Art Pollard: Always Overshadowed

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A note of thanks: I would like to extend a personal “Thank you” to the daughter of Art Pollard, Judy Pollard Dippel, who contributed a great deal to the following post with her insight through her e-mail exchanges with me. To learn more on the life of Art Pollard, please visit the website set up by his family. Thanks, Judy. – GP

My memories of 1973 are not good ones. In fact, I relate only bad things with that year. It was 1973 that I entered the ninth grade. Ninth grade was easily my most awkward and miserable year of school. The Vietnam War was still being waged, Watergate was beginning to heat up and there was an energy crisis that created long lines at the pump and short tempers. Polyester, bell-bottoms and bad sideburns were rampant. All in all, 1973 was a bad year any way you looked at it.

This applied to the 1973 Indianapolis 500, also. For me personally, that was the year that my father, for reasons I’ll never understand, gave up our tickets. 1973 was the first of twenty straight years that I didn’t go to the Indianapolis 500.

Most of us that are old enough to remember that infamous race, remember it as a race that most would like to forget. The Month of May was miserable, and seemed like it would never end. The 1973 Indianapolis 500 is probably best remembered for the horrifying crash that took the life of promising young driver Swede Savage. A member of Savage’s crew was also fatally injured when he was struck in the pits by an ambulance that was headed north in the southbound pits.

And then there was rain – lots of rain, similar to what Daytona saw yesterday. It seemed as if it rained every day during the month. Cars couldn’t practice, they couldn’t qualify and ultimately they couldn’t race. Rain postponed the race after a crash-filled start. Then there was no racing the next day due to more rain. Finally, on the third day, there appeared to be a window to get the race in. Shortly after the Swede Savage crash, the rains came again. After running 133 laps, Gordon Johncock was mercifully declared the winner. By that time, everyone just wanted to move on to Milwaukee. There was no Victory Banquet, there was no celebrating – just a quiet sigh of relief that the dreadful month was finally over with.

Seemingly lost and forgotten in all of the mayhem is the fact that another great driver was lost in the Month of May – veteran driver and crowd favorite Art Pollard.

Artle Lee Pollard, Jr. was born May 5, 1927 in Dragon, UT. Shortly after his birth, his parents relocated to Los Angeles before moving to Roseburg, OR in 1944. He began racing in 1954 and came up racing modifieds in the Northwest, where one season he won twenty-one out of twenty-three starts – losing only two races due to mechanical problems. He was Western States Champion.

At Milwaukee, on August 22, 1965 – Art Pollard made his USAC Champ Car debut, driving a rear-engine Rolla Vollstedt designed car owned by Jim Robbins. It was an unspectacular run. He started twenty-fifth and finished twenty-second after a spin. Still, his professionalism and upbeat demeanor had impressed his peers. Just one month later at Trenton, Pollard started thirteenth and finished fifth. Heads were now properly turned.

In 1966, Pollard made it to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He was the first driver to pass his rookie test and qualified with a four-lap average 157.985 mph. It ended up not being fast enough as Pollard was bumped by Ronnie Duman. However, the very next week at Milwaukee, Pollard redeemed himself by qualifying seventh and finishing fourth.

Again considered an Indianapolis rookie, Art Pollard returned to IMS in 1967 with car owner Fred Gerhardt. This time, Pollard made the race as a first-day qualifier as he placed the No.16 Thermo-King Special in the thirteenth starting spot on the grid. He drove a heads-up race, stayed out of trouble and finished eighth in his first Indianapolis 500.

I would be lying if I said I remembered Art Pollard from his rookie year at Indianapolis. I don’t. Some remember him as the driver who began his career at Indianapolis at age forty – much older than most. However, I knew exactly who he was by 1968. I’ve said before that as a ten year-old kid in 1968, I thought that the day-glo orange wedge-shaped Lotus 56 turbine-powered cars were about the coolest looking things I had ever seen. I still do.

