18. Vukovich Outclasses Rivals

Cars rather than drivers dominated the headlines in the spring of 1952 as the racing fraternity again converged on the famous brick and asphalt Speedway. The first of the Kurtis "roadsters" with tilted engine and offset drive shaft, an experimental Cummins Diesel Special, a twelve-cylinder Ferrari from Italy, fuel injection and radical changes in methods of torsion bar suspension shared the spotlight.

Alberto Ascari, one of Europe's most prominent drivers, found the groove quickly and worked tirelessly with his Italian crew to solve the problems caused by the Ferrari's lack of torque. Although the engine of his car couldn't quite equal the acceleration provided at the head of the straightaways by the four-cylinder Meyer-Drake power plants, Ascari earned a starting position with a performance only a fraction of a mile an hour under the average speed posted by his American rivals as a group.

Tire wear caused considerable concern in the diesel camp because of the car's tremendous weight. Powered by a supercharged Cummins truck engine, mounted in a horizontal position, it weighed approximately 1,000 pounds more than any other entry.

With Don Cummins directing the operation personally, Fred Agabashian drove it on countless laps in search of the most effective method of weight distribution. At no time during the practice period, however, did he drive it at maximum speed for as much as one complete trip around the course.

The railbirds would reach for their stop watches as he charged down the main straightaway and swung into the south turn, but invariably he would ease his pressure on the throttle on the backstretch. He'd be cruising as he finished the lap, and his time would not be impressive. Then he would reverse the procedure, thundering into the north turn and easing off on the main stretch so that accurate clocking was impossible.

His performance on the first day of time trials, consequently, amazed the entire racing fraternity. Andy Linden already had established a new four-lap qualifying record of 137.002 miles an hour when the diesel was rolled to the line. Agabashian adjusted his helmet and goggles, nodding to his crew as a signal to apply the portable starting device. The engine responded instantly and the powerful, streamlined, red-and-yellow missile was on its way. Agabashian finally was ready to put together his fastest half laps of the practice period.

His first lap was a new record of 139.104. The next two trips around the course were almost as quick. Then, with the heavy car tearing chunks of rubber from the tread of the right rear tire on the No. 4 turn of his final lap, he completed the run with a four-lap average of 138.010 to win the pole position.

Jubilant crew members, suddenly released from the bonds of tension and worry after weeks of toil, lifted Agabashian to their shoulders and went into a roaring celebration of several minutes' duration.

Twenty-four hours later, Bill Vukovich placed the first of his many indelible marks on the pages of Speedway history with a display of nonchalance which probably remains unequaled in any field of sports. Driving a new Fuel Injection Special, he raised the one-lap and four-lap records to 139.427 and 138.212. He accepted his crew's congratulations brusquely, posed for the official photo required of all qualifiers, and slipped away as the huge throng of admirers closed in on the car to shake his hand.

Sports writers, in search of appropriate quotes for their stories, pushed open the closed doors of Vukie's garage a few minutes later and found him alone, sitting on the edge of a workbench.

"Why aren't you out there helping the crew celebrate?" they asked.

"Why in the hell should I?" he replied. "All those guys want to do is pound me on the back, or shake my hand or ask me for an autograph. To hell with 'em."

Vukie's rivals may not have realized it then, but they had been watching the one man they would have to beat to win the 1952 Indianapolis race—or any subsequent "500" in which he participated. And Chet Miller's higher records46 set in a Novi a few days later didn't alter the situation.

If the Speedway ever held any awe for Vukie, it existed no longer. In his own mind he had become its master, and he frequently needled rival drivers who seemed wary of the hazards of high-speed competition on the two-and-a-half-mile course.

"All you have to do to win," he told them, "is keep your foot on the throttle and turn left."

As a general rule, however, he was the most uncommunicative individual to be found on the spacious Speedway grounds. He shunned crowds—and any assembly of two or more persons was a crowd in Vukie's opinion. He'd walk several hundred steps out of his way to avoid being interviewed by press or radio. Autograph seekers would send him into hiding for hours. It was only on rare occasions that he forced himself to face the challenge of meeting strangers.

In a race car, however, he was entirely different, eager to take on all comers and prove his superiority. There is no reason to believe he disregarded the financial rewards that went with victory at Indianapolis. But prize money seemed to be of secondary importance to the personal satisfaction of proving his superiority on the track. In 1952, he had for the first time the equipment to attain that goal, and he probably would have raced for peanuts rather than pass up such an opportunity.

His car was the newest Kurtis creation, owned by wealthy California sportsman Howard Keck. His mechanics were two of the best in the business, Jim Travers and Frank Coon. They had done their job well. Because of his failure to qualify on the first day of time trials, he was in No. 8 starting position. But he knew his car was ready.

