Bill Vulkovich was heading for a hat-trick of Indy 500 wins when his Offy roadster flipped end over end. The death of this enigmatic poor kid from California sent shock waves through the Paddock, because everybody wanted to be like him. But, says Joe Scalzo, there was only one
Jan Opperman spring car rebel, flower child and holy roller Christian minister with magic roaring out of his ears — was a trendsetter. This was in the 1970s. Emulating their idol, other outlaw drivers also grew out their hair, dressed down in freak threads and became’ pious churchgoers. ‘Jesus Saves’ stickers sprouted like flags on the flanks of sprinters. Anything to be like Opp.
None of this was new. Some 20 years earlier, back at the Indianapolis 500 during the beginning of the dinosaur roadster 1950s, it had been Billy Vukovich-mania. All the hard-faced young bulls in their Mobilgas T-shirts and 100-mile-anhour-club leather jackets would be treading through Gasoline Alley taking short provocative steps while using both hands to squeeze away at rigid rubber balls that buffed out their forearms. Everybody was trying to look like Vookie, ‘the mad Russian’, the 500’s sensational near-winner of ’52.
Completely unimpressed with the macho spectacle, most of the Brickyard’s rockhead regulars dismissed it as phoney and a big load of gamesmanship. So one day in 1953, leathery Spider Webb, a rockhead, challenged Vookie-idolising ball-squeezer Walt Faulkner. “Hey, you little punk,” Spider taunted, lemme see one of those balls.” Everybody got a good yuk when Webb gave it quick squeeze, then hurled it back at Faulkner. Just one squeeze, Spider seemed to sneer, was all that was required to get him physically conditioned to go 500 miles.
No way, Spider baby. On this wonderful Memorial Day of 1953 a molten sun gave Indy the works and roasted its combatant drivers without mercy. And among the first to get wiped out and dehydrated was old Webb, who afterward was made to stand in a 50-gallon drum of water to recuperate.
But he wasn’t alone: old rockheads and young Vookieemulators alike — Faulkner among them — fell out of their seats, almost two dozen of them in all. Some 16 or 17 different relief chauffeurs were pressed into emergency duty; barely a dozen of the 25 dirt cars and eight streamlined roadsters were still circulating at the completion of the 500; one rockhead died of heat exhaustion and seven were in and out of the infield hospital.
Lapping his outclassed and barbecued opponents two times, three times, a dozen times, Vukovich won in a devastating runaway. And then in ’54, he won big again. “If nobody crosses his path, he’ll be good for another five or six,” somebody predicted in ’55. It sounded like an excellent call, and would have been, except for Voolcie’s violent and unexpected demise on the 56th lap of that year’s 500. Think of the day Ayrton Senna died — that was the sort of earthquake that Vukovich’s passing created. Especially in Indianapolis, where the night after the accident, everybody at the White Front saloon was locked in deep and desperate mourning for their enigmatic icon.
But then, just when everybody was preparing to die of sadness, there was an incident Deep into drink, a fringe mechanic and no-account named Stoogie Glidden suddenly began boasting that he had been the only one there who’d ever really known the overpowering and mysterious presence who’d been Vookie. What an outrageous and dangerous thing for Stoogie to say. Through the years, his constant popping off had earned him so many punches that hardly anybody in the White Front even bothered getting angry with him anymore, but this was different. This was over the top. As was well known, Vookie had purposely barricaded himself from the outside world with a permanent ‘No Trespassers’ glare; nobody had really known him, certainly not Stoogie.
So, with everybody in the White Front clamouring for the job of taking Stoogie outside and thrashing him for this desecration of Vookie’s memory, volatile Herb Porter got the call. Unfortunately/fortunately, the resultant ‘battle’ was an anti-climax. Herb was six feet tall and skeletal thin; Stoogie was a human fire plug with a red drunk nose. Herb directed roundhouse blows at Stoogie that missed, and Stoogie retaliated by threatening Herb with the delirium tremens. Nonetheless, it was the kind of heat that only Vukovich was capable of stirring up — even posthumously, and for years afterward.
Who — or exactly what — was this Vookie? Certainly he was a great deal more than just some moody hard case trotting around scowling and mashing hand balls. As a matter of fact, he was the steering wheel warlock of Indianapolis who was probably the spiritual descendant of another icon, Tazio Nuvolari.
