The fall of Troy

He won the world's biggest race when he was 22. But the combined effects of high living and a huge accident were blows from which his career never recovered. For Troy Ruttman, says Joe Scalzo, it was a case of too much, too young

Troy Ruttman, who died in 1997, was post-war racing's most brilliant child prodigy, led a traumatic existence, was wasted in his prime and got born poor. He was the elder son of illiterate, destitute migrants subsisting on a patch of hardpan called Billygoat Acres, a southern California colony of dustbowl emigres. It was 1946. Aged just 16, he ran the family heap over to the local jalopy races — and won. Within a year, he was one of the wonders of the Los Angeles scene, alternating hot-rod roadsters with Offy midgets at Gilmore Stadium; racing six nights a week, he was restless and impossible to be around every empty seventh.

The car owner A J Walker took Ruttman, all of 17, east with him. In Chicago, at Soldier Field for 86 of 100 laps, he was destroying the Midwest's fastest open-cockpit drivers — before breaking down. In Pennsylvania, at Langhorne, as devouring a racetrack as ever existed, everybody came running from the pits at the ungodly shriek of an overstressed Offenhauser. It was Ruttman making his warm-up lap. On the second lap, the shriek intensified — Ruttman averaged 109mph to explode a standing world record for mile dirt tracks. Ready for more exploits in Oklahoma City the following week, he discovered his reputation had preceded him, and that the regulars were lying in wait. They put him on his head early in the programme.

Then Ruttman was in Mexico for the Pan-American road race. Though radically hopped up, his ancient Mercury sedan — lifted from a used-car lot — was good for barely 114mph at sea level. Ruttman was half dead with dysentery as well, yet over the tops of the mountain passes, he was beating up on Ferraris.

Continuing his odd passion for out-of-the-ordinary theatres of babble, Ruttman seized on Salem, Winchester and Dayton, three sublime sprint-car speedways with arching corners propped up against tree-trimmed slopes. Any luckless soul getting a single corner wrong faced a lethal swerve up the lip of the banking, a smash into and over a crash wall of flimsy planks, and a career which concluded with a plunge into the ground or impalement on one of the trees.

Ruttman's Dayton debut was in a midget with its wheelbase elongated and ballast added so it could compete as a sprint car. He won. And then he became the first to lap Salem's lurid walls in less than 20sec. Winchester so turned him on that he decided to share its delight witli a racing comrade, a death-before-dishonour Texas leatherneck named Cecil Green. As a Winchester debutant, all Green was required to do was survive one qualifying lap, just as he had previously survived the battles of Bougainvillea, Luzon, and the New Guinea Islands during WWII. But he swerved in some pea gravel in the top lane, and lost the gamble. And Green's fate so terminally unhinged the very next qualifier, Bill Mackey, that Mackey's car, too, crashed out of Winchester within three feet of where Green's had. Such was the cost of combat on the hill tracks.

As was inevitable, Ruttman came to Indianapolis. This was his progression: he raced his first 500 in 1949, aged an illegal 19, in an old iron which lost its brakes and then its water pump, and which sat in the pits for 40min. The following year, he was warming up at 130mph, 131, 132, 133 and finally a record 134— and then into the wall. In 1951, he was qualified sixth but managed only 195 miles, wearing out his car. In 1952, he won at 128mph.

This was a classic 500. A third of the starting field was made up of warriors from the Pacific Coast whom Ruttman had already made his bones with in hot rods at Gilmore. The front row was surging four abreast by the green flag. It was a Memorial Day for chargers and Ruttman was always in it. His chief mechanic was Clay Brooking Smith, who ran a considerably more sophisticated operation than most chiefs and who had Ruttman on an 80-1010 blend of methanol, gasoline and nitro, planning only two refuelling stops. But the crew set Ruttman afire performing the second one...

Explaining why he didn't abandon the cockpit as the flames rose, Ruttman said: "I knew I'd never get the engine started again. And I knew if! ever was going to gamble with my life, this was the time, with a strong car in the Indianapolis 500." The crew knocked down the blaze, Billy Vukovich crashed into the wall with eight laps remaining, and Ruttman took the lead and won. At 22, he was the youngest and still is to ever win the 500.

