pain.
At 22, Billy has his first serious accident, breaking his collarbone and burning his hand. During his rehabilitation from those injuries, he met his wife to be, Ester Schmidt, whom he married in 1941 and was devoted to throughout his life. The couple had two children, Marlene (born in 1942) and Billy (born in 1944). Billy Vukovich Jr., would go on to become Rookie of the Year at Indy in 1968.
Billy Vukovich, Sr. was considered unfit for service in World War II due to his racing injuries, so he repaired Jeeps and trucks as a military civilian mechanic during the war. When racing resumed after the war Vuky would utterly dominate midget racing, winning the United Racing Association's West Coast Championship in 1946 and 1947.
In 1950, he broadened his horizons and ran in the Midwest, winning the AAA National Midget Championship, and it was that achievement that led to a tryout for the 1950 Indy 500. At a race in the early spring of 1950 at Kokomo Speedway in Indiana two former Indy 500 winners - Wilber Shaw (1937, 1939 and 1940) and Pete DePaulo (1925), approached Vuky and encouraged him to enter the 1950 Indy 500 time trials, driving a car they would make available to him.
Known by that time as the Fresno Flyer, Vukovich, now 32 years old, was given an old war horse of an Indy car to qualify with - the Boyle Maserati 8CTF with which Wilbur Shaw had won the 1939 and 1940 Indy 500's - but the aging 183 cubic inch 8-cylinder was no match for the 270 cubic inch Offenhauser engines that now held sway at the Speedway. Vuky passed his rookie test and got the aging Italian machine up to an average speed of 126 mph but that was not fast enough to make the field in 1950.
Notwithstanding this ignominy in 1950, the Boyle Maserati subsequently became the centerpiece of the collection of Indy 500 winners on view at the Hall of Fame Museum, on the grounds of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
In 1951, Vukovich did make it onto the grid for his first Indianapolis 500, qualifying in 20th place in the Central Excavating Co. Special Trevis-Offy, sponsored by Pete Salemi of Cleveland (Vuky wrote to a friend in mid-May 1951 that during practice "every time we go out something fell off the damn thing"), and Vuky moved up through the field before a split oil tank put him out after only 29 laps and he finished in 29th place.
But Vukovich's performance caught the eye of legendary Indy 500 mechanics, Jim Travers and Frank Coon, who worked the wrenches for car owner Howard Keck, owner of Superior Oil Company and one of the wealthiest Indy 500 car owners. Finishing just ahead of Vuky was another first timer, Rodger Ward, who also had his troubles and went out early, being classified in 27th place. In time, both drivers would prove themselves at the Brickyard and win the Great Race, but the 1951 Indy 500 was to be their teething year.
The 1952 Indy 500 was Vuky's first run at Indy in a competitive car and, among a diverse field of tremendous drivers and machines, Vukovich nearly walked off with the whole thing in the car which would usher in the front-engined Indianapolis roadster era, a Frank Kurtis-designed car called the Fuel Injection Special.
All manner of cars were at Indy in 1952. Enzo Ferrari had decided to increase his marque's visibility in the American market so he sent several of his cars, including some for privateers (including oilman Howard Keck, who paid $58,000 for his Ferrari 375 and had dispatched Frank Coon to pick it up from Maranello), but also an official Ferrari factory entry for the team's star Grand Prix driver, Alberto Ascari. The Ferrari was a modified "Ferrari Special" version of the 350 bhp 4.5 litre V12 Ferrari 375 Formula One car which was used in the 1951 Grand Prix season.
The Ferrari 375 was no slouch; it had beaten the then-dominant Alfa Romeo team at the 1951 British Grand Prix at Silverstone. How important to Enzo Ferrari was Ferrari's appearance at the 1952 Indy 500? Ascari missed the 1952 Swiss Grand Prix so he could compete at Indy, but won all the other races that season in his Ferrari 500, and won the World Drivers' Championship back-to-back in 1952 and 1953. Ascari took to the oval at Indy very well; his qualifying laps were like a metronome, each lap within a fraction of the other.
The Cummins Engine Company spared no expense to produce the blindingly fast and beautifully turned out, low-slung, six-cylinder Cummins Diesel Special, which Fred Agabashian put on pole the first weekend of qualifying at 138.10. The chassis was designed for Cummins by California constructor Frank Kurtis.
