“When the radio announcer said that Vukie was involved in a wreck everyone let out a groan as they were rooting for him to win it for the third time. Yet later, when the announcement came that Vukovich was dead, it seemed as if the world had suddenly stopped.”
I became interested in the Indianapolis 500-Mile-Race when Bill Vukovich won his first “500” in 1953. He was the first hero I ever had. When he was killed it not only shocked and saddened me but the events that transpired up to, during and after the crash mystified and fascinated me. Even though I have been a serious fan of Indianapolis ever since, no event in racing has ever affected me as deeply as the Vukovich accident. Indeed, very little has affected me as deeply in my entire life.
The event haunted me for years and years. The questions kept surfacing in my mind and would never go away. I would play the accident over and over again in my mind with every scene and scenario and from as many points of view as I could regardless of how remote. What were the exact details of what happened leading up to, during and after the accident? Why did it happen? What was the actual cause of death — did Vukovich burn to death or did he die as a result of injuries suffered in the crash? Did he suffer?
When I finally decided to do this research in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s it was not easy to find information on this accident. People were impossible to locate and a lot of them had passed away. Old magazines and photos were difficult to locate and people were reluctant to talk about the incident. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway did and did not and does not supply pictures of fatal accidents. And people with pictures and writing material hung onto what they had and were reluctant to loan it out.
The more I researched the accident the more fascinated I became. Many new avenues were opened and I followed a great deal of them when I could. As I continued my research information that at one time seemed unimportant would suddenly gain new meaning and I would get new insight into the crash as well as the entire sphere of Indianapolis car racing of that era.
There was much more to researching the Vukovich Crash than going to the crash site on the backstretch, analyzing the available pictures and written material and going to some of the other pertinent locales. A thorough search was required to collect as many rare photographs and information as possible.
In an effort to get the full flavor and feel for the event it required visiting other related locations all over California and Indiana such as the Vukovich Memorial in Fresno, California (it was moved in the 70s); Vukovich’s grave site (his wife Esther is buried next to him); the original gas station that he operated (it still exists as a convenience store; the site of Kurtis Race Cars in Glendale, California where the Hopkins Special Roadster he was killed in was built, Vukovich’s home in Fresno, the Traco Engineering Shop in Culver City where Frank Coons and Jim Travers were headquartered and the home in Speedway, Indiana where Vukovich was staying in 1955 during the month of May. It also required talking to several surviving witnesses, researching many newspaper articles in Indiana and in California including Fresno, his hometown, plus many libraries, magazines and books which covered the subject.
I was fortunate that for quite a few years I worked across the street from the California State Library which has a collection on microfilm of every newspaper in the state, dating back to their beginning. During my lunch hours I would go over to the library and research May 30, 31 and several days into June of 1955 of every pertinent newspaper in California looking for information. While a lot of it was duplication, since Vukovich had raced in all over California in the 40s and 50s, quite a few sports writers wrote interesting articles and columns and the effort turned out to be quite worthwhile and productive.
A major research tool for this project included excellent 16mm movie prints of the race and accident. The print I used the most was the Dynamic Films Production of the 1955 race entitled “The Unforgettable 500”. Several different techniques were used to make photographic prints off the film. They included projecting individual frames onto special screens and then exposing black and white still images from the projected image and also making copies of selected frames onto 35mm film using special camera adapters. The film was also transferred to S-VHS video tape using an Eiki RTO Projector with five blade shutter and video enhancing and color correction equipment using special camera cropping techniques which enabled centering in and highlighting on any car in the accident in highly magnified form. Then, upon repeated playback using slow motion and stop action and a large screen video projection system, each and every move any particular car made was studied in great detail. This led to a very accurate picture of what happened. Individual frames of the accident from the film and from high-resolution photographs were also scanned directly onto computer and then computer enhanced using advanced software for analysis and subject labeling.