Immediately he discovered, as Indianapolis champion, the hitherto unknown pleasures of money, girls, whiskey and a bacchanalian existence. Around this time he also suffered his only serious wreck and its effects were devastating.

He was racing the same .1 C Agajanian sprint car he'd loaned to the late Cecil Green. But it wasn't right after Green's accident, and when its steering came apart at Cedar Rapids, Iowa, it veered off the track. Ruttman took a wild ride. The car battered down a wooden rail, plunged over an embankment, crashed into and through a heavy diamond-mesh fence, and eventually stopped upside-down next to a lamp-post alongside some railroad tracks.

Aggravating his badly broken arm by returning to racing too soon, Ruttman underwent additional surgery. He also loaned another sprint car to a friend who promptly entered in a non-American Automobile Association race. When Ruttman naively went to the AAA and confessed, he was suspended.

There Ruttman was, barely 23 and his peak was already over. He disappeared into eccentric exile near the Salem Speedway, down in the gorgeous Indiana south, splendid with farmlands, apple orchards, maple and sassafras trees, and enough booze for the fastest race driver in the county to forget his trouble.

Disciples still sought Ruttman out. One of them was Wally Campbell, a product of the severe Langhorne speed tradition who some seasons before had set off a collision that wrecked and burned 45 modifieds including Campbell's own. Campbell had dancing eyes, spiky hair, a riot of tattoos and had qualified fastest in a strong car in the first Southern 500 at Darlington; showing his versatility, he had also established a new standard for broadsliding a sprint car and just that May had been banished from Indianapolis, who found him alarming.

Making common cause with a fellow outcast, Ruttman befriended Campbell and, upon watching him rim Salem Speedway in a sprint car, decided Campbell was possibly the most gifted race driver he'd ever seen. But something went awry and Campbell pitched backward out of Salem. His car exploded and burned in a hay field. Ruttman took everybody home, killed a chicken for dinner, called a wake for Wally, and everybody got drunk.

Bob Sweikert, Jimmy Bryan, Tony Bettenhausen, Rodger Ward and the era's other national champions won their tides as gifts. Ruttman, fastest of them all, was only semi-active, even after his suspension was lifted. He wouldn't race unless he was at his best and the drink ensured that he was rarely at his best.

He kept showing up in strange locales: inside an outmoded Novi one May at Indianapolis; passing through Europe one summer to occasionally race dogs of Formula One cars; out in the middle of the Bonneville Salt Flats, as a member of a team of drivers hired by the advertising department of Ford to cover 50,000 miles in 30 days. Falling asleep at the wheel one midnight, Ruttman awoke two-and-a-half miles off course.

Whenever the spirit moved him which admittedly wasn't often he put on a display of his old preternatural skills, and nobody else had a chance. He did so at Indy in 1957, breezing into a devastating lead before the car failed. That same summer he gave a mauling to Bryan, the overall winner, in the final heat of Monza's inaugural Race of Two Worlds.

He also brought a weak car from nowhere into second place in the 1962 Indy 500, and was rapidly overtaking eventual winner Ward until the engine let go. Before NASCAR flagged him off the track for a long stop-and-go penalty, Ruttman and his Bill Stroppe Mercury were the likely winners of the first Motor Trend 500 at Riverside Raceway.

Then, poking his car's nose into the wrong place during an Indycar race at Trenton in 1964, Ruttman got cutoff, overturned his Watson roadster which skilled along on its top for two city blocks. Less than a month afterward at Indy, Ruttman was drawing abreast of Eddie Sachs just as Davey MacDonald's stricken car blazed in front of him. Flaming horror briefly engulfed Ruttman and he felt the heat and heard the concussion as Sachs bombed into MacDonald with fatal consequences for both.

That was Ruttman's last racing year.

"You were the greatest of us all," he was once told by Pamelli Jones, another Indy 500 winner, and virtuoso and poor boy. P J had led a racing life remarkably similar to Troy Ruttman's but without the heartbreak.