He came out of a big, passionate family of eight loving brothers and sisters living hardscrabble 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 long-forgotten fifth, quarter and third-mile bowls of which Gilmore Stadium in downtown LA was the jewel.
They only earned chump change — hamburger-and French-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 Franklin and Chevrolet junkyard parts, its fuel tank was a five-gallon 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 Vookie 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 Vookie 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.