The second weekend of qualifying featured the crowd-pleasing front-drive Novi, which turned an even faster lap at 139.034 driven by 49 year-old Chet Miller, the oldest and fastest driver on the day. A very fast upright, converted dirt track Kuzma-Offy entered by J.C. Agajanian and driven by the 22 year-old Troy Ruttman qualified in 7th place.
In this rarefied environment, Vukovich did well in his Kurtis KK500A-Offy to qualify in 8th place at 138.212 mph, setting a new one-lap record of 139.427. Vuky was the second choice of car owner Howard Keck, who initially offered the ride to his usual driver, 1947 and 1948 Indy 500 winner Mauri Rose. Rose, who had an accident in the 1951 Indy 500 when a wire wheel collapsed, had announced his retirement and declined the offer so Travers and Coon, who had been watching Vuky develop as a driver since they were all in midget racing in California, argued for Vuky and convinced Heck to approve that choice.
Rose's loss was Vuky's gain, and Vuky and the Fuel Injection Special with the chrome teeth of its grille making it look like the Buicks of that era were to become synonymous for all time. The genius of the anthracite grey-colored car with the bright red wheels and yellow numbers was that the fuel-injected Offy was offset to the left and laid over 37 degrees to the right side, so that the drive shaft and bottom of the engine were on the left side, lowering the center of gravity and permitting the driver to sit down in the cockpit astride the drive shaft, not above it as in the more upright cars.
The nifty, lithe-looking Fuel Injection Special also weighed 1600 pounds - lean and low. Frank Kurtis came up with the concept of offsetting the engine in the course of designing the chassis for the 401 cubic-inch truck diesel engine installed in the Cummins Diesel Special, which was also laid down on its side horizontally to 90 degrees, giving the yellow and orange car its sleek lines.
The Howard Keck-owned Fuel Injection Special was the first chassis to be designed by Frank Kurtis after the Cummins Diesel. Vukovich called the Fuel Injection Special his roadster because its lines reminded Vuky of the midget cars he drove in California, and that came to be applied to all the front-engined Indianapolis-style cars that were in vogue from the early-1950's until Jack Brabham and Jim Clark showed the way with their modified rear-engined Cooper and Lotus Grand Prix cars in the early 1960's.
With this exotic and varied machinery at hand, the 1952 Indy 500 turned out to be as nip and tuck as the qualifying sessions had been. Flying Freddie Agabashian in the superfast Cummins Diesel pole-sitter got a bad start and dropped to fifth place on lap one, while Jack McGrath in the Hinkle Special, another Kurtis car, moved up to first place, with Vukovich and Ruttman moving up behind him.
By lap seven Vukovich, up from 8th place on the grid, had taken the lead from McGrath; to keep this achievement in perspective, it was only Vuky's 36th race lap at Indy, and he was well out in front and leaving everyone but Troy Ruttman in the dust.
The Cummins Diesel gradually clogged up its low-to-the-ground supercharger inlet with tire debris sucked up from the track, and the car retired on lap 71. Ascari's Ferrari had a frozen right rear wheel bearing or hub flange failure on its Italian wire wheels, and he too retired early after locking up and spinning into the infield at turn four on lap 41. Chet Miller's Novi went out on lap 42 with a supercharger problem.
Thus the race was left to be decided between two Californians, Ruttman's No. 98, white-painted ex-dirt track car built by Eddie Kuzma with Californian hot rodder red flames licking up from the nose cowling and engine bay, and Vuky's No. 26 roadster, the latest confection from Kurtis, the cars having qualified right next to each other on the third row.
In the race, Vukovich had the better car, and with the Fuel Injection Special having held the lead for 150 laps, it began to look like Vuky's first Indy 500 victory was in sight. Although Vuky's crew had flubbed one of his pit stops, Ruttman also had his drama when a fire briefly broke out during his pit stop on lap 82 (caused by hot exhaust pipes igniting the fuel overflow), so both drivers experienced the ebb and flow of luck at Indy that day.
Then on lap 191, with less than 10 laps to go, Vuky had his last reversal of fortune as the steering failed on his No. 26 Kurtis-Offy; apparently a quarter-inch steering pin that had not been properly hardened, sending Vukovich into a terminal brush with the wall at Turn 3, white-walling the right side tires and lightly damaging the car but snatching away a sure victory for Vuky.
