Vukovich – Part I

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Two of my fellow IndyCar bloggers, Pressdog and Jeff Iannucci, both recently did a multi-part series of articles on their respective sites. After his excellent five-part series about Twitter, Pressdog went so far as to comment that “…five-part series separate the men from the morbidly verbose”. Racing is a copycat business and that goes for race-blogging. I tend to be much more verbose than others. In order to avoid being lumped in to Pressdog’s morbidly verbose category, I’ll follow my normally shallow and weak character, bow to peer pressure and offer up my first two-part series.

It took me a while, but I finally finished reading Vukovich by Bob Gates. I am admittedly a slow reader. The good thing about that is that I generally retain a good understanding of what I read. This book took particularly a long time for me to read because, well – it was a little dry.

Perhaps I set the bar too high. A good friend of mine read it and said that he felt like he personally knew Bill Vukovich by the time he finished it. I didn’t come away with that feeling.

In fact, after the many months it took me to read the book – I can honestly say that I learned very little about the man that I didn’t already know. I don’t claim to be a Bill Vukovich scholar. I pretty much know the basics that most people know. That’s why I read the book – to get a keen insight what Bill Vukovich, the man, was like. Maybe the fact that Bill Vukovich was such an enigma made it difficult for the author to convey anything about his personal life.

What I did learn, was a lot about his son, Bill Vukovich II; as well as the grandson of the two-time winner, Bill Vukovich III. I was in the stands during the 1968 Indianapolis 500 when Bill Vukovich II was named Rookie of the Year, but I was not quite ten years old. I was already aware of the Vukovich name by then, but it didn’t really impress me that much at the time. I never saw young Billy race. He had already met his fate before I returned to Indianapolis in 1992, after a twenty-year absence.

I genuinely admire Bill Vukovich. When I first caught the Indy bug as a kid, he was the first name of the past that I read about. Vuky had already been dead for ten years before I went to my first Indianapolis 500 in 1965. I had already learned a lot about Bill Vukovich before reading this book. Everything that I had heard and read about Vukovich portrayed a quiet, introspective man who grew up in hard times. He personified the meaning of mental and physical toughness and a man who never asked for anything. Instead, he found his way out of tough times through racing. No one is perfect. We all possess human flaws. I was curious to see if this book would delve into those traits that Bill Vukovich surely possessed. The book offered nothing new.

Instead, it was pretty much a factual re-hash of what most already know. What tipped me off that this work might gloss over anything perceived as negative was how the author chose to deal with Vuky’s winning car owner, Howard Keck.

Howard Keck was to racing in the early 1950’s, what Roger Penske is today. He had the finest team and equipment that money could buy. Bill Vukovich had failed to qualify for his first Indianapolis 500 in 1950. He was driving the aging pre-war Maserati that had carried Wilbur Shaw to two Indy victories in 1939 & 1940. He drove well enough, but the old car just wasn’t capable of running fast enough to make the race in 1950. He returned in 1951, in Pete Salemi’s Central Excavating Special – a car that was capable of making the race, but that was about it. He started twentieth, worked his way into the top ten by lap twenty, but fell out on the 29th lap.

After Vukovich showed what he could do in mediocre equipment in 1951, Keck offered him a ride for 1952. After debating whether to run the front-drive car that Mauri Rose had driven in 1951, it was decided to get a new rear-drive car built by Frank Kurtis. The result was one of the most iconic cars to sit in the Speedway museum – the Fuel Injection Special.

Vukovich dominated the 1952 race, leading 150 laps. With a substantial lead on lap 191, an inexpensive piece broke in the steering mechanism and the Fuel Injection Special slowly drifted up into the wall. Vukovich was forced to watch Troy Ruttman drive by his crippled car en route to becoming the youngest winner of the Indianapolis 500 at age 22 – a record that still stands today.

In the searing heat of the 1953 race, Vukovich was one of only five drivers that chose not to take relief. The conditions were bad enough that driver Bill Scarborough collapsed in the pits and subsequently died of heat exhaustion. Vukovich shrugged off the heat in commanding fashion and led 195 of the two hundred laps on the way to his first Indianapolis 500 victory.