One of the best finds during the project was to run across a collection of 4×5 negatives and 35mm slides taken by a photographer who was at the crash site. The photographer, Russ Reed, was a staff photographer for the Oakland Tribune Newspaper. But he also took many racing photos in the San Francisco Bay area, Los Angeles and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Many of Reed’s photos wound up on the pages of Speed Age Magazine, the definitive racing magazine of the 1950s. The clarity and detail of these pictures, which are not in the possession of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway incidentally, were excellent and filled in many gaps in the investigation. One negative from the collection is the original from which a picture was used by Associated Press on the day of the accident and sent around the world and appeared on the front page of many daily newspapers. Many other negatives were of pictures that appeared in Speed Age over several years time. Reed also shot some color slides before and during the race and at the accident scene. Some have turned red over the years but nevertheless able to be color corrected through by computer enhancement.
Using ingenious techniques I made stereo slides (viewable on a special handheld viewer I made) from the 16mm film (not of the actual accident however) but of Vukovich in action on the track prior to the accident. While they have no particular research value concerning the accident, they were nevertheless quite fascinating. From my collection of still prints, I made stereo black & white transparencies of the car upside down after the accident which are viewable in 3-D on the hand held viewer, on a projection screen using polarized glasses or on a computer screen using red and blue anaglyth glasses.
The Vukovich crash never seemed to be just another cut and dried racing accident. The phenomenal characteristics of the event — the fact that Vukovich was going for his third straight win at the Brickyard; the fact that he was leading the race at the time of the accident; the events of the accident in which it could have been anybody else in that line of cars roaring down the backstretch — but it wasn’t — and just the out and out stature of the man, made it seem that this was more, much more, than just another racing accident. The chances of this happening to Vukovich, in just the way it did and at just the time it did, seemed impossible.
The confusion and misunderstand surrounding what happened in the accident began immediately. There were many reports most of which were out and out wrong and in some cases even seem to have been made up. On the day of and the day after the accident a majority of the news reports said Vukovich burned to death in his car. But there were still early reports by writers and even a couple of witnesses that were convinced Vukie died in the terrible crash before the car came to rest. One writer had Vukovich’s car landing almost 300 feet away from the outside fence where it did land. In one news article a writer tried to dramatize the event by making the point that Vukie had supposedly said once that at Indy you always turned left and that if you had to turn right you were in trouble and in this instance he had turned right thereby costing him his life.
Many of the accounts of the accident seemed to stress that for Vukie it was merely a case of the track being helplessly blocked and he just stumbled upon the scene after everything else had ended. While the track may have been blocked for him he was actually right in the thick of things almost immediately. There were about as many inaccurate reports as there were possible combinations. Other writers had Vukovich hitting Keller, Boyd being the cause of the accident and even Ed Elisian being to blame. Strangely enough there was an effort in the media a few days later to go back and make it clear Elisian was not the cause of the accident and even make him a bit of a hero in the incident. But very little else was ever done to clear up the details of the actual wreck. Even AAA had apparently a difficult time sorting out the accident. It was reported a three-man team did separate investigations and all came up with different stories.
After researching this for years, only one news story at the time was actually relatively accurate. Maybe that was coincidence in that with all those different combinations somebody had to get it close just by chance. But even that story still had some important flaws and inaccuracies. The reality was there really was no way for anyone to know exactly what happened for at least several days after the race and then only if one had all available films and photos available in hand. And by that time the damage had been done and it was too late. With today’s technology we can have immediate replays of most accidents from several different angles using videotape. In those days, sometimes it took two or three days to get all movie film processed and distributed and viewed if you even had any at all. Within minutes of the accident all of the confusion had already begun and most people had already formed their opinion of what had happened in the first couple of days and that was that Vukie had burned to death.
The accident really needed a commission appointed to study it and issue some kind of report. But under the circumstances anything like that then would have been nearly impossible. The Vukovich death hit extremely hard and many people wanted to put it behind them and in some cases maybe even cover it up or change the public’s perception of it. There was a public outcry to ban automobile racing after the Vukovich accident and the Le Mans tragedy which followed a couple of weeks later. Even young Evangelist Billy Graham got into the act calling into question the morality of automobile racing. So this may be the closest to that kind of a report ever done.
As for the man himself he was a giant. I have asked many people who either knew Vukovich or read a lot about him and about what kind of a person he was. I have got about as many answers as there were people and I suppose this would be true of most anyone. But some of the things that kept surfacing were that he had a good sense of humor and was not necessarily the standoffish person to his friends he might first appear to be to those who did not know him.