Unlike today, when you see drivers scurrying away from an accident scene, Vuky stayed by the car as the last few laps ticked down; he lingered and scowled as he glared from behind the concrete retaining wall at the beast that had let him down. Not one to blame others usually, back at the garage, Vuky was heard to mutter, "What a stinking rotten break." From then until this year's Indy 500, when Dan Wheldon broke the jinx, no car with the No. 26 had won the Indy 500; before Wheldon's Jim Beam Special, Vuky's Fuel Injection Special came the closest.
Troy Ruttman was rewarded for his courage in staying in the cockpit of the No. 98 when it burst in flames during his pit stop, and found himself inheriting the lead when No. 26 hit the wall; the 22 year-old (who had entered his first Indy 500 when he was just 19 years old) went on to become the youngest winner of the Indy 500, driving the last dirt-track car to win the race.
Ruttman would have less luck in Formula One where he competed just once, in the 1958 French Grand Prix at Rheims, when he drove a Maserati 250F for Scuderia Centro Sud and finished tenth.
In the 1953 Indy 500, Travers and Coon learned their lesson and Vuky's Keck-owned roadster carried No. 14. Vuky was once again the class of the field; he qualified on pole (finishing his qualification run in the rain), set fastest lap and won the race. It was a race run under a fierce sun, with track temperatures as high as 130 degrees that led to ten drivers (not including Vuky, although relief driver Henry Banks was standing by) using relief drivers to spell them. One driver, 39 year old Carl Scarborough, actually collapsed in the pits during his pit stop and died of heat prostration in the field hospital.
But the wiry and fit 34 year-old Fresno Flash, taking in fluids from cups of water passed over the pit wall to Vuky by car owner Howard Keck on every pit stop, splashing water on his neck as well, led 195 of 200 laps, relinquishing the lead only during pit stops; a dominating performance. It was the same Fuel Injection Special with which Vukovich led 150 laps with in 1952.
The winner's share of the purse was $89,416. Vuky slugged down a Coke and got a kiss from his wife Ester and actress Jane Greer in Victory Lane. One of Vuky's other prizes was a beautiful cream-colored 1953 Ford Crestline Sunliner V8 convertible pace car, all decked out with dual spotlights, fender skirts, wire wheels, whitewall tires and a Continental kit.
By the 1954 Indy 500 Vukovich's Fuel Injection Special, again number 14, was getting a bit long in the tooth but, with some new bulges in the hood covering ram air intake horns for the injectors, Travis and Cook felt the car had one more victory left in it. The Fuel Injection Special was now painted a light shade of grey while retaining its red wheels and yellow numbers and trademark grille of 13 vertical chrome bars.
Vuky was no longer the fastest in the field, but he moved up steadily from his qualifying position on the seventh row, conserving his tires and taking on a full fuel load to avoid a third pit stop. The strategy worked; he led 90 laps to take the race and Bill Vukovich Sr. became the first driver to average more than 130 mph for the whole race, as well as the first back-to-back winner of the Indy 500 since Mauri Rose and his Blue Crown Special in 1947 and 1948. Indeed, had it not been for that bad luck with the steering pin on lap 191 in 1952, Vuky would have become a three-time Indy 500 winner in 1954.
Fit as he was - and, in addition to the stamina gained from farming under the broiling sun in Fresno, he worked at fitness with bicycling and exercises to strengthen his arms and hands for these grueling, nearly four-hour races - there is a famous picture of the now 35 year-old Vukovich after winning the 1954 Indy 500 back in the garage on Gasoline Alley where he is sitting on a work bench, his knees pulled up and his head buried in his hands, his T-shirt and trousers filthy from the oil and grime of the race, a picture that graphically portrays how physically and mentally drained he was after the 1954 race.
After the 1954 Indy 500, one of the perquisites of Vukovich's victory included the white, 1954 Dodge Royal convertible that paced the field. No private executive jets in those days; after some public appearances, Vukovich, Ester and, it is said, a fellow driver, Ed Elisian from Oakland, drove the Dodge Royal back to California together. You can imagine the tales they told.
In January 1955, Vukovich, always one to be putting into place the means to guarantee his family's financial security, used part of his 1954 Indy 500 winnings of $74,934 to open up a second Union 76 gas station in Fresno, with the 1954 Dodge Indy Pace Car parked out front to attract people's attention.