The driver lineup for the Lotus team in April bore little resemblance to the three Lotus drivers that started the race on May 30th. The all-star lineup in April had Jim Clark, Graham Hill, Greg Weld and Mike Spence slated to drive the sleek Lotus 56. Jim Clark was fatally injured at Hockenheim and Mike Spence lost his life in a practice crash in one of the turbines at Indianapolis two weeks later. Jackie Stewart was brought on board to replace Clark, but was eventually ruled out due to a previous wrist injury.

Through several other mishaps that included Art Pollard not being able to get his Thermo-King Special up to speed, the eventual starting drivers for the Lotus team consisted of Joe Leonard on pole, Graham Hill starting second and Art Pollard in the eleventh starting spot. Andy Granatelli had bought out Pollard’s contract from Gerhardt and Gary Bettenhausen took over the Thermo-King Special.

Although he had set fast time in one of the practice days, Art Pollard seemed to be the forgotten man. He was a second-year driver that found his way into a great opportunity. Even though he had finished eighth as a rookie the prior year, he was overshadowed on his team by the pole sitter and a former winner. He had done a solid job in placing his car in the fourth row, but he was “that other guy”. But I knew who he was. He was one of the three that I was pulling for. It didn’t matter which one – I wanted to see one of those beautiful cars in Victory Lane on Race Day. Being a kid – I didn’t understand the controversy. I just loved the looks and the swooshing jet engine sound of the turbines.

Although Leonard and eventual winner Bobby Unser battled for the lead throughout the race, it was not a good day for Andy Granatelli’s Lotus team. Hill crashed on Lap 110. On Lap 191, both Leonard and Pollard quietly dropped out of the race – both with broken fuel shafts, as Bobby Unser went on to win.

For 1969, Pollard remained with Granatelli’s team with Mario Andretti as his teammate. Again, the solid Pollard was overshadowed by the star power of a teammate. Andretti’s troubles at Indianapolis with the new Lotus prior to bringing out the Brawner Hawk are well documented. Pollard had an equally rocky month, yet his problems remain merely a footnote. After qualifying on the fourth row for the second year in a row, Pollard’s race was over after only seven laps with mechanical difficulties, while his teammate ended up in Victory Lane.

The following week at Milwaukee was a different story as Art Pollard won his first USAC Champ Car race. At Langhorne a couple of weeks later, Pollard finished second. He earned his second victory of the season in August at Dover. It seemed after all the time he toiled in relative obscurity, yielding the spotlight to his more famous teammates – Art Pollard’s time had finally arrived.

For 1970, Art Pollard arrived at Indianapolis with his own team driving the No.10 Pollard Car Wash Special. He qualified his King Offy in the sixth starting spot, but a broken piston sidelined him after only twenty-eight laps and he finished thirtieth. Later that season, Pollard finished second at the IMS clone – the Ontario Motor Speedway. His one lap lead and a winning finish slipped away to Jim McElreath by milliseconds, due to a slow leak in his tire the last couple of laps.

In 1971, Pollard drove for Gilmore Racing. He barely made the show at Indianapolis and dropped out after only forty-five laps. Unfortunately, it wound up being his last Indianapolis 500. At the end of the 1971 season, Art Pollard visited the troops in Vietnam along with drivers Richard Petty and Don Garlits. He considered it quite an honor to visit and encourage our armed forces.

For 1972, Art Pollard returned to Andy Granatelli’s team at Indianapolis. He qualified well, but crashed in practice after qualifying and broke his leg. He missed the race as Wally Dallenbach took over his car at the back of the field and finished fifteenth.

Art Pollard had a fast car for Indianapolis in 1973. On May 5th, his forty-sixth birthday – Pollard turned a lap of 192.700, the seventh fastest time of the month so far. His daughter recalls a phone conversation with him that day—“He felt it was his year for the pole, and he was optimistic it might be his year for a win—he was confident that he had the car that could do it.” A few days later, he ran a lap at 193.923 in the No.64 Fletcher/Cobre Firestone Eagle – one of the fastest times of the month.