He was a family man who wanted security for his family after being raised in poverty working in the grape fields near Fresno. He wanted them to have what he didn’t and racing was a way to make considerable money. He had purchased the gas station with his Indy winnings and was thinking about buying a couple more when he was killed. There was never any talk that I found about Vukovich being in any kind of trouble.
One of the big differences between Vukovich and the other drivers in how they approached racing is that Vukie had an insatiable desire and unending quest to be the best there ever was. The other difference with Vukovich was when he got into a racecar. He was as hard a charger as anyone who ever pulled on a racing glove. He seemed to do what most drivers dare not do — drive as hard as he could all the time. With a driving style like that it would almost guarantee you’d get into serious trouble but Vukovich seemed to get away with it. He got more out of car than most people dared to do and yet was still easy on the equipment.
There is a very limited supply of photos and movies of Vukie. Not surprisingly a lot of people remember him most from those Victory Lane photos and those taken after the 1953 race in which he was little more than a crumpled up man on a garage bench. In other movies and photos I’ve collected when he wasn’t so tired he seemed fairly relaxed most of the time and enjoying life. But when he got into a racecar he pushed himself and his cars to the absolute limit.
One thing is certain — he loved Indianapolis. While I haven’t seen it in print per se anywhere one can easily deduct that he had found what he was looking for the first time he walked into the place. I’m sure to him it was the ultimate speed plant — two and one half miles of pure beauty and speed with payoffs to match. Vukie seem to feel that Indianapolis was his own personal playground and tamed it. And after discovering the speed Mecca he decided it didn’t make much financial sense to compete in other events on the Championship Trail for the risks involved. People were losing their lives regularly in the other races and while Indy was dangerous it was still only one race a year for four and one half-hours. Surely one could survive.
As an example of how committed Vukie was to driving only the Brickyard, in 1953 race promoter and car owner J.C. Agajanian pleaded with Vukie to compete in his 100-Mile-Race at Sacramento to help bolster ticket sales. Vukie was very reluctant partially because he did not want to chance getting into a higher tax bracket but finally said he would drive. But in a strange twist he was 19th fastest qualifier and failed to make the show. He didn’t let down his friend Aggie but still figured out a way to stay out of the race. He had driven his 1953 Ford Indy Pace car up from Fresno and wound up driving it as pace car for the race.
Naturally, the main legend of Vukovich centers on his two wins and his attempt at three straight. No driver has ever achieved that goal. It is doubtful any driver ever will. If one does, he will be supremely lucky and superhuman and have the best team racing has ever had. Helio Castroneves had a shot at it before A.J. Foyt IV blocked him just enough for him to lose the lead with just a few laps to go when going for his third straight. Al Unser Sr. came close by finishing near the top of the field when going for his third in a row. So think about it. Vukovich had all but won the 1952 race when his car slid to a stop up against the wall in the Northeast turn with less than 10 laps to go. There was a controversy over whether he had mechanical trouble or had “cracked” under the relentless pressure of Troy Ruttman who was running in second. But Vukovich did “crack” when the media implied it after the race. After that, he was reluctant to discuss anything with reporters. He left his talking to his right foot and went on to win the next two 500s. So in 1955 he could have easily been going for his fourth straight win. But did this convince the news reporters? Not yet. He still had to win that next race.
So here was Vukovich leading in that blue Hopkins Special blasting around the Indianapolis Speedway on a cold day in May going for his third straight while the media were sitting at their typewriters about ready to become believers when the impossible happened. And they never got a chance to write it.
The race drivers of that era were heroes and he was a giant among them — maybe the biggest hero of them all. While focusing on the terrible details of the accident let’s not forget it.
