Jim Hurtubise: More Than A Showman

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Predictably, there were many news items last week once we got into the New Year. Most notably was the appointment of Beaux Barfield as the new Race Director for INDYCAR. So why am I writing about a driver who made his debut more than fifty years ago? Well, first of all – I think everything that could possible be written about Beaux Barfield replacing Brian Barnhart has already been written. Like everyone else, I just hope Barfield tries to remain anonymous throughout the season. Secondly, it’s my site and I can write about whatever I choose – and the history of IndyCar, no matter what the name of the sanctioning body, has always been a passion of mine.

The sport of Indy car racing has always had more than its share of colorful characters. One of the most famous characters when I was growing up and following this sport as a child; was Jim Hurtubise. Those that even know the name of Jim Hurtubise, think of him as some clown in the late seventies that was always giving a half-hearted effort to qualify a front-engine roadster for the Indianapolis 500. But there is so much more to the career of Jim Hurtubise. He was a true racer in every sense of the word.

He had had success in USAC since its founding in 1956, driving (and winning) with anything with four wheels. But it was 1960 when he turned the racing world on its ear at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The first day of qualifying established the front-row for the Indianapolis 500 – a formidable threesome of Rodger Ward, Jim Rathmann and pole-sitter Eddie Sachs, who claimed the first starting spot with a track-record speed of 146.592 mph.

Sach’s glory lasted only a week and a day, when a twenty-seven year old rookie on the last day of qualifying bested Sach’s time by almost 2.5 mph when he set a scorching four-lap qualifying average of 149.056, with a fastest lap of 149.601. “Herk” flirted with the magical 150 mph barrier, but couldn’t break through it. Still, he had caught the eye of everyone at 16th and Georgetown as he “dirt-tracked” his Travelon Trailer Special through sixteen turns. Although he had set record times, the highest he could start the race would be in twenty-third. Although the record books show an unremarkable finish of eighteenth – Hurtubise was running as high as fifth before an oil leak sidelined him on Lap 185. His performance was good enough to earn Rookie of the Year.

Herk’s performance in 1960 was no fluke. For 1961, in the Golden Anniversary edition of the race, Hurtubise put his Quin Epperly-built roadster on the front-row and took the lead on the first lap. He led the first thirty-five laps and was in contention until a burned piston ended his day on Lap 103, forcing him to settle for a twenty-second place finish.

Although it looked as if Herk’s qualifying magic ended in 1962, when he started twenty-ninth – he actually earned what would turn out to be his highest Indianapolis 500 finish, when he came home in thirteenth place and completing the two-hundred lap distance for the first time.

Hurtubise was already a fan favorite. For 1963, he would be piloting the loud and powerful Novi, which was making its first start since 1958 and was another fan favorite. Herk placed the Novi in the middle of the front row, alongside his good friend and pole-sitter Parnelli Jones, who had finally broken the 150 mph barrier the year before. Jones took the lead at the green flag as the Novi predictably lagged at the start. But by the time the field reached the backstretch, the supercharger had kicked in and Herk was back up to second. By the time the field completed Lap 1, Hurtubise and the Novi were both in the lead. Jones and Hurtubise exchanged the lead for a while, but again –Hurtubise suffered an oil leak and was out of the race by Lap 102, again settling for a twenty-second place finish.

As usual, the box score for the 1964 race does not reflect the excellent run that Jim Hurtubise had. He qualified for a solid eleventh place start. And was running third behind AJ Foyt and Rodger Ward for most of the middle part of the race, when the oil leak gremlins bit him again on Lap 141 and he had to be content with a fourteenth place finish in the fire-plagued race that took the lives of Dave MacDonald and Eddie Sachs at the completion of Lap 2.

One week later, Hurtubise himself would be the victim of fire. While again running third behind Ward and Foyt during the Rex Mays Classic at Milwaukee; Ward and Foyt both checked up with their brakes. Hurtubise became airborne as he launched over Foyt’s car and hit the wall on the main straightaway of The Milwaukee Mile. His car was engulfed in invisible methanol flames and Hurtubise was gravely injured. He spent months recuperating in a San Antonio burn hospital. At first, it appeared his life was over. Then it was certain that his driving career was over. But he healed quickly. His hands were mangled and the doctors told him that his hands could only be repaired in a way where his fingers would be set in a permanent position. How did he want them placed? Curled, so that he could grip a steering wheel.

