I doubt any critics will be surprised that on Thursday, 27 August, 1909 - opening day for the industrial test tack called the Indianapolis Motor Speedway - two men were killed. The day began with Barney Oldfield setting a closed track speed record, covering a measured mile on the crushed stone and tar and water soaked surface in 43 1/5 seconds – 84 miles per hour. And then Louis Chevrolet ran 4 laps (10 miles) around the 2 ½ mile oval in 8 minutes and 56 seconds – 67 miles per hour - another world speed record. But the centerpiece of the opening day was sponsored by a company that made natural gas lamps for automobiles, the “Prest-O-Lite 250 mile, $1,500 Trophy” race.
Even though there were only nine cars entered, the track surface quickly began to come apart. Arthur Chevrolet, driving a Buick, was lapping the field when, on lap 52, a stone kicked up by a slower car hit his goggles, driving glass fragments into his eye. Somehow he safely pulled off the track. Six laps later driver Wilfrid “Billy” Bourque, was warned by his riding mechanic Harry Holcombe of a car coming up from behind. While barreling down the main stretch at over 75 miles an hour, Wildrid looked over his shoulder, thus not seeing a deep rut torn in the surface just in front of the start/finish line.
The big steering wheel was jerked to the left, sending the car careening through a fence and slamming into the embankment of a drainage ditch. Following the laws of the conservation of energy, the back end of the car kept trying to continue at speed, lifting up to overcome the obstacle, flipping the car upside down and catapulting the unrestrained passengers out of the cockpit. Harry Holcomb was hurled into a fence post, breaking both his arms, several of his ribs and smashing his skull. He died instantly. With a death grip on the over sized steering wheel Wilfrid "William" Bourque, stayed with the 2,300 pound car longer, slamming into the earth closer to the upended car. Doctors found both of his legs were broken, one lung was punctured by broken ribs and his skull also fractured. He died without ever regaining consciousness. The Marion County coroner John J. Blackwell blamed the condition of the race track for the deaths.
But principle owner/promoter Carl Fisher (above), who was also an Indianapolis auto maker, insisted the track was safe. And Friday's races were held without incident. Then, on Saturday, 29 August, in front of more then 35,000 fans, the crushed stone track came apart again. This time a racer went off the track and plowed into the crowd. Again a riding mechanic was killed, this time along with two spectators, Homer Joliff, and James West. When another race car smashed into supports for a pedestrian bridge over the main stretch, the race was halted 65 laps short. Critics started calling the speedway “Fisher's Folly”.
But Carl was no fool. He canceled races set for October, and instead replaced the entire surface with 3,200,000 ten pound paving bricks. Guardrails were also installed on all four turns. “The Brickyard” was thus born, as was the myth that tragedies at the track immediately inspired new safety improvements. The first “Memorial Day 500 mile Sweepstakes” was held on Saturday, 27 May, 1911, and was won by Ray Harroun with his riding mechanic replaced by a rear view mirror, so Harroun would not have to turn his head to look for overtaking traffic. But in fact, Harroun's innovation inspired a rule requiring all cars to carry riding mechanics, which was not lifted until 1936, after another unlucky 13 riding mechanics had been killed at the track
Between the first tragic event in 1909 and 1950, 36 drivers and riding mechanics, two track workers and five spectators were killed at the Indianapolis Speedway, including 12 year old Wilbur Brink (above), who died while sitting in his own front yard at 2316 Georgetown Road . On Memorial Day, 1931 a rear wheel broke off a race car and came careening across the street, crushing the boy. It would be 1999 before wheel tethers would be required on all Indy cars to prevent that from happening again, or at lest make it less likely.
But who were these men who risked their lives to drive in circles in 1950? Over half of the drivers who started the 1950 Indy 500 would die in racing accidents. The risks seem obvious today, because they still drove without seat belts (not required until 1956) roll bars (1959) or minimum standards for helmets (1960). But to that generation of drivers, the dangers were accepted. Almost without exception, they raced not because they loved speed, although they might. They raced because they were good at it, because if you won it paid better than an hourly wage, and even if you lost, it did not involve a much greater risk than construction or farming in the days before work place safety regulations.