Vukovich was also busy in the off season branching out to an entirely different form of racing - the punishing 1,863 mile La Carrera PanAmericana Mexican road race - which fellow Indianapolis drivers Tony Bettenhausen and Jerry Unser had participated in earlier in the 1950's and Vukovich had briefly participated in a year earlier but with no success. Vukovich drove a Lincoln in the last edition of the race on November 23, 1954; as unlikely as it sounds, the Lincoln Capris dominated the touring class in the 1952 Carrera PanAmericana.
Vukovich put the Lincoln into a ditch while running second in class in the 1954 race after ignoring the pleas of his terrified co-driver, Vern Huell, to take it easy on the tortuous mountain roads of the Sierra Madre. As the accident unfolded Vukovich reportedly quipped to Huell: "Okay, Vern you take it."
Another off season event that touched all Indianapolis 500 fans was the death of Wilbur Shaw on October 30, 1954, in a private plane crash. Not only had Wilbur Shaw won the Indy 500 three times (1937 in the Shaw-Gilmore Special, and 1939 and 1940 in the Boyle Maserati Vuky tried to qualify in 1951), but Shaw had been the impetus behind Tony Hulman purchasing the dilapidated Speedway from Eddie Rickenbacker for a reported $750,000 on November 15, 1945, after which Shaw had become president and general manager of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
In Wilbur Shaw's absence, it would be Tony Hulman who would give the famous "Gentlemen, Start Your Engines" command for the first time for the 1955 Indy 500, which he would do until the 1977 Indy 500, the last race before he died.
An ill-wind blew through Indianapolis in the run-up to the 1955 Indy 500. The proceedings got off to a rocky start during the first day of qualifying, Pole Day, when the winds were so strong that no one even tried to qualify for most of the day. During the last half hour of qualifying, however, two cars went out, Jerry Hoyt in an old Stevens-Offy called the Jim Robbins Special and Tony Bettenhausen in the Kurtis-Offy known as the Chapman Special, and they were awarded pole position and middle of the front row for their efforts, effectively by default.
Everyone else qualified the next day, with Jack McGrath in his cream-colored Hinkle Special Kurtis-Offy setting a new four-lap track record at 142.580 mph and rounding out the first row in third place, and Bill Vukovich qualifying in fifth place, the middle of the second row.
Vukovich was not driving the Kurtis KK500 Full Injection Special that had won in 1953 and 1954 for car owner Howard Keck. In 1955, Vukovich was scheduled to drive a new Howard Keck-owned streamliner car with a Desoto-based 4-cam V8 engine and later, other specialty-built engine variations, but the car was not ready in time for the 1955 Indy 500.
So Howard Keck gave Vuky permission to go elsewhere, and he drove instead a year-old metallic blue Kurtis KK500C chassis for Lindsey Hopkins, a wealthy businessman and sportsman from Georgia and Florida, which had been assigned No. 4; in the 1954 Indy 500, Pat O'Connor had driven this same Hopkins Special, qualifying it in 12th place and finishing in 21st place after a spin in turn two. Travers and Coon came over from Howard Keck's team to prepare the Hopkins Special for Vuky.
The Race Day weather on Monday, May 30, 1955, was somewhat ominous, the early morning being cold and chilly. The temperature was in the mid fifties by race time, but the winds that marred Pole Day on Friday were still part of the weather forecast for Monday; 15-17 mph winds, gusting to 25 mph.
When the race started Jack McGrath, whose Hinkle Special was using a nitro mixture to boost power and was the bona fide fastest car in the field, quickly took the lead, and Vukovich from the second row was likewise moving up. As McGrath crossed the start/finish line to complete lap two Vukovich was already in second place, trailing McGrath but gaining on him, finally getting by on the backstretch during lap four.
The two drivers sparred this way for the next twenty laps, with Vukovich leading most of the time but McGrath very much in the hunt and taking back the lead temporarily on lap 15 and again on lap 25. Vukovich was trying everything he knew to get by McGrath (whose car was trailing smoke due to excess oil on board), including diving down low on the apron of the racetrack to get to the inside of McGrath.
On lap 26, Vukovich again got by McGrath on the backstretch, turning fastest race lap in the process, and stayed in the lead from then on, lapping backmarkers at such a ferocious pace that at one-quarter distance of the 200 lap race, only seven of the 33 cars were still on the lead lap with Vuky's Hopkins Special.
