“Along For The Ride”
When the 2005 Indianapolis 500 is mentioned, I immediately think of Dan Wheldon. Many people will say, however, that the first thought that comes to their mind is Danica Patrick leading a handful of laps near the end of the race. Wheldon’s lone Indianapolis 500 victory was completely overshadowed by the initial wave of Danicamania that took the country by storm.
Exactly fifty years earlier, there was a similar – but, much more tragic situation. Veteran Bob Sweikert won the 1955 Indianapolis 500, yet most people rarely associate Sweikert with that race. Instead, the 1955 race is known mostly as the race in which Bill Vukovich lost his life.
I’ll admit that I fell into that category that only thought of Vukovich whenever the 1955 race was mentioned. If asked, I could have told you that Bob Sweikert won the race. I could have even told you that he won it while driving the “Pink Zink” – the pink John Zink Special – and that his chief mechanic was A.J. Watson. Other than that, I would have been hard pressed to tell you anything about Bob Sweikert.
While listening to one of my many podcasts of The Talk Of Gasoline Alley, I heard Donald Davidson go into great detail about a fabulous book. He said that someone had told him that Dorie Sweikert, the widow of the 1955 winner, was writing a book and she wanted him to read some of what she had written. Donald says that he is approached, quite often, by people writing books; most of which will never, or should never be published. Expecting the worst, Donald reluctantly agreed to read it.
What he read shocked him. It was a beautifully written account of her life with Sweikert. It was not an “as told to” version. Instead she had penned every word herself. She had never written a book before, but you could never tell it. Donald went on to say that he couldn’t put it down. It was only twenty-something pages that had been given to him. He wanted more.
The book was published in 1995. It is now out of print and is a hard book to come by. There are copies available through Amazon, but they aren’t cheap. It was given to me as a Christmas gift. As soon as I finished reading Vukovich, I started reading Along For The Ride. Unlike Vukovich, which I was disappointed to find a little dry; Along For The Ride was a captivating book that read extremely fast.
This is a book that would appeal to everyone. Racing enthusiasts will love it because it shows an in depth look at the personal relationships between Bob Sweikert and some of the names we know very well; Walt Faulkner, Jack McGrath, Jerry Hoyt and his best friend Johnny Boyd (who I had the honor of meeting in 1993). It also describes the strained relationship with Ed Elisian, who Sweikert had known since high school but never cared for. According to the author, it was Elisian who she ultimately holds responsible for her husband’s death in a sprint car accident at Salem Speedway on June 17, 1956 – just barely more than a year after winning the Indianapolis 500.
Others who aren’t interested in racing will enjoy it because it takes a personal look at their lives together. Bob and Dorie were high school sweethearts – practically love at first sight. They quickly bonded as soul mates. They were then separated by World War II and lost contact with each other. They both wed into unhappy marriages. Through fate, they ran into each other a few years after the war was over. They were married in the early fifties and looked like a Hollywood couple. They were totally made for each other and life could not have been better – until that fateful day at Salem.
At the time of his death, Sweikert was at the top of his game. He was the first and only driver to win the triple crown of racing in those days; winning the Indianapolis 500, the AAA Champ Car National Championship and the Midwestern Sprinters championship – all in the same year.
After winning the Indianapolis 500 under such tragic conditions, the press was unkind to Sweikert. They said he had ”lucked” into the win and had only won because Vukovich had been fatally injured earlier in the day. Such negative comments made him that much more determined to prove them all wrong. He had been racing against the ghost of a father that had abandoned him and his mother, while Bob was still a toddler; to go marry someone else and have other children. When Bob was ten, he learned that his father still lived in the area. When he tried to re-connect with him, the father wanted nothing to do with him. It was those feelings of abandonment, worthlessness and insecurity that forged a competitive intensity in Bob Sweikert that drove him to constantly prove himself in everything he did.
Death was prevalent in those days. Out of all the drivers I mentioned a few paragraphs back, Johnny Boyd was the only one that didn’t lose his life to racing. Dorie Sweikert points out as she describes the events of the 1955 Indianapolis 500, that eighteen of the thirty-three starters would lose their life while racing – one of which would happen that day. The book goes into how Bob and other drivers dealt with death and how the driver’s wives kept their worries constantly buried beneath the surface.
If you can get your hands on a copy of this book, I would urge you to read it. I’ve said before that Wilbur Shaw’s book Gentlemen, Start Your Engines is my favorite racing book of all time. It still is, but Dorie Sweikert’s Along For The Ride runs a close second.