When Seth Klein waved the green flag, Vukie charged toward the head of the pack with the same here-I-come, get-the-hell-out-of-my-way tactics which had characterized his many victories on midget tracks. He advanced into the sixth spot before the end of the first lap, took fourth place on the second, passed Jim Rathmann on the third and moved into the runner-up position behind Jack McGrath on his next trip around the course. With Troy Ruttman right on his tail, he charged into the lead three minutes later at a record-breaking pace of 133 miles an hour.

Ruttman challenged on the twelfth lap and succeeded in getting the nose of his car ahead of Vukie's on the main straightaway. But Bill sucked him under in convincing fashion and increased his advantage by almost 100 feet on each lap to gain a lead of more than a mile before the first of his two scheduled pit stops. By twice delaying his own stops until Vukie had paused for fuel and tires, Ruttman managed to earn several of the $100 lap prize awards.

After both had made their second stops, however, Vukie was a mile and a half ahead of Ruttman and a full lap or more ahead of all other rivals with only 125 miles to go.

The diesel was on the sidelines with a dirt-clogged supercharger.

A wheel had collapsed on the Ferrari.

Linden was out of the running with a broken oil line.

Both Novis—with Miller and Nalon driving—also had developed mechanical trouble, and McGrath was far back because of a long stop to repair his broken throttle linkage.

An easy victory for Vukie appeared inevitable.

But 10 laps later he began to experience steering trouble. He found it difficult to keep the car in the groove on the corners, and soon it became apparent he was wrestling the car through the turns with brute strength.

Ruttman, informed of this development by his own pit crew, drove with new determination. Vukie gave up ground grudgingly, no more than a few feet each lap. Courageous, strong, and apparently tireless, he still led by more than a half-mile with only 10 laps to go.

The cracked pivot pin on Vukie's steering assembly, which had been causing his trouble, finally broke as he rolled through the north turn on his 191st lap. His car scraped to a stop against the wall and he climbed from the cockpit, cursing his bad luck. Ruttman roared by en route to the checkered flag.

Back in the garage area, behind locked doors with members of his crew, Vukie expressed his thoughts in a single sentence: "That Ruttman never won an easier one, but you can be damn sure I won't let it happen again next year."

Seldom has one fulfilled a more difficult promise so convincingly. Vukie's 1953 victory re-emphasized the fact that in automobile racing determination and endurance are as important as engineering progress.

He improved on his qualifying performance of the previous year to win the pole position and took command the instant he crossed the starting line. He relinquished the lead only long enough to make his first pit stop.

While many of his rivals were making their own pit stops simultaneously, patting the top of their helmets to indicate they wanted relief because of the terrific heat, he emptied two paper cups of cold water on the back of his neck and roared back into the thick of traffic. At the halfway mark he was four miles ahead of his nearest challenger.

Carl Scarborough died of heat exhaustion that day. Relief drivers were used in 10 of the 23 cars which completed at least half of the race. But Vukie rolled onward to victory, lapping the other contestants as a flood engulfs everything in its path.

Art Cross, winner of second place, still was eight miles away from the finish line when the checkered flag dipped over the nose of Vukie's car. The winner's share of almost a quarter of a million dollars in prize money amounted to $89,496.

In 1954 Vukie did it again—the hard way. He had kept himself in top physical condition during the winter months. But his car was beginning to show its age. (Even the strongest metals eventually become "tired," and automotive engineers will testify the stresses and strains of a 500-mile race at Indianapolis are greater than those developed in 50,000 miles of highway travel.) A series of mechanical ailments prevented the car from participating in the first weekend of time trials. When it finally was ready, a week later, the first six rows in the starting line-up already were filled, and Vukie's average of 138.478 was good only for the 19th starting position. His crew, however, again had done a magnificent job, and any doubt he may have had concerning the car's ability to go the full distance no longer existed.

As he walked toward the Pagoda to attend the driver's meeting on the day before the race, he encountered a group of rivals discussing the weather forecast.

"What are you guys up to?" he asked. "Trying to figure out who's going to finish second tomorrow?"

During the first 25 miles of the race he passed them as he found them, singly or in groups of two or three, surging into seventh place in less than 10 minutes.

But from that point on, Vukie had his work cut out for him. Jack McGrath, with a clear track at the head of the pack, was lapping the course at 139 miles an hour—faster even than Vukie had qualified. Jimmy Bryan, Troy Ruttman, Johnny Thomson, Jimmy Daywalt, and Sam Hanks also were running as if the devil were at their heels.