Amongst the cars that had been lapped by Vuky and McGrath as they raced each other were Vukovich's former co-rookie from the 1951 Indy 500, Rodger Ward, now 34 years old, who was driving the ex-Troy Ruttman No. 27 Kuzma-Offy (now renamed the Aristo Blue Special, it was the car that had won the 1952 Indy 500 from Vukovich as the No. 98 Agajanian Special) when the steering failed on Vuky's Fuel Injection Special with only nine laps to go. Ward had qualified this old dirt-track nemesis of Vuky's in 30th place.
Al Keller, then 35 years old, was nevertheless a rookie at Indy who had qualified 20th in the No. 42 Sam Traylor Offy, another Kurtis dirt track car built in 1949 that had a checkered history. As the Wolfe Special, driven by future car thrills show promoter Joie Chitwood, it had finished a respectable fifth at Indy in 1950 and 1951; indeed, Joie Chitwood might have won the rain-shortened 1950 Indy 500 had the grille on the car not come loose. The car had also been fitted out with a Chrysler Hemi V-8 for NASCAR's 1952-53 stock-block Speedway Division, before being returned to Indy specs.
Earlier in its history Rex Mays, who had competed in 12 Indy 500's and finished second in 1940 and 1941, was killed in this same car at Del Mar, California on November 6, 1949. In 1955, rookie Al Keller was in a six-year old car, which reportedly still had a hand-brake on the left side of the cockpit, dirt track car style, rather than a brake pedal.
Johnny Boyd, like Vukovich, was from Fresno, and Vuky was, not surprisingly, a hero to Boyd, as well as a friend. Boyd was another rookie running in his first Indy 500, being lapped by Vukovich; Boyd was driving the Kurtis KK500D Sumar Special owned by Chapman Root and assigned No. 39. This chassis did not have the storied histories of Ward's and Keller's cars; the Sumar Special had wrecked in the 1954 Indy 500 and finished in 24th place, and in its entire history at Indy had never finished higher than seventh place.
By lap 54, McGrath's challenge to Vukovich had faded and he headed to the pits to work on the car, leaving Vuky out front by 17 seconds, unchallenged and one-quarter of the way towards clinching his third Indy 500 win. After crossing the start/finish line on lap 56, Vuky headed through turns one and two, beginning to pick up more lapped cars as he headed for the backstretch, including the grouping of Ward, Keller and Boyd, with Ward well out in front of the group, followed by Keller next and then a gap to Boyd, with Boyd being the car just ahead of Vukovich. As the group exited turn two, their speed would have been in the range of 140 mph with Ward out front at a distance, Keller on the left, Boyd toward the middle of the track and Vukovich on the right, Vukovich trailing Boyd.
Ward's Kuzma-Offy had difficulty navigating turn two, possibly because of the gusty wind conditions but officially because of a broken axle, and his swerving across the track toward the fence ahead of the other three cars, triggered a chain reaction accident just before the pedestrian footbridge that crossed the backstretch in those days not too far from the exit of turn two. Whatever caused Ward to spin, his car spun out toward the right side of the track in front of the spectator fence and rolled twice, ultimately coming to a stop beyond the footbridge, it right front wheel torn off. Ironically, none of the other three cars actually hit Ward, but the avoidance tactics each of them resorted to created a monumental accident with a tragic outcome.
Keller was first up in reacting to Ward's spin and, in trying to go offline and keep away from Ward, the rookie spun out himself, first toward the infield and then back toward the outside retaining fence. In the process of attempting to control his own slide, it is thought that Keller pulled the handbrake on the old dirt track car, which locked up the brakes and shot him across the track from the infield and toward the spectator fence where he hit Boyd, and simultaneously blocked the critical right lane of the track that Vukovich was aiming for.
Boyd, with Vukovich, had been in a position to see Ward spinning as the two racers exited turn two. After being hit like a pile driver by Keller's car as it crossed the backstretch, Boyd's car was now in the path of Vukovich, who changed direction and jinked from left to right to avoid the Keller/Boyd wreck. Vuky's left front contacted Boyd's right front just before the footbridge, which contact catapulted Vuky's blue Hopkins roadster over the fence and into the foreground of the spectator area. The Hopkins Special did not hit the footbridge but its rear wheels seemed to just catch the top of the fence, as the car began to take off like a rocket, and touching the fence affected the trajectory of the car.
