Another Lost Link To Our Past
Last week, the sport of open-wheel racing lost one of the last major links to its historic past. Jim Travers was one of the main men behind the incredible run of Bill Vukovich in the early fifties and continued to be active in racing up until his death last week at the age of 95 – the result of injuries sustained in a fall four days earlier.
Travers and Frank Coon were known as the “whiz kids” in racing circles. They formed a friendship in the 1930’s, began working together for car owner Howard Keck after World War II, then formed their business partnership in 1957, in the form of TRACO – Engineering. TRACO was the derivative of their last names – TRAvers and COon. TRACO built some of the finest racing engines from the fifties and well into the seventies.
Travers and Coon worked with Frank Kurtis to develop the first roadster. Bill Vukovich coined the term roadster because it reminded him of the hot-rods that he used to drive in his earlier days. The iconic Fuel injection Special, owned by Howard Keck and prepared by Travers and Coon, powered Bill Vukovich to near victory at Indianapolis in 1952 – his steering failed while leading with nine laps to go – and two dominating Indianapolis 500 wins in 1953 and 1954.
Keck instructed Travers and Coon to build a “streamliner” for the 1955 race. But delays with the car and Keck’s tax problems with the government forced Keck to sit out the 1955 race. Consequently, Vukovich was essentially a free-agent. He struck a deal to drive in the 1955 Indianapolis 500 for Lindsey Hopkins in the blue and orange Hopkins Special, with the understanding that Travers and Coon be part of the deal.
The trio appeared to be working their magic. Vukovich qualified fifth and was leading the race, apparently headed for his third straight victory. On Lap 57, Al Keller swerved coming out of Turn Two to avoid the spinning Rodger Ward. Keller eventually struck the car driven by Johnny Boyd and Boyd was pushed into the path of Vukovich. The car of Vukovich tumbled violently end over end before landing upside-down and on fire outside the track, fatally injuring Bill Vukovich.
Shaken by their friend’s untimely death, Travers and Coon persevered. After a brief stint with car owner John Zink, Travers and Coon formed TRACO. Their engines powered AJ Foyt to sprint car success in 1963 and 1964 and also caught the eye of a young Roger Penske in his Can Am days and even Bruce McLaren.
If you’ve ever seen the ESPN SportsCentury series episode that featured Bill Vukovich; Jim Travers is interviewed throughout the show. If you’ve never seen this special – you need to. It is one of the best documentaries I’ve seen on Vukovich.
Frank Coon passed away in 1997, but Jim Travers was active up until the end. They were both inducted into the Auto Racing Hall of Fame in 2010. Apparently, the mind of Jim Travers was as sharp as it ever was – and that means extremely sharp. From what I understand, his recollection of events from seventy years ago was unsurpassed. Racing historians would seek him out, either to pick his brain on certain individuals or events or would just sit back and let him speak freely about whatever came to his expansive mind.
You cannot tell the story of Bill Vukovich without talking about Jim Travers and Frank Coon. Travers was very much a part of Vuky’s success on the track, but he was more than that. He was also a friend to Vukovich. Bill Vukovich was an outstanding driver, but a quiet and introspective man. He was somewhat of a mystery that no one knew much about. Fortunately, Jim Travers provided us with some much needed insight into what kind of man Bill Vukovich was and dispelled the myth that he was arrogant. He was quite the contrary, but we would have never known that without the insight that Jim Travers provided.
There are still a few living links to the early fifties in open-wheel racing, but they are dwindling quickly. Just last month we lost Dorie Sweikert, widow of the eventual winner of that fateful 1955 Indianapolis 500, Bob Sweikert. Her book, Along For The Ride, is still one of my all-time favorite racing books. She used no co-author or ghost writer. She wrote it all herself and it provides a unique look at what racing life was like in those days.
As we continue to lose these living links to our racing past, we become more reliant on mere interpretations of what people think was going on in those days. Travers provided us with so many racing anecdotes that will carry on for years – we don’t feel the need to fill in the blanks of our imaginations. He was living proof.
Jim Travers lived a full life. He experienced the highest of highs in his profession, while also tasting the tragedy that was so much a part of racing in those days. He also had his health and was able to remain active throughout his later years. Most importantly, he earned the respect of everyone in the racing community for decades. You really can’t ask for much more than that.