As Vukie closed in on them he suddenly was handed one of the greatest surprises of his entire racing career. Art Cross blew him off as if he were a rookie. At such sustained speed, the eight leaders ground the rubber off their tires at an almost unbelievable rate. Four of them stopped for new ones before completing 110 miles. Ruttman spun on the north turn.

Vukie, delaying his own pit stop until the last moment, moved up to third place at 150 miles and, charging around Gross and Daywalt on the next lap, took the lead.

His own pit stop dropped him back to the No. 5 spot. But 31 laps later he moved to the fore again at McGrath's expense. At 300 miles he had an advantage of a full lap or more on every rival except Bryan and Cross.

Additional pit stops soon caused another reshuffling of positions; and when Vukie changed tires this time, he also took on sufficient fuel to complete the race. He grabbed first place from Bryan at the 375-mile mark and finished in front by more than a full lap.

Many favorites—men and machines, alike—were missing from the Speedway's ever-changing scene on race day of 1955.

Wilbur Shaw was dead, killed in an aircraft accident the previous fall.

Tom Milton was on hand as a spectator, having relinquished his duties as chief steward to Harry McQuinn, another former race driver. Harlan Fengler and Paul Johnson were Harry's chief lieutenants.

The last of the front-drive Novis remained on the side lines, too slow to earn a starting position, and Howard Keck had withdrawn from racing because he believed the publicity was not in harmony with his business interests. But Lindsey Hopkins had kept Keck's winning team intact and provided it with a new car for Vukie's attempt to become the first driver in history to score three consecutive 500-mile victories.

Unperturbed by frequent references to the Speedway jinx which had prevented Shaw and Mauri Rose from accomplishing three-in-a-row, Vukie waited grimly for Tony Hulman to give the traditional command: "Gentlemen, start your engines."

After winning in 1939 and 1940, Shaw had suffered a collapsed wheel and hit the wall while leading in 1941; and a broken magneto strap had ended Rose's bid for a third straight victory in 1949.

The one rival Vukie respected above all others was Jack McGrath, who had set a new qualifying record of 142.580 miles an hour in the Jack Hinkle Special, and he was determined to force an early showdown.

Although McGrath, as expected, led the way into the first turn, Vukie took the lead as the field circled the course for the third time. McGrath answered the challenge by roaring back into first place on the 15th lap, and Vukie charged to the fore again on lap No. 16. With all of the skill at his command, McGrath once more shot the nose of his Hinkle Special out in front on the 25th lap, and he kept it there for the next lap as well.

For the third time in 30 minutes, Vukie thundered to the front with the fastest lap ever run in traffic at the Speedway up to that moment, 141.354 miles an hour. And he began to widen the gap. At 125 miles he was 17 seconds ahead and still charging toward his date with destiny.

As Vukie swung through the No. 2 turn and onto the backstretch, he prepared to pass three tailenders who already had been lapped. They were Rodger Ward, Al Keller, and Johnny Boyd.

But Ward's car went out of control with a broken axle.

Keller swerved to the left instinctively, and found himself headed straight for a concrete abutment which supported the golfers' footbridge above the racing strip. In a desperate effort to avoid disaster, he cut his wheels to the right, sideswiped Boyd's car, and knocked it directly into Vukie's path as the 1953—54 winner headed for a six-foot opening between Ward's overturned car and the outer wall.

The left front wheel of Vukie's car went up and over the right rear wheel of Boyd's car. Boyd's car did a barrel roll. Vukie's, airborne, cleared the barrier without touching it, did a complete roll in the air, and hit the ground nose first. On the first bounce it reached a height of 15 feet, spinning end over end. Then it bounced sickeningly a second time and crashed in flames, upside down, with Vukie—already dead of a skull fracture—pinned in the cockpit.

For the second time in Speedway history, a former winner had lost his life47 on the track where he had gained his greatest fame.

It was 27 minutes and 10 seconds before track conditions permitted the field to resume racing speed. McGrath was on the side lines with magneto failure. Most of the other drivers had made their first pit stops while the yellow light was on. The revised standings showed Jimmy Bryan leading at 200 miles, with Bob Sweikert only three seconds behind in the John Zink Special. Ten minutes later Bryan also was out of the running because of magneto trouble, and Sweikert held a commanding advantage of almost a lap over his nearest challengers.

Art Cross and Don Freeland both enjoyed the thrill of setting the pace for a few laps while Sweikert was making his second pit stop, but it wasn't long until they too needed fuel and tires. Sweikert moved back in front at the 400-mile mark and won by more than two laps, with Tony Bettenhausen in the runner-up spot.

Two months later, on August 3, 1955, without warning, the American Automobile Association abolished its Contest Board. The racing fraternity found itself without a governing body.

Add a Comment