Once airborne, the roadster began a series of sickening end over end bounces and somersaults as the car dissipated its energy. The car ultimately landed on its nose on a Ford F100 pick-up truck and then a Studebaker sedan on the other side of the footbridge, bouncing off them and continuing to rotate in the air before hitting an Indianapolis 500 Safety Patrol jeep and finally coming to a halt upside down well down the backstretch and beyond the footbridge.
Vukovich was trapped inside during these violent end over end gyrations, his skull fractured and probably dead even before the car came to rest. It is sad to say that Vuky veered right at the last moment and then was launched over the fence although he had often warned others, including rookies, "never turn right at Indy."
Fire erupted from the gas tank located behind Vuky's cockpit and chaos reigned at the accident scene. The fire equipment that was available on the backstretch was limited but was pressed into service, and rescuers finally turned over the car and retrieved Vuky's dead body from the wreckage. An ambulance was strategically located right at the footbridge, but there was nothing doctors could do for Vukovich.
Ed Elisian, for whom the older Vukovich had been both a mentor and friend, and who was doubtless looking forward to hitching a trip home to California in the 1955 Chevrolet Pace Car he expected Vuky to win, immediately pulled over in his blue and cream-colored Westwood Gauge & Tool Kurtis-Offy, leaped out of the car and ran across the track to help rescue his friend; indeed, the films available show Elisian running faster than, and parallel to, the blue and white Cadillac ambulance proceeding toward the accident scene.
It was all to no avail, as by then the Hopkins Special was engulfed in flames and Elisian's heroic gesture was of no use to his friend Vuky. Elisian would himself in later years be involved in violent crashes, including triggering a multi-car accident on lap one of the 1958 Indy 500 that resulted in the death of Pat O'Connor who, in the 1954 Indy 500, had also driven the car in which Vukovich would eventually be killed in the 1955 Indy 500. Elisian himself would die in a fiery accident on August 30, 1959 during the Milwaukee 200 Championship car race.
On May 30, 1955 at Indianapolis, we lost one of the truly great masters of the Brickyard in Bill Vukovich, a man who led a phenomenal 485 laps in only four and one-quarter Indy 500's; as a comparison, Jim Clark in four Indy 500's led for 298 laps. Just four days before Vukovich's accident, on May 26, 1955 and half a world away, the 1952 and 1953 Grand Prix World Champion Alberto Ascari, who had graced the 1952 Indy 500 with his presence in the Ferrari Special, was killed at Monza while testing a Ferrari 750 sportscar. As an omen perhaps, just a few days before the Monza accident at the 1955 Monaco Grand Prix, Ascari lost control of his Lancia D50 Grand Prix car just as he was about to take the lead from the Mercedes-Benz W196 of Stirling Moss, crashed through the barriers at the chicane and plunged into the Mediterranean, but was luckily rescued from that accident.
On June 11, 1955, at the Le Mans 24 Hours Endurance Race the grisly statistics of the summer of 1955 continued to mount exponentially. At Le Mans, there were many spectators killed in an accident similar to the one that killed Vuky at Indianapolis when Pierre Levegh's Mercedes-Benz 300SLR was launched into the air after contact with Lance Macklin's Austin-Healey 100S. The only difference was that Levegh's car went straight into the grandstands, a fate that the spectators at Indy were spared as the Hopkins Special made it over the fence and hit vehicles near the spectators but never actually got into the grandstands. In the case of Le Mans, 83 spectators were killed, along with Levegh, and over 100 more were injured. There had also been a loss of life earlier in 1955 at the Mille Miglia in Italy where the spectators get up close to the roads, including a child who was among the several spectators killed.
In Europe, the Le Mans tragedy led to countries like France, Spain, and Switzerland enacting bans on auto racing (as did Mexico) and the 1955 Grands Prix of France, Spain, Switzerland and Germany were cancelled. In the United States, the American Automobile Association Contest Board ("AAA") withdrew from the international governing body, the FIA, so that for the 1956 Indy 500 Tony Hulman had to organize the United States Auto Club ("USAC") as a sanctioning body to take over from the AAA. Switzerland's ban on racing continues to this day as a vestige of that tragic and violent summer of 1955.
Bill Vukovich went home to Fresno in a casket, and the pallbearers included Fred Gerhardt, Vuky's original sponsor in midget racing, Bill Stroppe, who sponsored the Lincoln team fielded for the 1954 Carerra PanAmericana that Vuky had run, and Dale Drake, whose company built the Offy engine. Vuky's former car owner, Howard Keck, sent a flower arrangement in the shape of the No. 14, in yellow with a red background, the colors of the Fuel Injection Special that had won the Indy 500 in 1953 and 1954.