And, with due apologies to the likes of Pamelli Jones and Rick Mears, Vookie was able to dominate the old Brickyard like nobody before or since.
He came out of a big, passionate family of eight loving brothers and sisters living harclscrabble amid the grape and raisin vineyards of dry gulch Fresno in central California’s San Joaquin Valley furnace. He and his siblings jumped into Pacific Coast midget car racing during the sport’s last hurrah decade of the 1940s.
Sometimes the brothers Vukovich raced seven nights a week — at Stockton, Sacramento, Pasadena, Culver City, Saugus, Tulare, Bakersfield, Huntington Beach, San Diego, San Bernardino and all those other longforgotten fifth-, quarterand third-mile bowls of which Gilmore Stadium in downtown LA was the jewel.
They only earned chump change — hamburger-andFrench-fries prize money — but this was shivering, breathless, roughhouse, no-holds-barred combat that was as all-American as Vukovich himself, his Slovakian surname notwithstanding. The gritty little dirt tacks were cramped and claustrophobic, traffic was everywhere, and holes that opened quickly slammed shut even quicker. The stone-cold act of blasting into and through a slot an inch wider than your race-car was a nightly ritual.
Vukovich won main events in the hundreds; he twice won the Pacific Coast seasonal title. When he took his act out of California and barnstormed the country in 1950, he became midget car champion of the U.S.
Master of the buzzbomb Offenhauser four-banger that he was, he learned all his moves in something far less ritzy. And far hotter, too. It was a ragamuffin little monster named, variously, the Popsicle, the Washing Machine, and Old Ironsides. An econo-brew of Franldin and Chevrolet junkyard parts, its fuel tank was a fivegallon milk container with the top cut off. Horsepower was courtesy of a banshee ‘Drake’ power plant — the bottom half of a 74-inch Harley hog bolted to a pair of water-cooled barrels jacked up to a violent compression of 15:1. The doughnut-tired hybrid shook and snarled like mad, and Voolde tamed it racing barehanded.
He hated ‘binders’, and at first refused to race with any, just like the flat-track motorbikers. But after running over the tops of too many slower cars he reluctantly added a single rear drum brake. Later he added a second drum, but he used Studebaker wheel cylinders, the tiniest available. He also did something extremely dangerous with the tyres, running a sharp outside edge that made the car prone to tipping over in corners. In fact, Vookie’s corner speeds routinely exceeded his straightaway speeds (he ran gear ratios nobody else could). The explanation was that fast qualifiers on the blazing Pacific Coast tour were inverted, meaning that Voolcie always had to start at the back.
And because a typical dirt track surface glazed typical and slicked off in barely 10 miles, he required an outside edge to lean on while opening his bag of dirty tricks and gas sing through traffic faster than anybody else could or would. How Vukovich climbed out of midgets and discovered his true home in the big wagons of the Indy 500 is an amazing story. It started in 1949 when he and his baby brother Mike were stuck home in Fresno listening to the radio broadcast of the 500, vowing to go themselves in 1950. They did, taking with them Fred Gerhardt’s no45 Offy which Vookie raced at 16th Street Speedway right across from the Brickyard. Something clicked.
Wilbur Shaw, three-time champion of the 500 and Indianapolis Motor Speedway president, thought this Billy Vukovich looked sensational. He escorted him across 16th so that the ’25 winner of the 500, Peter DePaolo, could arrange for Vookie to take his rookie driving test in an ancient Maserati. This particular car had carried Shaw to victory in the 500s of ’39 and ’40, and in 1949 had been raced briefly into the lead by Lee Wallard, who was to win the 500 of ’51. Add it all up, then, and it was fate: three 500 champs, who among themselves won Indy five times, plus the automobile that won two 500s and started in seven, all collaborated so that Vukovich passed his novice exam.
The following year, Vukovich was back at Indy with Mike but was having a difficult time locating a ride. His in-your-face attitude wasn’t endearing to car owners. So Mike was walking through Gasoline Alley in a group that included Troy Ruttman and Tony Bettenhausen when a representative of the down-at-heel Central Excavating team unexpectedly hailed him: “Hey, Vukovich, you want to try our sled?” The rep had mistaken Mike for Billy, but before Mike could object, Ruttman banged him in the ribs and said, “Say yes”. Mike did, then spent the rest of the afternoon searching for Billy to tell him the good news.