Problems in qualifying made it a tougher go in 1954. Forced to qualify on the second weekend, Vukovich started nineteenth and it took him a little longer to carve through the field. Once he did, he stayed and led ninety laps on his way to his second consecutive 500 win.

So what’s my problem with the author and Howard Keck? Vukovich didn’t drive for Keck in 1955. Many say that Keck sat out the 1955 season due to problems with the IRS and some of his business dealings. The author chose to not even mention that scenario. Instead, he offers the fact that he had instructed the team’s chief mechanic, Jim Travers, to design and build a revolutionary streamlined car after the 1953 race. When Travers informed him that the car wouldn’t be ready for 1955, the author says Keck chose to not even race and allowed Vukovich to look elsewhere. The part about the revolutionary streamliner is true. Whether or not that is the only reason Keck didn’t run in 1955 is up for debate. I would have liked to have had that presented in the book though. It makes me wonder what other significant events were sugarcoated.

Most know the story of how Bill Vukovich was in pursuit of his third straight Indianapolis 500 victory when he was fatally injured on lap 57 while leading the 1955 race. What many don’t understand is how dominating he was in the short time he drove. Bill Vukovich started five races at Indianapolis. He led no laps in his first race in 1951, but appeared in the top ten briefly in his rookie outing before mechanical gremlins surfaced. From 1952 through his death in the 1955 race, Bill Vukovich led 485 of the 647 laps he drove at the Speedway. Had a steering problem not crept up in 1952, he would probably have won that race. Most agree that with his chief rival, Jack McGrath, already out of the 1955 race – he probably would have won that one as well.

One thing I did find interesting in the author’s perspective was how he didn’t mince words when it came to laying blame for the accident that killed Bill Vukovich. It is well documented that Rodger Ward put a lot of the blame on himself. He was driving the car that had carried Troy Ruttman to victory three years earlier. It was hardly drivable that day and Ward says he should have had enough common sense to park it. Instead, he lost control and the car ended up flipping several times before landing upright on the backstretch, facing oncoming traffic.

Bill Vukovich and rookies Johnny Boyd and Al Keller were all exiting turn two; with Vukovich poised to lap Keller and Boyd. Boyd and Vukovich both aimed to go to the right of Ward’s stopped car, while Keller went left. Keller veered too sharply to the left, hit his brakes then jerked to the right – pinching Boyd and Vukovich into the outside wooden rail (it wasn’t a wall back then). Vukovich went over the rail. His left rear wheel caught the rail, which sent Vuky’s car into a violent tumble. His car actually hit a spectator’s car as well as a car holding track workers before it came to a rest – upside down and on fire. Bill Vukovich was killed instantly.

What surprised me was how the author sharply criticized Al Keller for the rookie mistake. He made it a point to bring up that the drivers were told in the driver’s meeting to not do such a thing. Having never raced, I can’t say for certain – but I would imagine it’s fairly normal for a rookie to panic when faced with a situation such as that in the Indianapolis 500. Justified or not, I found it odd that the author chose to gloss over some items of controversy, yet didn’t hesitate to vehemently attack someone for a rookie mistake.

The century of the Indianapolis 500 is filled with “should have’s and could have’s”. In the case of Bill Vukovich, 1952 and 1955 are “probably would have’s”.

Had he gone on to escape that fateful crash on lap 57 and win his third in a row, Bill Vukovich would be considered the greatest driver at the Indianapolis 500. Time, and the fact that he won only two and had a short career have forced him to the back of some people’s minds, in favor of regal names like Foyt, Mears & Unser – all great drivers deserving of their attention.

But after only five starts, Bill Vukovich still ranks eighth in total laps led. With thirty-five starts, Foyt has led 555 laps – only seventy more than Vuky did in five. Yes, he had great equipment – but Bill Vukovich had the talent and the will to win in sub-par equipment throughout his successful career as a midget driver. If he is not the greatest driver in the history of the Indianapolis 500, he has to be in the discussion for the top three or four.

