Random Profiles of Favorite Personalities and Tidbits of The Indy 500
One of the most entertaining aspects of going to Pole Day as a kid was watching the acrobatic movements of the starter, Pat Vidan. His gyrations were a show themselves. Every driver making a qualifying run would be greeted by Vidan, decked out in a dapper white sport coat, white shirt, black tie, black slacks and white shoes. By this time, he stood on a one-foot tall wooden platform that was situated between the pits and the track; but before the platform was built, he operated from ground level. It didn’t matter really because he always did his best work ON the track.
Whether it was the start of a qualifying run, starting the race or waving the checkered flag; Vidan would run almost a quarter way onto the track while twirling his flag like a majorette. It was quite the show and he loved doing it.
Pat Vidan became the official starter of the Indianapolis 500 in 1962. He was from Oregon but lived in Indianapolis. He was a weight lifter and owned a bodybuilding gym, with his wife in Indianapolis. Another talent of his was that he was a lightening cartoonist. He had a show that he did at schools, programs and parties with a flip chart and he would draw cartoons quickly as he told a story to accompany it. He apparently was a very intense man and put up with little nonsense.
Tom Binford replaced Harlan Fenglar as Chief Steward of the race in 1974. Much to the chagrin of Pat Vidan, one of Binford’s first acts was to move the starter to a raised platform on the outside of the track. This infuriated Vidan since it limited his “performances”. He retired from his duties five years later in 1979 and moved back to his home in Oregon. He passed away in 1983 and is buried in Indianapolis.
It’s hard for me to say which of the two Unser brothers I like better today, but when I was growing up, there was no question who my favorite was—it was Al. I was not even ten years old when Bobby Unser won his first Indianapolis 500 in 1968. At the time, I thought the wedge-shaped Lotus turbine was just about the best looking thing I had ever seen. I was pulling for Joe Leonard, who had set a track record by placing the turbine on the pole. When Leonard’s turbine flamed out on lap 191, it paved the way for Bobby to win. I was not happy. Now that I’ve (supposedly) grown up, I’m glad the turbine didn’t win and I’m a big fan of Uncle Bobby.
Growing up as the youngest member of the Unser clan would not have been easy for most people. Fortunately for Al Unser, his temperament allowed him to grow up in older brother Bobby’s shadow with no real problems. On the track Bobby was a hard-charger from the drop of the green flag. There was only one speed—flat out! Bobby would either win or fall out of the race.
Al, on the other hand was more calculative. He was very easy on equipment and would be more patient in a race. At times, he would run such a quiet race; you would forget he was in it. But he was almost ALWAYS there at the end—and that’s when he would make his move. Rick Mears was famous for this style of driving, but Al Unser was doing it long before Rick.
This was also Al’s style off of the track. While Bobby was always a good quote for television, both as a driver and analyst, Al was pretty bland with his “yup” and “nope” type answers. Some of the best entertainment in racing was hearing Bobby Unser harass Sam Posey in the ABC booth. I cannot imagine anything as boring as getting Al in the booth.
However, a good sound bite is not what made Al Unser famous. It was his unique ability to feel out a car early in the race and then get the most out of what he had. That trait helped him to become one of only three men to win the Indy 500 four times. It also helped him stretch his Indy 500 career across four decades.
Unlike some of his generation that held on to long, Al knew when it was time. He was competitive until the end. He placed third in the 1992 race that saw his son Al Jr, win his first. He led the race in 1993 for several laps, driving with a high fever while suffering from the flu. He eventually finished twelfth. He practiced in 1994, but didn’t feel competitive and called it quits. There was no press conference; there were no ceremonial laps. He just decided to hang it up, and that was that.
Al Unser had some health problems about five years ago, but is doing better. He served as a driving coach for the Indy Racing League through 2008, when he retired from that position at the end of the season. He will turn 70 on the Friday following this year’s race. His brother Bobby is 75.
Like my brothers and myself in the sixties, I’d say my father’s favorite driver was AJ Foyt. But to my father, a close second was Lloyd Ruby.