By the time I attended my first Indianapolis 500 in 1965, Hurtubise had mended to the point that he was in the race – back in the Novi. Unfortunately, his race was short-lived. Starting back in the twenty-third spot, his transmission broke on Lap 1. His day was over before it started.

For 1966, Hurtubise qualified a rear-engine Gerhardt/Offy with less than spectacular results. He qualified twenty-second and lasted only twenty-nine laps. Only because eleven cars were eliminated on a first-lap crash, Hurtubise was credited with finishing seventeenth.

Qualifying for the 1967 race was very memorable for me. I had not yet had my tenth birthday, but I remember it like it happened yesterday. It was a year of extremes. On one hand, there was the radical turbine-powered car of Andy Granatelli driven by Parnelli Jones. There was also a track record set by pole-sitter Mario Andretti. On the other end of the spectrum, there was Jim Hurtubise trying to qualify a lightweight roadster – the Mallard – that he and his brother had built. It didn’t make the show. For the first time ever, there were no front-engine roadsters in the starting field for the Indianapolis 500.

Stubborn to a fault, Herk returned in 1968 with the Mallard. He seriously thought he had a shot for the front row. Instead, he barely made the field. He qualified thirtieth. After nine laps, a burned piston ended his race and the roadster era. To this day, a front-engine car has never made another appearance in the Indianapolis 500.

Most drivers adjusted over time. It was obvious in the early sixties that the rear-engine car had far-superior advantages over the cumbersome roadsters. Drivers like AJ Foyt, Parnelli Jones and Lloyd Ruby didn’t necessarily care for the rear-engine craze, but as with most things – you adapt or get left behind. Hurtubise dug in. His cause became the front-engine car at Indianapolis. He actually became bitter over the demise of the roadster. When Al Unser broke his leg from a motorcycle accident during the first week of qualifying in 1969, car-owner Parnelli Jones actually offered the ride to his close friend Hurtubise. Herk told Parnelli in no uncertain terms what he could do with that rear-engine car. The ride ultimately went to Bud Tinglestad. Jones and Hurtubise were never as good of friends again.

Hurtubise made serious attempts to qualify the Mallard up until 1972, when he drove a rear-engine Coyote. He missed the race in 1973 while driving a Lola. His last appearance in the race was in 1974, driving a McLaren – starting twenty-eighth and finishing twenty-fifth.

It was at that point that Hurtubise allowed himself to become somewhat of a sideshow. His attempts to qualify the Mallard year after year became more comedy theater than actual efforts. There were episodes that everyone feels the need to ask Donald Davidson about every May that have tarnished his legacy. His last attempt to make the field was in 1981.

Unfortunately, those that remember Hurtubise today think of him as the eccentric driver who was intent on squeezing a roadster into the field, the comedian who showed up in the qualifying line with his sponsors beer and ice under the engine cowling or the malcontent that held up qualifying by running onto the track during Bob Harkey’s qualifying run. No one seems to remember that Jim Hurtubise was a serious racer and a hard charger that knew the fast way around the track.

If you were to ask Robin Miller who his racing idols are, Jim Hurtubise would be at or near the top. Say what you will about Robin Miller, but he knows a true racer when he sees one. To me, Robin Miller’s endorsement of Jim Hurtubise speaks volumes.

Jim Hurtubise suffered a fatal heart attack on January 6, 1989. He was only fifty-six (his car number) at the time of his death. Even as I was growing up, I thought of him as the guy that was always driving the roadster. It was not until my brothers informed me about his earlier driving career that I took him seriously. I find it sad that just twenty-three years after his death; he is nothing more than a comedic side note to most racing fans today. History should be kinder to him than that.

George Phillips

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14 Responses to “Jim Hurtubise: More Than A Showman”

  1. What a great article today, George! A fine tribute to an Indy and open wheel legend that all to often gets pigeonholed when we discuss him.

  2. While I was growing up in Indianapolis, Hurtubise was very prominent in conversations that my parents and older brothers as well as their friends were having throughout qualifying. As for Jim’s offering up some ice cold beer to everyone from under his engine cowling, I can’t think of a better way for him to hang it up. George, today’s article is so good that I think it should be re-used by the folks at IMS on the coming year’s program.

    By the way, a shout out to Robin Miller who is recuperating from an appendectomy.

  3. Another fine piece George. I remember very well seeing the Mallard on track in the early eighties because it looked so different from all the machines of that time.

  4. james t suel Says:

    That was a great piece George! I was lucky as a 10 year old to see
    HERK AT INDY an many sprint car races. HERK WAS AS GOOD AS THEY COME. ITS A SHAME FEW KNOW WHAT A GREAT RACER HE WAS. A ROBIN MILLER ENDORSEMENT IS GOOD THING, HE KNOWS A RACER WHEN HE SEES ONE!!