The Accident Participants
* Bill Vukovich, Fresno, California, two-time winner of the Indianapolis “500” in 1953 and 1954, going for his third straight win. His car, the Hopkins Special No. 4 — dark metallic blue Kurtis Roadster originally built in 1954 at Kurtis-Kraft Race Car shop at 4635 Alger Street in Los Angeles — serial number 372. Qualified and driven in the 1954 Indianapolis 500-Mile-Race by Pat O’Conner as the Hopkins Special. Finished in 21st position after spinning out in the Southeast Turn on lap 122. After the 1955 race the car was rebuilt and qualified by Jim Rathmann for the 1956 “500” and lead the first lap. Car was entered in the 1957 race by Doug Carruthers as the Braun Birch #67 driven by Don Edmunds who failed to make the field. Frank Arciero had car and last attempted to qualify it in 1959 equipped with a Masarati V-8 engine with Shorty Templeman behind the wheel but failed. The car never raced again and now resides in the National AutomobielMuseum in Raamsdonkiveer. Vukovich, in 1955, was originally slated to drive the red Keck Engineering streamliner car but it was not completed in time for the race. There are also reports that owner Howard Keck lost interest in racing and had taxes to take into consideration. One story says that Keck was not even at the track when Vukie won his second “500” in 1954 — that he was on the 14th hole of a golf course when somebody informed him his car had just won the Indy 500. It is reported that he actually became very upset because he bought the car for a tax write off and that by winning the race it put him into a higher tax bracket. Jack Beckley, one of Vukovich’s mechanics in 1955, said that Vukovich was going to drive the Hopkins Special the entire ’55 season and that ’53-’54 mechanics Frank Coons and Jim Travers went with the deal. So the 1955 Hopkins Special team was formed. The streamliner car was never run but still is in existence and has been on display at various automotive museums. See Vukovich Personality Profile.
* Johnny Boyd, Fresno, California, rookie in his first Indianapolis 500. His car, the Sumar Special No 39, Kurtis roadster 500C serial number 371, dark blue built in 1954. Kurtis Kraft records show this is the same car in which Jerry Unser was to drive at Indy in 1958. He wound up driving the No 92 McKay Special and the Sumar car did not qualify..
* Rodger Ward, Los Angeles, California, Aristo Blue Special No 27, dirt track style car, white with light purple trim. This was the same car that won the 1952 Indianapolis 500 with Troy Ruttman driving.
* Al Keller, Rookie in his first Indianapolis “500”. Sam Traylor Special No. 42, dirt track car, Kurtis chassis serial number 323 built in 1949. This car was never run at Indianapolis again.
* Ed Elisian, Oakland, California, Westwood Gauge & Tool Special, No. 68, white with blue trim, Kurtis chassis serial number 345 built in 1952. This car never raced at Indianapolis again as well. (Note: Elisian was not involved in the actual accident. Due to the fact he stopped as a result of the accident and than participated in the aftermath, he is listed as an accident participant. Also, Elisian’s original family name was spelled Eliseian but used Elisian.
Other Key Participants Involved
* Jack McGrath, Inglewood, California, Hinkle Special No. 3 and fast qualifier for the month. Kurtis Roadster 500C serial number 369 built in 1954, light yellow in color. (Note: Even though he had the fastest qualifying speed McGrath did not sit on the pole at the start of the race as he was a second day qualifier.)
* Esther Vukovich, wife of the two-time winner.
* Lawrence Thompson Family, 15th Street, Speedway, Indiana.
* Dr. C. B. Bohner, Chief Medical Director, Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
There has been some misunderstanding over the years of what actually transpired to result in the order in which the cars started the race and how the fastest car in the field did not wind up on the pole position.
From all reports combined this seems to be the most accurate account of what happened. On Pole Day the wind was so strong that nobody even tried to qualify until Jerry Hoyt in the Jim Robbins Special #23 went out at 5:33 p.m. and turned in a four lap average of 140.045 miles per hour. Tony Bettenhausen in the Chapman Special Car #10 went out after him and his four-lap average was 139.985 mph hour giving him second place in the starting field. Those were the only qualifiers on Saturday even though Pat O’Conner in the Ansted-Rotary Special Car 29 made an attempt at almost 6:00 o’clock but was waved off before he completed it. On Sunday Vukovich qualified at 141.071 miles per hour for the ten miles but it left him third fastest for the day and fifth in the starting field behind the two first day qualifiers and faster second day qualifiers Fred Agabashian in the Federal Engineering Special and Jack McGrath who, incidentally, set a new one lap record of 143.793 and a new four lap average record of 142.580.