Many of today’s fans consider Michael Andretti as the greatest driver to have never won the Indianapolis 500. Others would have Rex Mays or Ted Horn at the top of their list. It’s an interesting debate, but no such discussion can take place without mentioning Lloyd Ruby.
Statistically speaking, Ruby’s accomplishments weren’t that great. His best finish was third in 1964, but he drove in eighteen consecutive 500’s accumulating seven top-10 finishes.
Unfortunately, he is mostly remembered for a race he never finished. The year was 1969 at Indy, and Ruby was locked in a tight duel with Mario Andretti. Mario had battled an overheating condition with his car from early in the race. It was just past the halfway point. Ruby was technically leading the race at the time, but only because Mario had already pitted. In those days, fuel tanks were mounted on the sides of the car. In his haste to rejoin the battle, he unwittingly allowed the car to inch forward during refueling. Eventually, the attached fuel hoses became too taught and they ripped a small hole from the side of the car. Methanol poured all over Ruby’s pit and his day was done. It is one of the more enduring images from the Speedway that shows Ruby standing in a puddle of fuel in disbelief, watching methanol gush from the side of his car. With no other serious threat, Mario could coast and nurse his overheating Brawner Hawk to victory. One wonders had Andretti been forced to continue his close fight with Ruby, if his car would have made it for 200 laps.
The next year saw similar disappointment. I’ll never forget my father’s excitement as we watched Ruby charge from back in the field (25th) to lead the race in the early going. By lap 54 however, he was out due to mechanical failure.
Such was the career of Lloyd Ruby. He may have had more hard-luck than anyone else at the Speedway…even the Andretti’s. Other than his reputation for bad luck, Ruby’s career should be remembered for his prowess on a road course. He could hold his own with the best of his time, including Dan Gurney and Mark Donohue.
Lloyd Ruby passed away on March 23, 2009 at the age of 81 in Wichita Falls, TX; but what a career he left behind.
Jim Hurtubise (“Herk”)
Jim Hurtubise has always been a favorite of mine for many reasons. First of all, he was considered “Old School” before there ever was such a term. Every year, when we went to qualifying, it was always entertaining to see “Herk” pull out the old Mallard and try to make a run.
The Mallard, the last front-engine roadster to make the race, went through several modifications over the years to help it keep up. In its last run in 1968, Hurtubise qualified in 30th position with a four-lap average of 162.191 mph. He fell out after only nine laps, finishing 30th.
Herk had actually qualified a rear-engined Gerhardt/Offy in 1966, but 1967 began a run of mostly unsuccessful qualifying attempts in the Mallard. He abandoned the Mallard in the early 70’s and actually qualified in rear-engined cars in 1972 and 1974. But in 1976, his attempts at running the Mallard returned, albeit in half-hearted attempts.
It’s sad in a way, because he was a phenomenal driver. He was almost the first driver to break the 150 mph barrier two years early. In 1960 as a rookie, he was the fastest car in the field by nearly 3 mph as he qualified with a four-lap average of 149.056 mph. It would be another two years before that speed was eclipsed in 1962. In 1964, his hands were seriously burned in a crash at Milwaukee. He had the doctors shape his hands in a permanent curl, so that he could grip the steering wheel. The following spring, he actually won the NASCAR Atlanta 500. He was always a threat in the Indianapolis 500 until he began his quest to run the Mallard.
In 1978, he ran afoul of USAC on the last day of qualifications. They would not let him make his usual run in the Mallard because it would not maintain a minimum speed. In retaliation, he jumped into Bob Harkey’s car in the qualifying line and refused to get out. It got uglier as he ran out onto the track, while Harkey had begun his warm-up for his qualifying attempt. He was tackled by police on the front-stretch and was subsequently banned from the track for the rest of the month.
Unfortunately, most fans today remember Herk for that episode and as the clown who trotted out the front-engine roadster on the last day of qualifying. Too few remember him as a brave and skilled driver that almost broke the 150 mph barrier as a rookie in 1960.
Jim Hurtubise suffered a heart attack and died in 1989, at the age of 56.