  5. I remember first hearing his name when we’d listen to Indy on the radio. when I was a kid.
    I had idolized P.J. because of my Dad’s involvement with his racing (Bill Stroppe and the Holman/Moody stock car) when I was an eight year old kid. When I found the bio-book “Parnelli” (by Bill Libby) I snatched it right up and devoured it several times. That was when I became more familiar with Herk’s (and many others’) prominent status in Indy cars in the early and mid 60s.

    If memory serves me correctly (I could go back and look), Herk qualified the Mallard for the Inaugural California 500 at Ontario Motor Speedway (the second Indy Car race I attended in person) in September 1970. I started working on Indy cars in 1977, and he was garaged next to us (I was on Gurney’s team, Pancho Carter’s Jorgensen Eagle – interesting you mentioned Quinn Epperly, his son John was on that same AAR team).

    Though I wasn’t on pit lane when it happened, I was saddened to hear the talk about what had happened with Herk regarding the qualifying debacle in ’78. I suppose I understand it from the USAC point of view (the car hadn’t practiced fast enough to “justify” a qualifying attempt, and it kinda drove Jim over-the-edge that they wouldn’t let him run), but found it a bit heartbreaking that his career was winding out the way it was. I remembered him from the book, from the memories on radio…from being my childhood hero’s very good friend. It was pretty tragic to see it go that way for him.
    From my point of view, you can write about these legendary drivers anytime. It isn’t just filler to me. This is good stuff. Young fans would do well to read them and gain an appreciation of the sport’s history. Good piece, George.

  6. [...] Jim Hurtubise: More Than A Showman [Oilpressure]Thanks to George for writing this, because really Jim Hurtubise ought to be known for being more than another one of Robin Miller’s old-school “racers who make today’s drivers look like total puss-wads.” [...]

  7. Perry J. Grouns Says:

    I was in attendance at the 1965 indy ‘500, I watched ‘herk asd he took the lead on the first lap, that ‘novi was screaming as he came down the main straight-a-way, it had a certain sound like none other and literally made the hair on the back of my neck stand up, as the fan’s stood cheering for ‘herk ‘,herk….., he most certainly deserved to win that race, but of course he never did,..He should alway’s be remembered as one of the greatest open wheel recer’s who ever lived!

  8. Herman Flowers Says:

    I saw Jim race in the mid 60s after he was burned driving a modified at the Monroe County Fairgrounds, a 1/2 mile dirt track.He was the show,driving way past the point where the other drivers lifted,then hard back on it sideways through the turns, way on the outside passing everything.I also watched him time trial at Syracuse in a Silver Crown car.He flipped it in the third turn.As he was towed back to the pits just about every driver that was in line waiting to go out pointed to the seat of their car offering their ride to Jim.I have never seen anything like that in racing.

  9. Mr. Hurtubise as I knew him, was one of my lifes hero’s and mentors as a young boy growing up. Living just down the street, I would visit him while he worked on his cars. He never told me to leave, as I’m sure today I was pain in his back side with my never ending questions. I remember him test driving his cars down Shawnee Rd.! His crazy stunts in his airplane! I remember Mrs. Hurturbise dropping their children off for my parents to look after as she raced to the airport to meet him at the hospital after his chashes. I remember a man who loved his family, his friends and his passion for racing. Mr. Hurtubise was a man filled with determination, hard drivin and a man who new no strangers. Thank you Mr. Hurtubise for your Influence on my life!

  10. I was 19 in 1960 and seated in the fromt row of the southwest turn the second weekend of qualifficstions. I’ll never forget his record qualifying run. The car ‘s run looked different than all the others. He looked like he was floating through the turns. The crowd went insane as his speeds were announced. A hundred housand plus screaming…you could hear this huge roar. His #56 Sterling Plumbing special sprint car seemed unbeatable on dirt — at least at the ‘action track’ (Terre Haute). He won a twin fifty at LANGEHORNE AROUND 1960 AND SOME CHAMP CAR RACES IN THE SIXTIES.In 1961 he lead at Indianapolis in the Demler car for the first 31 laps. Drove the latter Novi’s in 63 & 65, Until the mid- 60’s he was stud city Give him serious respect — ridicule is out of the question! I attended twenty Indianapolis 500’s and numerous champ and
    sprint races back in the day and loved every second.

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