Unfortunately, it was not to be. While holding a 17 second lead over 2nd place on lap 57 of the 1955 Indianapolis 500, Vukovich was unable to avoid a crash taking place in front of him as he came out of turn two. Vuky’s car struck Al Boyd’s spinning machine, went airborne, somersaulted over the backstretch wall, flipping multiple times before bursting into flames. The two-time 500 champion was dead at age 36.
He left behind an amazing legacy on several fronts. In the five 500s he competed in, he led an astonishing 71.7% of the laps he drove in competition on the 2.5mi oval and to this day is the only driver to lead the most laps in three consecutive years. His son, Bill II, went on to drive in the 500 12 times, was named Rookie of the Year in 1968, and had a best finish of 3rd in 1974. His grandson Bill III also competed at Indy, earning Rookie of the Year honors in 1988, and scoring a best finish of 12th in 1989 before tragically being killed in a sprint car race in California in 1990. – AJW
Vukovich death upholds three-in-row jinx
Sweikert to collect $75,000
Curly haired, boyish Bob Sweikert of Indianapolis will pick up a check of about $75,000 at the 500-mile auto race victory dinner tonight and somebody will accept at least $7,500 for Bill Vukovich’s widow.
Vukovich, an intense little Slovenian mechanic from Fresno, Calif., was feeding his exhaust fumes to the field for a fourth straight year when he died in a flaming wreck that took five cars out of the race Monday.
He won 50 of the first 56 laps before he died, at $150 a lap.
There were seven casualties in the bloodiest Memorial Day race since 1930, when seven cars smashed up in a single accident. The wrecks brought the speed down to 128.209 miles an hour, compared with Vukovich’s record 130.84 set last year.
Vuky had escaped injury late in the 1952 race when his steering failed and Troy Ruttman came on to win. He won in 1953 and 1954, and was going after the first three-in-a-row series in the speedway’s history.
Like the late Wilbur Shaw in 1941 and Mauri Rose in 1949, the driver had the stuff but fate stepped in to end the series at two straight.
Walt Faulkner of Long Beach, Calif., longtime competitor against Vukovich, unknowingly pronounced his memorial before the race.
“Vuky is the greatest race driver in this era,” Faulkner said in a casual conversation. “You can beat him only if his car fails of he wrecks. You’ll never beat the man.”
Monday’s race started off as a tremendous duel between Vukovich and Jack McGrath of Inglewood, Calif., the early leader in four of the last five Memorial Day classics.
In spite of a gusty wind, the two veteran drivers fought for the lead as if they were in a dirt track sprint.
McGrath, starting in the front row, won the first two laps. Vuky, starting in the second row, gradually took command and set a record of 136.212 miles an hour for the first 125 miles.
McGrath’s ignition system failed and he was through at 135 miles. Sweikert, Tony Bettenhausen of Tinley Park, Ill., Sam Hanks of Burbank, Calif., and 1954 national champion Jimmy Bryan of Phoenix were chasing — but not gaining on — Vukovich when the big wreck happened with stunning suddenness.
Rodger Ward of Los Angeles lost control coming out of the southwest turn. Johnny Boyd, fellow townman of Vukovich driving in his first 500, locked wheels with Al Keller, another speedway rookie from Green Acres, Fla., and both cars flipped.
Vukovich didn’t have a chance. His Hopkins Special plowed into the wreckage and bounced end over end. It went over the wall, hit a safety patrol car and stopped upside down, in flames.
Ed Elisian of Oakland, Calif., a friend of Vuky, skidded his car into the infield and ran across the track in an effort to help. But the swarthy, nerveless little man was dead — probably before the car came to rest.
Vukovich, 36, turned to the big cars, and the big money, after winning the national midget racing championship in 1950. He led in 486 of the last 800 laps raced at the speedway.
Ward escaped with a scraped nose. Injuries of Keller and Boyd also were relatively minor. Richard Wolfe suffered a fractured collarbone and Charles D Mallender a broken ankle in the patrol car his by one of Vukovich’s wheels.
Driver Cal Niday, 39, of Pacoima, Calif., also was injured severely when his car hit the wall on the northwest turn, late in the race. The car bounced into the infield and caught fire. Niday suffered burns, concussion and fractured ribs.
Fred Agabashian of Albany, Calif., Art Cross of La Porte, Ind., and Jimmy Reece of Oklahoma City escaped injury in spins.
Sweikert drove a smart, steady race and deserved the victory that came when the early front-runners were wrecked or slowed by mechanical troubles. The former Hayward, Calif., boy, who was sixth in AAA national standings last year, had failed to finish in the money in three previous speedway starts.
Vukovich’s death was the 46th since the first races at the speedway in 1909, two years before the first 500-mile event. They included 25 drivers, 14 mechanics, six spectators and one workman.
The drivers won’t know the exact amount each won until tonight’s victory dinner. The purse to be divided is based on the gate receipts, which the speedway never discloses.
Top photo: Bill Vukovich, just before the race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway; Photo 2: Snapshot during the race, before the crash; Photo 3: Vuky; Photo 4: Vukovich’s car immediately after the crash; Photo 5: 1955 Indy 500 winner Bob Sweikert being congratulated by wife Dorie.
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Publication: Long Beach Press Telegram (Long Beach, California)
Publication date: May 31, 1955