Pole Day was Saturday May 12. During the morning practice session, Art Pollard slammed into the Turn One wall. His car, engulfed in flames, did a slow roll in the short chute before landing upright. He passed away about an hour later. That afternoon, his close friend Johnny Rutherford qualified on the pole with an average speed of 198.413 – a new track record. After the run, Rutherford dedicated his run to his fallen friend. Two and a half weeks later, Swede Savage lost control of his car in the race and lost his life one month later – leaving the 1973 Indianapolis 500 as one to forget.

While none of us that followed the sport back then have forgotten that dismal race, it seems that the loss of Art Pollard has dimmed in recent memory. Perhaps it was because his accident occurred in practice – not during the race. Most remember that race as one marred by rain, an aborted start and a terrifying crash that eventually took the life of Swede Savage. It saddens me that the life of a very good man who also lost his life that month, is now remembered by so few.

Art Pollard ran in the Indianapolis 500 only five times. I am fortunate to be able to say that I was present for every one. He was never a superstar. He was usually not even the star within his own teams. Yet, he was always a solid driver whose accomplishments always seemed to go unnoticed. Perhaps he began his professional career too late, and for sure it ended too soon.

One thing that should not go unnoticed was his quiet devotion to the Larue Carter Memorial Hospital, a facility devoted to emotionally disturbed children and adolescents. Pollard would stop by there frequently each May to visit with the kids – always alone, never with a camera crew for a photo-op. Today the playground there is named after Art. The hospital administrator told Art’s daughter that he had a connection with the kids there that was easy, calming and totally natural. He spent time talking with them, and pick-up games on the basketball court, and he began taking a group of kids to the track; it evolved into a picnic day during the busy month of May—as well, kids were given the thrill of a drive around the historic oval. Other driver’s jumped on board and it soon became an annual event.

For years after his death, his fellow drivers continued Art Pollard “Day in May” for the kids at Larue Carter Hospital. It is remembered as a testament to the kind of person he was—he left a human legacy, even if he didn’t quite reach the heights of the racing legacy he had dreamt of.

I am aware that many do not care for Robin Miller. Like him or not, there is no denying that he knows racing and has an eye for talent. Robin Miller has been around this sport for a very long time and has seen his share of fatalities over the years. He was a close friend of Art’s (poker games and all), and he says that his saddest day in racing was the day that Art Pollard died. To me, that speaks volumes. The eulogy written by Robin Miller is the one that Art’s family feels is right-on about who he was as a person and driver, and according to them, one of the most meaningful pieces written about Art.

His stats on the professional circuit are not eye-popping, but he had the respect of his fellow drivers – sometimes even called the "driver’s driver" and was a fan favorite. If I had to compare him to any of today’s current drivers, it would be either Justin Wilson or Vitor Meira – talented drivers who rarely seemed to be in the right place at the right time. Like those two current drivers, Art Pollard always took extra time with the fans. I have read and heard nothing but countless tales where Art Pollard would go out of his way to carry on long conversations with fans and never seemed too impressed with his celebrity status. Quite simply put – Art Pollard was a gentleman. It is sad that he is still overshadowed.

