Vukovich – Part II
When I read Vukovich by Bob Gates, I was expecting to learn quite a bit that I didn’t already know about Bill Vukovich, the driver that dominated the Indianapolis 500 in the early 1950’s. While I didn’t get that, what I did get was quite an in-depth look at his offspring; son Bill Vukovich II and his grandson, Bill Vukovich III.
I was not quite ten years old when I attended the 1968 Indianapolis 500. I was already aware of who Bill Vukovich was, but didn’t pay any mind to a rookie in the field named Bill Vukovich II. The book refers to him as Bill Vukovich, Jr. Perhaps it was because his father was actually born Vaso Vukovich before evolving his name to Bill was the reason he was known as Bill II, but at Indianapolis when I was growing up – he was always known as Bill Vukovich II.
Anyway, Bill II shared some of the traits and instincts of his father, but like most children – he had his own traits, as well. Bill II was painfully introverted like his father. He also had the same work ethic of the elder Vukovich. But he approached racing a little differently than his father did.
Bill Vukovich got into racing as a means to make some money during the depression era. What he and his competitors realized was that he possessed an enormous talent for driving a racecar. He also had a burning desire to win. One constant theme throughout the book is that Bill Vukovich had no fear. That was evident in his driving style and possibly led to his demise in the 1955 Indianapolis 500. Perhaps he could have backed off or taken a path that would have put him out of the race, but saved his life. Instead, he chose an all or nothing path around Rodger Ward’s wreckage.
Bill Vukovich II did not immediately pursue a career in racing. Knowing that racing is what took his father when he was only eleven years old can have that effect. When he finally started driving midgets, his incredible talent became obvious. He had the chance to come to Indianapolis sooner, but he personally felt he wasn’t ready. He finally came in 1968, driving for legendary car owner J.C. Agajanian. He finished seventh and was named Rookie of the Year.
Success didn’t come as easy to Bill II. That can happen to a driver who carries the burden of a famous last name. Ask anyone named Unser, Andretti, Foyt & Mears. What Bill Vukovich II had in talent, may have been hampered by a more rational temperament. I’ve heard Donald Davidson compare Bill Vukovich II to Al Unser – maybe not quite as flashy and didn’t always win, but he would bring the car home in one piece with a high finish.
Bill Vukovich II had a career at Indianapolis that most would be proud of. He drove in twelve Indy 500’s. He was named Rookie of the Year. He had six top ten finishes, including a second-place finish in 1973, followed by finishing third in 1974. A sixth place finish followed in 1975. Most drivers would kill to have a three-year run like that. His last race at Indianapolis was in 1980, when he finished twelfth. Bill Vukovich II had the distinction in that race of driving the last Watson chassis as well as the last Offenhauser in the Indianapolis 500.
Bill II was also an accomplished midget driver. With twenty-three midget wins to his credit, he was inducted into the National Midget Auto Racing Hall of Fame in 1998.
Despite his solid record at Indianapolis, he could never fully escape the huge shadow cast by his father. The comparisons were inevitable. Give him credit, though. He never ducked the issue nor resented the legacy of his famous father. He was disappointed to never win Indianapolis, but had grown to accept it.
The career of Bill II finally wound down in the early 1980’s. This is where the author went down a regrettable path. He chose this time to insert his own feelings as they pertained to the state of racing today. He bemoaned the fact that wealthy men (read: Roger Penske) had gotten involved and taken things to a level where drivers had to bring sponsorship (you see, ride buying is nothing new). Like so many drivers at that time, Bill II had no desire to seek sponsorship. He considered that the role of the car owner. His introverted personality cemented those thoughts, so he graciously faded away. The author got on this soapbox two or three times in the latter stages of the book. I thought it was way too much.
What made it easy for Bill II to step away from racing; was the fact that his son. Bill Vukovich III (Billy) was getting his own racing career going. Billy Vukovich was the complete package. He had inherited his grandfather’s incredible driving talents, along with the burning desire to win – something that some say Bill II was lacking. Unlike his father or grandfather, Billy was an extravert. Although he was very outgoing and friendly, it was apparently genuine. Everyone liked Bill Vukovich. He was truly a good kid.
Bill II was a doting father to Billy. Perhaps it was because he had lost his own father at an early age. When Billy was young, he and his father were constantly racing go-karts in the back yard. Unlike his father, Billy Vukovich knew he wanted to drive racecars from a very early age. He had the personality and tenacity to keep hounding car owners to give him a chance to drive their midgets. He excelled driving midgets and supermodifieds. But he always had an eye on Indianapolis. That was his goal.
Although he had found success in racing and carried a famous name, Billy had a tough time catching the eyes of many car owners in CART. This was another point where the author felt the need to interject his own opinions on the state of racing today.
Billy was finally able to land a part-time ride with Dick Hammond’s Gohr Racing in 1988 with Genesee beer sponsorship. Although he initially struggled in qualifying, he started twenty-third and soldiered the under-funded car home to a fourteenth place finish. Like his father twenty years earlier, Billy was named the 1988 Rookie of the Year. Later that season, he drove the car to a ninth place finish at Pocono.
Car owner Ron Hemelgarn gave Billy a ride for the next two years. Both times, he started on the back row. In 1989, he brought the car all the way from starting thirtieth to a twelfth place finish. In 1990, he started thirty-first. He soldiered the old Lola through the field, but his engine gave out on lap 102 and he settled for finishing twenty-fourth.
Things looked considerably brighter for 1991. Ron Hemelgarn had committed to buying a brand new Lola and using the newly redesigned Buick engine. It was not to be. On November 25, 1990, Billy Vukovich was fatally injured in a practice crash at Mesa Marin Raceway in Bakersfield, CA at the age of 27.
The last section of the book looks at Bill Vukovich II and how he is still dealing with the loss of his son as well as the loss of his father – both to racing. One of the more poignant moments in the book describes a time when Bill Vukovich II takes a ceremonial lap around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
It was May of 2001. Billy had been dead for over ten years. Bill Vukovich had lost his life almost forty-six years earlier. Bill Vukovich II had been asked to drive AJ Foyt’s 1961 winning Bowes Seal Fast Special in a ceremonial lap during a practice day at the track. He was now fifty-seven years old. As he came in and shut down the Offy engine, he sat quietly with his head down. Finally, he slowly rose and climbed out of the car. As he removed his helmet, there were tears running down his cheeks.
He explained to the gathering of reporters that when he saw that spot on the backstretch where his father had lost his life in 1955 – he just lost it. He had driven by that spot lap after lap in his own twelve starts at Indianapolis, but driving a front-engine car similar to what his father had driven that fateful day – it got to him. He waxed on philosophically about racing and what it had meant to the Vukovich family, both good and bad.
It was an excellent ending to a slightly disappointing book. I was glad that it covered the entire Vukovich clan, but what was lacking was an inside look at the life of Bill Vukovich. I already knew that he was a great driver. That was why I got the book. I didn’t need to be told what I already knew. There were interesting anecdotes from Jim Travers and Bill II as well as Marlene – the older sister of Bill II. But I found something lacking in the first two-thirds of the book.
Would I recommend that you buy it? Yes. Just don’t go into it with the lofty expectations that I had.