In 1950 what may have been the most naturally talented driver who would ever race in Indianapolis arrived at the track from California. His name was William “Bill” Vukovich; or to the press “The Mad Russian” or more accurately "The Silent Serb". His few friends just called him "Vuky". He was by all the accounts of those who saw him and who raced against him, the greatest natural driver they had ever seen. His father had been a carpenter who, on 13 December, 1923, had shot himself - on Bill’s 14th birthday. Vuky had to drop out of school to support his mother and his five brothers and six sisters. He began racing hot rods on the weekends, because he earned up to $15 for winning a race.
It was a cut throat competition. If Vuky didn’t win, his family might not eat. Vuky warned his older brother, when he took up the sport, “Don’t tangle with me. On the track you are just another driver.” By his 18th birthday Vuky was winning races regularly. And despite burns on his hands, broken shoulders, cracked ribs and a broken collar bone, all suffered in accidents, he was now earning up to $50 a week, at a time when the highest paid union workers (typesetters) were making $75 a week.
To the local press, he became “The Fresno Flash”. Vuky didn’t smoke or drink and he stayed in shape by running daily. All he cared bout was winning races. He was, in the words of one competitor, “…the epitome of excellence in motion”. And daring. In one race Vuky so frightened his riding mechanic, the man could not stop screaming. Finally, while the car was airborne yet again, Vuky took his hands off the wheel and told his complaining companion, “Okay, you drive it.” After the race the mechanic retired. But Vuky won that race. It was the age of “iron men in steel cars”, when trauma and fear were things to be endured but not talked about because nothing could be done to mitigate them. And the shy, quiet Yugoslavian with the lead foot seemed to fit that image.
Vuky couldn't get a ride on his first trip to Indianapolis in 1950, despite being the National midget car champion. But in the 1951 race, Vuky started in the 20th position and 15 laps later he was running 10th. Fifteen laps after that he was out of race with a broken oil tank. But for his 29th place finish, Vuky earned $750. And he earned respect. The next year he was hired to replace three time 500 winner Mauri Rose, who was retiring. With a competitive car under his hands, Vuky was leading the 1952 race when a steering pin broke with just 8 laps to go, sending him into a wall. He finished 17th.
In 1953, Vuky led 195 out of 200 laps and survived scorching temperatures (130 degrees Fahrenheit on the track, which caused one driver to die of heat prostration). And he won his first Indy 500 by 3 ½ minutes over the second place car of Art Cross .
Vuky's purse was $89,496.00 (the equivalent of $760,000 today). And there can be no doubt, he won the race because of his skill. his physical conditioning, and because of his determination.
But neither can there be any doubt, the victory and the effort were draining his body and mind. He was still running, still trying to prove himself worthy to a father who left.
The next year, 1954, Vuky won again, becoming only the third driver in history to win back-to-back 500’s. Roger Ward, who would go on to win two 500s himself, said that “Bill Vukovich was probably the greatest actual driver we have ever known…”. Vuky’s formula for success remained simple. "The only way to win here is to keep your foot on the throttle and turn left." The money was important, because Vuky had two growing children to support.
At the start of the 1955 race Vuky (above, left) and Jack McGrath (above, right) dueled through gusty winds for the lead. But Vuky took first place on lap 26 and never gave it up. By lap 48 he was leading McGrath by 10 seconds and had a full lap lead over 26 of the 33 other cars in the field. Then on lap 54 Jack McGrath dropped out with mechanical problems. Vuky seemed to be well on his way to an historic three straight Indy 500 wins.
Then, on lap 57 Vuky swept out of Turn Two and started down the 5/8 of a mile long back stretch. Just in front of him were the slower cars of Roger Ward, NASCAR driver Al Keller and rookie Johnny Boyd. Vuky was approaching a window for a pit stop and he took the opportunity to glance down at his rear tires (the drive wheels) to check for wear. That may have been a fatal mistake, because suddenly things began to happen with lightening speed. A guest of wind had hit Ward’s car just as it came off the 14 degree banking of the second turn. This shoved him into the outside wall (above, smoke). No one caused it. It was a racing accident.