One situation concerning qualifying which played a part in the accident story are the circumstances that got Vukie’s good friend Ed Elisian into the field and in a position to be where he was at when the accident occurred. According to several sources this is how those events transpired.
Elisian was originally entered to drive car number 25, the Lutes Truck Parts Special entered by the Francis Bardazon Co. But Elisian could not get the car up to speed. Since there had been a lot of rain there were a backlog of drivers waiting to qualify. It was the last day of time trials and time was running short and the 68 car was near the front of the line, Elisian offered the driver sitting in the car $100.00 to get out of it and he accepted. Elisian made a qualifying run at 5:50 p.m. He was given the red flag when he didn’t take the green to start his run by what was mistakenly counted as his third warm-up lap. Elisian’s team, with fans booing the officials, protested that Elisian had only taken two laps and should not have been called off the run. J.C. Agajanian said that if the officials did not let Elisian run he was going to pull his already qualified car from the field. After nearly an hour spent in checking and rechecking the timing tapes Chief Steward Harry McQuinn ruled that the timing officials were mistaken and Elisian would be allowed to complete the qualification attempt. This brought protests from the Brady crew saying the time had run out and no more runs should have been allowed. But the qualification run was completed sometime after 7:00 p.m. and Len Duncan, driver of the Brady Special, was bumped from the field. And as an added note, when Elisian pulled into the pits after the run the Firestone tire engineers swarmed over the car. When Elisian asked them what was wrong they said that they had timing traps set up in all the turns and he had gone through all of them faster than anybody the entire month. If Elisian’s team had not protested or if officials had ruled against him and he wasn’t allowed to make the run and subsequently make the field he would not have been in the race and coming out of the Southeast Turn just in time to see his good friend Bill Vukovich go over the wall.
It should be noted that Elisian and Vukovich were very good friends. In doing research some of Elisian’s racing memorabilia was uncovered. Some of it included pictures Elisian took of Vukovich at various places around the Speedway including the cafeteria and posing in front of the Speedway Main Gate like he was a tourist.
The Race Day Crowd Attendance was reported to be at 160,000 although there were reports there were fewer people than in previous years. There were 2,000 (windswept) grandstand seats not sold at race time.
Race Day Weather
The Race Day weather is important because the wind at least played a factor in the accident. Writer Russ Catlin, in writing in the 1955 Floyd Clymer 500-Mile-Race Yearbook, described the weather as “opening with an ominous outlook” and he described the early morning as being cold and chilly with heavy, dirty, moisture filled clouds. He said the weather report called for some wind, cloudiness and general cooling but the real atmosphere was one to “make you feel you wish you weren’t there.” In another local news story in an Indianapolis Newspaper Vaughn Oswald wrote that at 9:05 a.m. the temperature stood at 54 degrees. Other reports had the temperature also at 54 degrees at race time. Oswald said the day appeared grey and threatening with shifting winds of 20-25 miles per hour. Some reports had the wind at 25-30 mph. Oswald said Saturday had nearly a full day of rain and there had been rain Sunday evening but the weather forecast called for no rain on Race Day. The record low for that date was 37 in 1889 and tied in 1947. The Craig Stewart motion picture film of the 1955 race entitled “The 39th Indianapolis 500” shows the flags on the back of the paddock grandstands to be standing almost straight out just before the race began with winds coming from the Northeast. The Dynamic 16mm film showed flags during the balloon release fluttering around significantly. Most reports talked of winds of 20-25 miles per hour and shifty conditions. On the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network broadcast Sid Collins gave the weather during the race just prior to the accident at 56 degrees, 69 percent humidity, winds at 15-17 mph with gusts up to 25 mph — conditions which he described as “almost perfect for racing”.
IMS Radio Network announcer Bill Frosch who was working the South Straightaway reported during the race that this would “probably go down as the 500 of the big wind”. He reported flags on the tops of the grandstands in that area were “standing out perfectly flat and whipping as hard as they possibly can”. Later in the broadcast after the accident had already happened Northeast Turn Reporter Jim Shelton made particular mention that cars were fishtailing severely.
In other reports there were numerous references to the cold and shifty wind as well. From all this it can be assumed that it was windy, overcast and cold. But it should be noted that the sun did make an appearance a couple of times before and after the accident on the 57th lap.