Iron man made in Indy
His dominant win in a heat-stricken Indianapolis 500 confirmed Bill Vukovich as one of US racing’s greatest stars – and helped usher in the roadster era
When the flag waved to start the 1953 Indianapolis 500 it was already an infernally hot and humid day with the temperature in the mid-30s centigrade. At the time part of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was still paved in the original bricks, making for a rough ride, and over the course of 500 miles the heat and the hammering took their toll.
More than 100 fans and 15 drivers were treated for heat prostration during the day, and only five drivers made the finish without pulling in for relief. The severity of the conditions was emphasised mid-race when an exhausted Carl Scarborough pulled into the pits, asking for a substitute. Scarborough, 38, clambered from his car but collapsed, and despite efforts to revive him he died later that afternoon.
In these conditions Bill Vukovich drove without any thought of relief to score a dominant win. He led all the way, save for five laps during the first round of pitstops, and won by more than three minutes.
At each of his three stops he drank a cup of water and poured another down his neck, losing eight pounds during the four-hour race. Known to some as ‘The Mad Russian’ and from that day on as ‘Indy’s Iron Man’, Vukovich grew up near Fresno in California’s Central Valley. “If you think this [race] was hot,” he later joked, “you haven’t spent a day on a tractor in Fresno.”
But in the rudimentary victory circle even the great Vukovich struggled to climb out of his car. Covered in sweat, oil and rubber he was more exhausted than he’d ever been in any race before.
“I can’t hear a damn thing,” he told the track announcer. “It’s hotter than hell,” he added – twice – before pulling himself together to pose for oficial victory photos and kisses with his wife Esther and Hollywood star Jane Greer. Back then there was no post-race press conference so Vukovich went to his garage with Esther, car owner Howard Keck and his small crew led by Jim Travers and Frank Coon. Once inside he all but collapsed on a work bench, sitting there for 10 minutes with a wet towel draped over his head before he could regain his strength, talk to his team and begin to enjoy his victory.
Vukovich started five Indy 500s and won the race in 1953 and ’54 driving a beautiful Kurtis 500A-Offenhauser for Keck’s team. He dominated the race between 1952 and ’55, but dropped out that irst year when his steering failed with less than 10 laps to go. He was killed in 1955 when leading comfortably yet again, an innocent victim of a multi-car accident. In all ‘Vuky’ led 485 of 676 laps completed at the Speedway from 1951-55 and was revered as one of America’s greatest sporting stars.
Vukovich’s parents, Yvoan and Milka Vucurovic, had emigrated to the United States from Yugoslavia in 1909. They settled in South Dakota before moving to Alameda, across the bay from San Francisco. Yvoan worked as a carpenter and policeman before moving his family once more to Central Valley, renting a house and working the fertile farmland in Kerman, just west of Fresno.
By then the couple had Americanised their names, becoming John and Mildred Vukovich. At home they spoke their native language but insisted that their eight children speak English beyond its walls. Their sixth child and third son, Vaso, was born in December 1918. Vaso, known as Bill, and his siblings helped keep the family together during the Depression after their father committed suicide following foreclosure proceedings on his farm. At 15 Bill reluctantly dropped out of high school to do a variety of jobs, from picking cotton to driving farm trucks and tractors.
In 1936, aged 17, he volunteered to help Fred Gerhardt prepare his 1926 Chevy stock car. Gerhardt, who would go on to build his own Indycars during the 1960s, was so impressed with Vukovich’s energy and determination that he allowed him to race his car.
To Gerhardt’s surprise the kid could drive. He won his ifth race and earned enough prize money for Gerhardt to buy a new midget the following year. In this motorcycle-powered car, known as ‘Old Ironsides’, Vukovich began to make his name. At one point in 1937 he crashed and broke three ribs and a collarbone but was back in action seven weeks later, winning a couple more races before the end of the season. Running Gerhardt’s midget at a variety of tracks through central California, including San Francisco, Vukovich won four features in 1938 and $500 in prize money. The next year it was 10 races and $1500.
By now Vukovich had taken over preparing and running the car. He also devoted time to keeping it – working out, walking and cycling. By May 1940 he felt prosperous enough to marry local girl Esther Schmidt, and the following year he won 16 races despite missing some mid-season events after breaking an arm and shoulder in another accident.
The tally was 17 wins in 1941, but his plans for ’42 were interrupted by America’s entry into World War II. Vukovich tried to enlist in the army but failed the medical test due to his old arm injury and was consigned to work in a motor pool in Riverside, maintaining tanks and army trucks.