Ward's car bounced off the wall sideways. The edge of both left side tires caught on the bricks, and his car flipped twice (above, right). Keller steered left, away from of Ward’s car (above left).
Roger Ward' car landed right side up in the middle of the track (above center). Meanwhile, Keller (above left), trying to avoid spinning out on the infield grass, turned his steering wheel to the right, back onto the tack. But he over corrected.
Keller clipped Al Boyd’s car, sending it in front of Vuky 's number 14. In that instant, and just for that instant, the track was completely blocked. Nobody was to blame. It was the classic “racing accident”. Vuky’s left front tire struck Boyd’s spinning right front tire. The moving surface catapulted Vuky's car into the air. (above, right) at over 130 miles an hour.
Vuky's car just cleared the low outside wall, and then came down nose first, the heavy engine driving itself into the pavement of the service road (above, center). Again, conservation of momentum drove the rear of Vuky's car forward, sending it head over tail, flipping down the service road. On that first flip, Vuky's head clipped the bottom of the pedestrian bridge (above, background) stretching over the backstretch, almost decapitating him.
Having passed under the bridge, Vuky's car was now cartwheeling down the service road outside the wall.
The nose of the roadster slammed into the hood of a parked car, tore across the hood of a red pickup truck (above)....
...and then crashed onto the top of a jeep, occupied by two national Guardsmen.
Vuky’s car then flipped once more, before slamming into the ground upside down (above, center), 400 feet (2 city blocks) from where it had sailed over the fence at 130 miles an hour. Fire broke out from the ruptured fuel tank within seconds.
A friend of Vuky’s from Fresno, Ed “Smokey” Elisian, came out of the number two turn just after Vuky went over the wall. Sensing what had happened, he slid to a halt on the infield grass and then ran across the track (above, in white, center) almost being struck by another racer, desperate to reach his friend.
He and others tried to lift the car to pull Vuky out, but the flames drove the would-be rescuers back. Ed Elisian kept repeating, “I’ve got to get him out.” But it was twenty minutes before fire equipment arrived (there were no fire engines stationed on the outside the track) and the car was finally cool enough to be tipped over to pull Vuky’s lifeless body out of the wreckage.
Looking at the car after the crash (above), it is difficult to believe a man died in it. The car remained largely intact, except for the cutting made to allow removal of Vuky's body. All of the violence of the impact had been transferred directly to the driver.
The fear and horror was that Vuky had died in the fire, burning alive while trapped under his car, trying to claw his way out (above). But the autopsy showed he had died before the fire ever broke out, from a basal skull fracture suffered while flipping under the pedestrian bridge. That obstruction would be removed the next year, in 1956, and replaced by a tunnel.
Bill Vukovich has a record never equaled at the Indianapolis Speedway, and one that may never be matched. Now only did he lead the most laps for three years in a row, but he led 72% of all the laps he ran in competition at the Indianapolis Speedway. Could he have won three in a row? When asked, Vuky was pragmatic: "I plan on driving a couple of more years here anyway. And a guy can keep on winning here. He's got to have luck, sure, and the right combination. But it's not impossible. Nothing is impossible." There was no second place for Bill Vukovich. And that is still true. He is buried in his home town of Fresno, California.
Details of the crash have been exhaustively researched by Rex Dean, whose web site offers a comprehensive and well written forensic account of Vuky’s final accident. The death toll at the speedway now totals 66, the last driver killed being Tony Renna, who died in October 2003, in a crash during tire testing. The attendance on race day now exceeds 300,000 people. The average speed for the 33 racers for the 2014 Indy field was 223 miles per hour, and the winner covered the 500 miles in 3 hours and 5 minutes. Safely
Impressive, for a track designed in 1908, for cars averaging 90 miles per hour, in which safety was less of a concern than pushing the car to the breaking point of its parts. The human spirit, its courage and traumas, has survived the test track called the Indianapolis Speedway for over a century. But the cost has been high.
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