Interestingly, the experimental streamliner that Howard Keck had commissioned for Vuky, based upon a Quinn Epperly chassis designed to accommodate either a Desoto V8, the fearsome Novi or a new supercharged Offy V8, never saw the light of day at Indianapolis, although the car was completed with a standard Offy engine and still exists, having been restored and painted red with a No. 4 on it, Vuky's number in the fatal 1955 Indy 500. Had the Streamliner been finished on time, who knows: Vuky might still be with us to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of his third Indy 500 victory by taking a ceremonial lap around the Speedway in old No. 4.
Amazingly, the metallic blue Hopkins Special car which crazily toppled end over end that day and looked totally destroyed and burnt out after the fatal accident reportedly still exists. In the very next race at the Speedway, the 1956 Indy 500, the Kurtis KK500C chassis 372, returned to action in the talented hands of Jim Rathmann, who put the aging Kurtis-Offy in the middle of the front row and led the opening laps of the race before burning a piston and retiring on lap 175, being classified in 20th place.
In the 1957 Indy 500, new owner Douglas J. Caruthers entered the ex-Hopkins Special as the Braun Birch Special, but driver Don Edmunds could not qualify it and switched to another car to make the race.
In 1959, the Vukovich Hopkins Special was sold to Tony Parravano and it was entered in the 1959 Indy 500 by Frank Arcerio for driver Shorty Templeman as the Frank Arcerio Special. Parravano had installed a 4.2 litre 450S Maserati V8 in the Kurtis chassis and gave the car a new non-Kurtis looking grille. Templeman could not get the car up to qualifying speed and the infamous Hopkins Special went out somewhat ingloriously at its last appearance at Indy in 1959 as a DNQ.
While the No. 14 Hopkins Fuel Injection Special in its grey, red and golden yellow livery that Vukovich used to win the 1953 and 1954 Indy 500 is part of the collection of famous winning cars in the Hall of Fame Museum on the grounds of the Speedway (car owner Howard Keck stipulated that no one should ever drive it again, and the car has no camshaft to respect that wish), the further modified version of the Kurtis chassis 372 that Vukovich drove to his death is thought to have been found in a car museum in Holland, now painted a garish color of red, wearing No. 24 (the same number Jim Rathmann used in the 1956 Indy 500), and sporting different side pods and other bodywork, but still identifiable as Kurtis chassis 372, and still running the Maserati engine that could not qualify at Indy in 1959, the ultimate survivor.
As for the other survivors of the Vukovich accident, rookies Keller and Boyd both raced again multiple times at Indy, and they both placed 5th as their highest finishes. Keller was killed in a race in Phoenix on November 19, 1961.
Rodger Ward nearly quit racing after Vukovich's fatal accident in 1955, as Ward's spin had been the "but for" cause triggering the concatenation of events towards Vuky's death. Esther Vukovich and other family members were instrumental in changing Ward's mind, telling him that Vuky would not want him to retire. Rodger Ward listened, and would go on to win the Indy 500 twice, like Vuky, in 1959 and 1962. Ward and Boyd both died of natural causes in 2004, so now all the drivers involved in Vuky's last ride are all gone.
The City of Fresno, California erected a Billy Vukovich Memorial to their favorite son and dedicated it on May 30, 1956, a year after Vuky's death. After listing on the Memorial the midget Championships Vuky won along with his Indy 500 wins, the dedication sums up what Bill Vukovich meant to them, and still means to us: "The citizens of Fresno are proud of Billy Vukovich. We are proud of his accomplishments, his courage, his sportsmanship and his will to win. It is particularly fitting that we, the citizens of Fresno, erect and dedicate this memorial in honor of him, who was a true Champion." Requiescat in Pace.
The author wishes to acknowledge his reliance upon Vukovich, a recent biography by Bob Gates, Witness Productions, Marshall, Indiana. 765-597-2487. Included within this fabulous work are excerpts from The Rex Dean Report, www.vukovichaccident.com, which is a painstaking, Zapruder-film like analysis of available movie footage from www.raresportsfilms.com, frame-by-frame, explaining how Vuky's accident could have happened. I have relied on Mr. Gates as to Vuky's early career and on Mr. Dean for how it all ended, and commend both of these works to interested readers.