Post-war he bought Gerhardt’s midget, and in the inal months of 1945 won 13 races and the URA (United Racing Association) championship. For a few years after WWII midget racing boomed in America, and Vukovich’s career and reputation grew. He started competing further aield, visiting Los Angeles and San Diego. Vukovich won 31 races and a second URA title in 1946 and was runnerup in ’47. But ‘Old Ironsides’ was showing its age and Bill moved on, irst racing a Ford V8-powered midget and then a new state-of-the-art Kurtis-Offy owned by Gerhardt.
It was after Vukovich dominated the prestigious 1948 Turkey Night Grand Prix at the Gilmore Stadium, LA, that double AAA champion Rex Mays told him he should move to the Midwest and contest the AAA national midget championship with an eye to racing at Indianapolis. “If you can make that little Offy sing like you did tonight,” advised Mays, “you should be able to make one of those big ones sing too.”
Vukovich complied and started winning AAA races in 1950. More advice followed his victory at Kokomo, Indiana, when triple Indy winner and Motor Speedway president Wilbur Shaw and 1925 Indy winner Peter de Paolo suggested Vuky was ready for the Brickyard.
De Paolo owned the Maserati 8CTF Grand Prix car with which Shaw had won the 500 in 1939 and ’40, and he entered Vukovich for the 1950 race. But the Maserati was thoroughly outdated and Bill failed to make the grade. He concentrated on the rest of the AAA midget series and won the national title.
For 1951 Vukovich landed a ride in Pete Salemi’s Central Excavating Special. The car was more modern than the Maserati but not a race winner. Salemi’s little team struggled to make it reliable, let alone fast, and Vukovich struggled to qualify – but at last he was an Indy 500 starter. “This pig’ll last about 30 laps,” he predicted, “and then fall out.” Starting 20th, he moved up to ninth before the oil tank broke.
But his performance had caught the attention of Jim Travers and Frank Coon, known as ‘The Whiz Kids’ and chief mechanics for wealthy oilman Howard Keck’s team. Keck’s driver in 1950-51 was Mauri Rose, who had scored his second and third Indy wins in one of Lou Moore’s Blue Crown Specials in 1947-48.
Rose was running third midway through the ’51 race when a wheel broke, causing him to spin into the muddy infield where the car flipped and landed upside down. The rainsoaked infield cushioned the blows and Rose walked away from the wreckage, but at 45 he’d had enough. His retirement opened the door for Vukovich to a winning car.
“We’d already considered Vuky as a replacement,” Travers told author Bob Gates for his deinitive Vukovich biography. “But his run in the 1951 race really got our attention. He took a car that wasn’t great and looked real good in it. He was gathering them up like Jack the Bear until the damn thing fell apart.”
The invitation to join Keck’s team for 1952 came from fuel injection maestro Stu Hilborn, who worked closely with Travers and Coon. Vuky was delighted and even more excited when Travers and Coon told him about their plans to have Frank Kurtis build a new lowline car. Meanwhile Vukovich still had work to do in 1951 aboard the Central Excavating Special.
In June at the legendary Langhorne oval in Pennsylvania Vukovich showed his talent in Salemi’s ageing car, leading 15 laps before it broke again. He drove six other cars in AAA races that year with a best inish of third on the one-mile Syracuse dirt track.
While Vukovich was doing his thing, Travers and Coon detailed the new car designed specifically for Indianapolis that they wanted Kurtis to build. His cars dominated Indy in the ’50s, making up at least half the field and winning six straight 500s from 1950-55.
Travers and Coon’s goal was to reduce the car’s centre of gravity by lowering the mass as much as possible. They wanted the driver offset to the right to place him lower in the car, and moved the engine, transmission and driveshaft to the left to put as much weight as possible on that side, laying the engine at a 36-degree angle. All this would help take advantage of the inevitable right-hand weight transfer on a big track with four left-hand turns. The layout would also reduce tyre wear, especially on the heavily loaded right-side tyres.
Vukovich called the new car, type-numbered K500A, a ‘roadster’ because it resembled a low-slung modified he’d driven years before. Thus did Kurtis’s 500A introduce the great roadster era to Indy. Considered by many to be the most beautiful Indycars of all time, they were deined by Kurtis’s svelte, torsion bar-suspended racers and specifically Vukovich’s Fuel Injection Special.
Despite his substantial investment in the team, Keck preferred to stay in the background and suggested the new car be called the Travers and Coon Special. But the idea had no appeal to The Whiz Kids, who suggested the Fuel Injection Special in recognition of their friend Hilborn. Not a penny was exchanged. It was done simply out of courtesy and respect. Travers and Coon were late getting their new car ready and didn’t arrive at the Speedway until the second week of practice. Keck had also bought a Ferrari V12 F1 for the 1952 500 and Coon had been distracted by preparing it. A factory Ferrari was entered that year for Alberto Ascari, but the cars didn’t have enough torque to be competitive at Indy.