George Phillips

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14 Responses to “Art Pollard: Always Overshadowed”

  1. I was at OMS for the first California 500. I wasn’t aware of the wins he had, but saw him drive towards a win that was denied as you mentioned.
    I remember the warm smile Pollard had in the photos of him in the programs from OMS…and the “other” vote was because I remember the events from ’73 at the Speedway, and how saddened I was that he’d been killed that day.
    The rest of the month followed the same path, between the start (Salt Walther…and the fans) and then Swede Savage (one of my new racing heroes)…plus Armando Teran (the crew member on the #40 car). What a dismal year.
    I’m glad you posted this piece about him. It’s good to remember drivers who were just as much a part of the sport then as those who got all the notoriety. There are others, and I look forward to your writings about them in the future. Maybe Swede Savage, maybe Jim Malloy? Mike Mosely…

  2. Wonderful column, George. You really did a nice job here.

  3. Reading about Pollard took me back. I don’t think anyone who wasn’t around in the 50’s and 60’s can imagine what celebrities and heros these drivers were and what a huge nation-wide and even world-wide event the 500 was. As children, we knew the names of the top drivers as well as we did the starting line-up of the Yankees. The 500 was a thrilling, frightening combination of the Roman Coliseum and the Space Program. A strange mixture of beer-fueled celebration always somewhat tempered by the forboding feeling of what you hoped would never happen again.

  4. Leigh O'Gorman Says:

    Wonderful piece George. Spot on perfect.

  5. Simon Garfunkel Says:

    I can remember those three turbines as a teenager. That was also the first time I had heard the name Art Pollard. The years after the turbine drive, I always connected him with that car. I was devastated when I heard he had been killed in 1973. Thank you so much for this piece, George. The work you did with Art’s daughter brought a forgotten driver back to the forefront. Great stuff as always!!!

  6. Mike (15daysinmay) Says:

    Great writing, George. BTW, you were great on Trackside last week!

  7. George, I really enjoy your taking us to the past to admire the legends of the sport. Great article.

    I remember Art Pollard as a fan favorite and my favorite memory is of his run with Andy Granatelli. Upon hearing the bad news that May day in ’73, I told a co-worker at Spinola’s Union 76 service station what had happened. It gave him the blues that day, too. Back then we didn’t have the internet or cable television with 24 hour sports news. I went through the day a bit lonely and by myself. This is a sport that can deliver some horrible tragedy and I knew that as a youngster. This last one with Dan Wheldon, I think, has hit me harder than any of them. With that, I do enjoy this racing athletes and appreciate their devotion to the sport. As for Art, one aspect of his many that I admire was getting in to the Indianapolis 500 at 40. He showed that there is plenty of life in us more mature folks.

  8. I remember that day when Art Pollard died. Reading this account made me tear up. Thanks for the memories, George.

  9. Love the retro piece! How important they are to remind us where we’ve (Indycar fans and sport) been and the important bits of the past.

  10. As always, very nice work George.

  11. james t suel Says:

    Thanks George very nice piece. Art Pollard was whae i called a journeyman driver. He was a good wheel man, i was ther that sat morning it was truly a shame .I also though he was primed far he best run at INDY.

  12. Thank you, George, for a profile that I believe Dad would appreciate. Though it is always bittersweet to look over the facts of 1973 at Indy, the flip-side is that Dad is remembered. Thanks to those of you who have commented, as well. I’m still a racing snob, I guess. I never thought Nascar would gain popularity over open-wheel championship racing in the U.S. As we all know, nothing stays the same. Keep up the good work! -Judy Pollard Dippel

  13. Paul Bjore Says:

    I remember Art mostly for the time he spent in the Northwest in the sprint car days, running the 1/2 mile at the Portland Speedway, in Portland, OR. As a youngster I got to meet him after one of the races. Pat Vidan was a family friend and took me on the track to meet him. Pat was the starter at that time, and later flagged the Indy 500. Followed Art’s career through the end. That year of his fatal crash was the first time I ever turned off the broadcast of the Indy 500. Couldn’t get myself to listen that year. . .

  14. Jerry Hoskins Says:

    I watched Art at Eugene Speedway when I was growing up, and Art was my favorite driver. He had cool cars, and one year he showed up with a car that looked like an Indy roadster, small block Chevy and it seems like it had either 6 twos or eight twos on it. It was the neatest thing around. Its too bad he started at Indy so late, he probably would have been one of the best consistently.

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