Bill Vukovich lived and died for Indy. Despite his nickname, he was neither mad nor Russian
Of late there has been a spate of books about the 1955 racing season, in many ways the most dramatic the sport has known. The single event that dominated it, of course, was the Le Mans 24 Hours in which Pierre Levegh and nearly 100 spectators lost their lives. To this day you can get into heated discussion about the causes of that disaster, and the same is true of another, which took place on the other side of the water a couple of weeks earlier, and just four days after the death of Alberto Ascari at Monza.
The man who died in the multicar accident at Indianapolis was the most famous guy in the place. A few years ago I asked two-time Indy winner Rodger Ward whom he considered to be the best Indianapolis driver of them all, and he hesitated before answering: “I guess I would have to pick two: Pantelli Jones and Bill Vukovich.”
`Vuky’ was, in the absolute sense, an Indy driver. The Brickyard was his thing, that one race a year, then always run on Memorial Day, May 30. Born of Slovenian parents, in Alameda, California, he grew up in nearby Fresno, where he would live for the rest of his life: hence ‘The Fresno Flyer’, as the tabloids always had him — either that or, erroneously, ‘The Mad Russian’. A mechanic by trade, he drifted into racing in the late 1930s, building a reputation in the intensely competitive midgets.
He took no prisoners from the beginning. When his brother began racing midgets, he was put under no illusions: “Don’t tangle with me, Eli — out there you’re just another driver.” Even by the standards of the day, Vuky was reckoned to be abnormally brave. “I’m gonna have to quit this,” he said once. “It’s costing too much in helmets.”
After the war Vukovich continued with midgets, winning the national championship in 1950, and then concentrating on Indianapolis cars — or ‘championship cars’, as they were always then known. He failed to qualify an elderly Maserati at the Speedway that year, and the following year retired in the early laps, but thereafter the place would come to know him.
‘Taciturn’ was a word used often to describe him, ‘laconic’ another. “Like someone said,” Ward chuckled, “Vuky was a hell of a nice guy — it was just he was in a bad mood the last 25 years of his life!” Certainly this short, stocky man was not gifted with what are today known as ‘social skills’, but everyone recalls him as one possessed of a unique magnetism. “There was something about him,” mused Ward. “When he was around, you didn’t need to ask who was boss.”
In the 1952 500, Vuky led from the start, and stayed there until lap 192, when his steering broke and put him in the wall. Frank Kurtis, the builder of his roadster, described his mood afterwards: “He was madder than a wet hen. On an electric fence!”
If he gave vent to his feelings on occasions of disappointment, however, Vukovich was not alone in this respect: the typical Indy driver of the 1950s tended to live at the edge. You couldn’t live on what you made from racing, and many drivers worked as mechanics or truckers through the winter. Drinking was not exactly unknown, and periodic brawls taken for granted. There was a cigarette in the corner of every mouth.
Vuky, though, neither smoked nor drank, and in fact paid great heed to fitness, ‘working out’ long before it was fashionable. But if his colleagues thought him strange, they tended to keep it to themselves. His fitness worked well for him, though. Race day in 1953 was the hottest the 500 has known, only a handful of drivers getting through it single-handed, and one, Carl Scarborough, dying from heat exhaustion. Vukovich, from the pole, led all the way and, as with Fangio in the furnace conditions of Buenos Aires in 1955, everyone else felt fallible.
Vuky loved to needle people, be they journalists or rival drivers. Engine problems during qualifying for the 1954 race put him way back on the grid, but his confidence did not suffer. “You sons of bitches figurin’ out who’s gonna be second?” he asked at the drivers’ meeting. Someone pointed out that he was starting 19th… “It ain’t where you start that matters in this place.”
Nor was it. On another steamy day he calmly picked them all off. “I’m not much of a race driver,” he said afterwards, “and I’ve got a hell of a lot of company here.”
In fact, Vuky was a brilliant race driver, as good around the Speedway as perhaps there’s ever been, ultra precise, yet dauntingly aggressive. And he did not make mistakes.
Not at Indianapolis, anyway. The race had become the focal point of his year — indeed, he took no part in the rest of the AAA Championship. Everything went into preparation for that one month at the Speedway. But in 1954 he agreed to drive a Lincoln in the Carrera Panamericana, Mexico’s legendary open-road race. Vuky was accompanied by a brave soul named Vern Howle, who repeatedly pleaded with him to slow down. But the Lincoln charged on over the mountain roads before eventually somersaulting down a bank. “Okay,” Vuky said, when the dust had settled, “you drive.”
So to 1955 and the Brickyard, this time with a different car from Kurtis, the Hopkins Special. No-one had ever won the 500 three years running and Vukovich wanted it desperately, even murmuring he might retire if it came his way. His personal battle with ‘the Indy jinx’ was the dominant story of the month.
This time it was untypically cold on race morning, and when they got the green flag most of the drivers were wearing sweaters or jerkins. Not Vuky. Come heat, come chill, he wore his white Mobilgas T-shirt. And after a classic battle with Jack McGrath — “McGrath doesn’t like being run close to, so I’m going to run close to him” — he seemed odds on for that third victory when his rival retired. At quarter-distance he led by 20sec.
On lap 57, though, Vuky came out of Turn Two and found trouble with backmarkers. Ward had gone out of control and Al Keller overreacted, grabbing his handbrake — there was no foot brake on his ‘dirt’ car! — and sliding, all locked up, into Johnny Boyd.
Vuky, approaching at 150mph, saw only one way through the chaos, between Ward’s car and the wall, but as he headed for it, Boyd’s car was punched into his path. The beautiful Kurtis roadster tagged a wheel, rode up and over the wall, somersaulted over several parked cars, came to rest upside down — and then burned for a long time. Vukovich, who had suffered a fractured skull, knew nothing of this. When finally they released him from the car, there was no need to go to the track hospital.
An hour later his death was announced, even as the cars continued to circulate, and a stillness settled over the crowd. There had been endless talk of the jinx at the Speedway, but no-one could take in that it had ended like this. As of now no-one has won the 500 three times in a row. “During May,” Indy historian Donald Davidson relates, “Vuky and his wife always used to stay in a house on 15th St — right behind Conkle’s Funeral Home, which is on 16th. On race morning he collected a dollar from his wife, to buy breakfast, and walked to the racetrack via a shortcut through Conkle’s. Four hours later, he was back there.”