George Phillips

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11 Responses to “Vukovich – Part I”

  1. I completely agree with you about Vukovich being one of the best ever. Yes he had good equipment but he was always a hard charger and he led 75% of the laps he completed. Does any other multiple starter have such a high percentage of laps led in the Indy 500?

    Difficult to say he was the best ever, but I would put him as the 2nd best ever at Indy, behind Rick Mears.

    • Mike Silver Says:

      While Mears was a great driver, I wouldn’t consider him the best ever. He tended to be quite conservative until the last part of the races. I woukld put him in the top ten, but not necessarily top 5.

      • The reason i choose him was that Rick never really had a weak showing at the speedway. Except for 1989 he always performed when the car held up. Foyt won 3 races out of luck and Al Unser sr did dominate a few races but he won 87 out of luck to. Rick always won out of hard work and skill.

        Then again im kind of hard pressed to justify anyone else who deserves to have the number one spot.

  2. Mike Silver Says:

    I just finished the book this morning. I agree with you, George, about the lack of depth regarding his personality. Still, I found many things that I never knew before in it. I think it would be a good read for newer fans who think that sports began with the debut of ESPN.
    The Dean report at the end had a lot of good information in it.

  3. I actually had this book on my reading list. Interesting review so far.

  4. I gave Vuky a top-5 ranking. It may in fact be too little, he may have been the best ever to run the Speedway, or maybe top 3.

    The problem is trying to compare a driver from one generation to another. There’s a refining process that happens through the years, in a sense, but it’s impossible to know how my own “top 5″ would shake out against one another in those cases where they never raced each other, or only raced once or twice as one was coming up as a rookie while the other was winding up his career. Stats only go so far to tell the story.

    How to compare Vukovich to Mears, Unser (which one?), Foyt, Rutherford, or who else? Laps led, wins, or performance based on the strength of their competition?

    Parnelli Jones only raced at the Speedway 7 times before retiring from driving Indy cars. He won once. He dominated twice, and “could have” won at least 4 times. I believe that he was among the toughest of all the drivers I’ve ever read about or watched. He raced against many drivers that should end up on the list of the top 33 ever.

    What about the drivers who could have and should have, but never did win at the Speedway? Rex Mays? TK? Michael? Or Mario’s one win when he was always so competitive?

    The stats surrounding Vuky are stunning, and compelling. I gave him top 5, but really think he was among the top 3 that I’m aware of…which is why I had to back it off, because I don’t know about all of ‘em.

  5. George, in your opinion, how did this book compare to Wilbur Shaw’s autobiography? I read that, and thought it was excellent. I’ll probably still try to pick up a copy of this, but I’m curious as to what I’m in for…

  6. james t suel Says:

    I read the book in a few days! I dont believe anyone could go very deep into Vukys personnel life! he did not ever open up about it to anyone. Keller was the cause of the crash being as bad as it was. Wards car broke an axle to start the crash . YOU WERE TOLD IN THOSE DAYS ,IF YOU SPIN INTO THE GRASS STAY THERE. I think vuke was the best ever at the speedway, but thats a endless debate.

  7. I put Vuky in the Top Three because it is argumentative that he was the best ever. I think he was, but AJ is second with a photo finish followed by Mears and Al Unser. There is also an argument that Vuky might have won 4 in a row. George, your article is a good one and I feel that it will inspire those that are not as familiar with Vuky’s career to read further and research the amazing things he did.

    By the way, I would rank Vuky’s Fuel Injection Special as the number one car to ever run at Indianapolis followed by Wilbur Shaw’s beautiful Boyle Special (Maserati) as number two.

  8. I’m guessing at the year, but I think it was ’03, when I was leaving the media center at IMS and a group of men were standing near the bottom of a stairwell having quite a conversation. I realized they were gathered around Rodger Ward, my first 500 hero. At the urging of the others, he was telling many stories of his career in general at at the Speedway in particular. One of the group asked him about the crash that killed Vuky. Ward was clearly disturbed that he had been involved in it, but didn’t blame himself. He said his axle broke as he exited two and there was nothing he could do.

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