Jim Hurtubise: More Than A Showman
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.