Bobby Ball drove Keck’s Ferrari but after a few days Coon decided to park it and focus on the Kurtis roadster. Back then there were three weeks of practice at Indianapolis and two qualifying weekends, and despite a variety of new car problems Vukovich qualified quickest on the second weekend, starting the race from the middle of the third row. On race day he rocketed to the front, taking the lead on lap seven and pulling away after a brief battle with Troy Ruttman. Just after half-distance Vukovich, setting a record pace, lapped second-placed Ruttman, but during his final pitstop a rear wheel was installed backwards and time was lost refitting it.
Vukovich spent two minutes in the pits and Ruttman swept by, but when the new leader stopped 12 laps later Bill moved ahead once again. Easing his pace, Vuky maintained a half-minute cushion to Ruttman as the laps ran out. But with 20 to go he felt the steering tighten and the car became harder to turn, until finally the linkage broke, leaving Ruttman to win.
Vukovich raced the Fuel Injection Special once more that year in July at a new highbanked, one-mile paved track in Raleigh, North Carolina. He led before the brakes failed, and Travers and Coon then took the car back to their California shop to thoroughly rebuild it for the 1953 500.
The car was designed strictly for high-speed paved tracks and the remaining races were on dirt tracks. Vukovich, Keck, Travers and Coon had no interest in running those races and Vuky planned to sit out the rest of the season. But when Ruttman broke his arm in August, car owner J C Agajanian asked Vukovich to replace him. Vuky ran six AAA races on dirt tracks in Agajanian’s car and won two.
Meanwhile Travers and Coon’s work continued on the Fuel Injection Special. Vukovich rewarded them by setting the pace through practice and qualifying on pole in ’53, despite rainfall as he completed his four-lap run.
On race day Vuky was untouchable, running away from the rest of the ield. As well as making their car reliable, Travers and Coon had worked hard to improve their pitstops and the team was error-free as Vukovich prevailed in the heat. It was one of the most dominant performances in Indy history, rivalled only by Billy Arnold’s winning drive in 1930.
Afterwards Travers and Coon returned to California to prepare for the 1954 race. The Fuel Injection Special was three years old and Kurtis had built a slew of newer 500Bs and Cs. Many people thought Vukovich’s car too old to win again, and it looked like they were right when he was plagued by engine trouble throughout the month of May.
He missed qualifying on the irst weekend when Coon discovered a cracked block and he scraped into the field, starting 19th. But by race day Travers and Coon had fixed the problem and Vukovich worked steadily through the field, taking the lead just before half-distance. On his second stop he encountered another car parked in the pit before his, forcing him to pull close to the wall and making it impossible to change his left-side tyres. But he rejoined without losing the lead and drove unchallenged to win again, lapping second-placed Jimmy Bryan as he took the flag. Keck wanted something new for 1955 so Travers and Coon set to work designing and building an all-enclosing streamlined car, powered by a purpose-built V8 designed by Offenhauser engineer Leo Goossen.
But the project proved too ambitious and when it became clear that the car wouldn’t be ready to race Keck told Vukovich to ind another ride. Keck also released Travers and Coon, who prepared Lindsey Hopkins’s 1954 Kurtis 500C for Vuky to drive. In his pursuit to become the first man to win three consecutive 500s Vukovich qualified in the middle of the second row. When the race started he moved to the front, engaging in a ierce duel for the lead with his friend Jack McGrath before taking control and pulling away much as he had in previous years. Then on lap 57 disaster struck.
As Vukovich powered off the second turn he saw a mess of spinning cars ahead. It was a windy day and Rodger Ward had lost control coming off Turn 2. He spun, hit the wall and
rolled down the track. Al Keller and Johnny Boyd got involved in the accident, as did Vukovich. In an instant his car was lying, before flipping through a series of violent rolls and ending up outside the track after hitting some parked cars.
The wreckage burst into flames but Vukovich was already dead from a basal skull fracture. The loss of the sport’s biggest star prompted the AAA, now a booming road service and insurance company, into thinking about pulling out of the sport. When over 80 spectators were then killed at Le Mans it cut all ties, ending more than 60 years as the dominant force in American motor racing. Indianapolis boss Tony Hulman helped create a new sanctioning body for 1956 called USAC (the United States Auto Club), which would rule Indycar racing for 25 years before being replaced by CART and the IRL.
Vukovich’s son Bill Jr became a successful Indy driver, finishing second in the 1973 500 and third in ’74. He was also runner-up in the 1972 USAC Championship. Bill Jr’s son Billy raced with some success, qualifying at Indy in 1988-90, only to be killed in a sprint car later that year. Tragedy has twice visited the Vukovich family, but it remains one of the greatest names in the history of American racing.