Central Excavating’s was, indeed, nothing but a tired old sled. Nonetheless, before wearing it out, Vook qualified 20th, then bombed clear up to the top 10.
The cannonball run to the front caught the attention of ‘the rich kids’, Crabby Travers and Jim Coon, so named because they were co-chief mechanics employed by the owner with one of the biggest fortunes of them all, the oil tycoon Howard Brighton Keck.
In 1952, when they were breaking in Keck’s new Kurtis-Kraft roadster, the Fuel Injection Special, Travers and Coon got Vookie to race it. But matters refused to gel at fust The K-K wasn’t right Complaining, Vukovich bad-mouthed the Kurtis in his own strange code, ‘She’s towing a ton of bricks!’ Bright boys that they were, Travers and Coon finally cracked the code and solved the problem midget-racing style by wedging weight across the back of the Kurtis. Which was the cue for Vookie to start slamming through all Brickyard corners in amazing but controlled four-wheel drifts.
Slaughtering everybody that year, he led 75 per cent of the 500 until the steering let go with just eight miserable laps remaining and he brained the wall.
Seeing the winning team of car owned C Agajanian and driver Ruttman celebrating afterward, Vookie sent them his heartiest congratulations: “You, Agajanian, you square-headed Armenian, and you, Ruttman, you ignorant Okie — you lucky bastards. I just gave you guys $90,000!” That, too, was vintage Vook. But he and the Fuel Injection Special returned the following heat-struck May to vengefully eviscerate all corners in the previously described calamitous 500 204 of ’53. And next they came off the sixth row to vanquish an inspired Jimmy Bryan in ’54. What, truly, was the secret of Vukovich’s successes? After all this time, nobody can really say, except that his persona and driving weren’t of this world. Soldierof-fortune mechanic, Vem Houle, a pall-bearer at Vook’s funeral, once called him ‘the American Nuvolari’ and, unlike a pop-off merchant like Stoogie Glidden, the wild and blasphemous Houle was in a position to know:
in the Mexican Road Race of ’54, when Team Lincoln was conscripting mechanics to ride along as navigators and ballast for its stable of hell-bent Indycar chauffeurs, Vem had been the only wrench crazy enough to volunteer to ride shotgun with Vook. Each man had taken a shine to the other because they both enjoyed swearing, preferably at each other, ‘shithead’ being the expletive of choice. Off the road three times on the fiveday marathon’s opening day, the tremendous duo of Vukovich/Houle still finished second. On day two, they hit the tall mountains.
“Watch it, shithead, you’re losing it again!” Houle lectured, just as he and Vukovich sailed off a precipice backward, their Lincoln Town Car crashlanding onto a ledge several hundred feet below. They had to kick apart the windshield to escape, but escape they did. And Houle, who for the following 30 years continued having harum-scarum racing adventures everywhere from Indy to Pikes Peak to Le Mans, never stopped revelling in his standing as the one mechanic with the intestinal fortitude to ride with demi-god Vukovich. Sometimes Vern affirmed, and other times denied, that just as their Lincoln sailed over the lip of the mountain, Vook’s snarled words were, “Here, shithead,you drive!”
Reminded that somebody once said that in a match race between Nuvolari and the devil the smart money would be with Nivola’, Houle replied that he had heard that story. But he added that in a match race between Vookie and Nivola’, he would have bet on Vookie. Like Bryan’s at Langhome, Vukovich’s Indy wreck on 30 May 1955 — while he was in the lead and on the way to an unprecedented hat-trick 500 score — led some to reconsider him and even conclude that all along he had just been a bent Balkan on a suicide trip. But it was hardly that simple. For one thing — outside of the burlesque show in Mexico — it was the only ‘big one’ of his career. Nor was it of his own making. While it lasted, it had been a brawl for first between himself and Jack McGrath, ‘the nitro man’.
Locking into each other at record speeds, their heavy roadsters getting up to 170mph down the back straight away, the battling pair continued buzzing each other until McGrath saved his own life by starting to lose his engine. The ‘nitro man’, in other words, was in the pits with the hood up instead of on the back straight with Vookie when Vookie got trapped between some colliding dirt-track cars and a roadster and then went flipping end over end out of the Speedway. The accident happened at approximately 10.45am. And Billy Vukovich was such a phenomenon that, after all these decades, many people still remember exactly what they were doing when they received the incredible news.