The announcements concerning the autopsy and other medical information are somewhat sketchy and contradictory. According to a story in the Fresno Bee written by Ed Orman, Sports Editor, an autopsy was performed by Dr. C. B. Bohner, Chief of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Medical Staff, probably on Tuesday, May 31st. On June 1 Dr. Bohner announced Vukovich had died of a skull fracture. “He unquestionably was at least unconscious and probably dead before the fire started” Dr. Bohner was quoted as saying. Virtually the same story appeared in the Indianapolis newspapers so it was undoubtedly a news wire service story Orman was quoting from in his byline article.
In another news article Dr. Ray B. Storms, the Marion County Coroner, stated Vukovich suffered a crushed skull. If this is true then Vukovich was dead long before the effects of the fire or smoke inhalation would have killed him. Judging from the damage to the headrest and cockpit area of the wrecked car and the position that Vukovich occupied in the cockpit, it is easy to see how Vukovich could have received very serious head injuries as a result of the accident..
That same story, however, also threw out some very bizarre and false information which will not be repeated here and was the only place found anywhere where the County Coroner referred to the accident. That same story also reported that 90% of Vukovich’s body was burned and his right arm was almost torn off — the only place the arm injury was mentioned. The writer also wrote that Vukovich’s left hand was in a death grip on the steering wheel and his right leg was rigidly applied to the brakes. (This is not correct, as it was his left arm and hand that was visible at the accident scene, not his right). But one must consider the fact, however, that the writer might have just made a mistake on the right and left arm and there was some accurate information in other areas of his reporting. But it would have been nearly impossible under those conditions for anyone to determine if his foot was “rigidly on the brake”. Some of the information appearing in this story were very wild and speculative even though worth noting here.
Therefore, due to the nature of some of these reports, the possibility has been left open at least that the details of the autopsy which was reportedly conducted by the Speedway Medical Director Bohner, while there were definitely fatal head and other injuries involved, their severity might have been inadvertently exaggerated slightly, or maybe even deliberately, to make it appear absolutely certain for various reasons that Vukovich died before the car caught on fire.
Some people have said it might have been in the best interest of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to make it appear Vukovich did not die by being burned to death. But this report concludes without much doubt the autopsy was true and correct. Due to the sensitive nature of the accident, the death certificate and the autopsy report were not obtained. Some people said that it could not be obtained even by trying. But the overall conclusions reached on the medical aspects of this event seem to generally reflect the conclusions of the Speedway Medical Director in what information has been obtained to this point. According to one source who actually read the autopsy report, it says that while Vukovich did indeed suffer a major head injury his burns were not as severe as most people would suspect. According to the report Vukovich received burns on his neck, arm and various other parts of the body. But they alone, according to this source, may not have been enough to prove fatal. In addition, photos and reports from the mechanics who inspected the car the next day show the upholstery, seat and steering wheel were not severely burned by fire. Vukovich had not yet been in for his first stop so the fuel tank was running low. Perhaps most of the fire was around the tail and the tires which put out most of the black smoke. Vukovich was somewhat cocooned off from the major part of the blaze. Photos of the car the next day show paint still intact as far forward as the cockpit and those areas on the side of the car that appeared to be burns were actually co2 stains. In reference to safety restraints in regards to the accident, it is safe to say that in those days racecar safety was not an area that got a lot of attention. In the case of Vukovich he was wearing basically the standard seatbelt arrangement that most drivers wore. This consisted of a lap belt and something called a Sam Brown belt which was a leather harness that went around the driver’s midsection and then, in conjunction with a strap that went over the driver’s shoulder and connected to the frame of the car, kept the driver from being pulled to the right by centrifugal forces in the turns. But the Sam Brown belt did little to keep the driver from going forward in an impact and that is exactly what happened to Vukovich when the nose of the car made initial contact with the ground. It is deceiving to look at photos of some of the drivers in those days because the way the belt did appear to the uneducated eye was that it could have been a full five point harness system. But that was not the case.
*Vukovich was very likely unconscious and beyond knowing anything when his car came to a stop upside down. He was more than likely still alive in some form even though he reportedly received severe head injuries in the accident. Even though he would have died of at least the smoke inhalation had he lived long enough he most likely died as the result of the head injuries before the effects of the fire and smoke could prove fatal. Were there no fire he would not have survived due to his head injuries and the violence of the accident. (see ambulance driver interview) according to what we know about the details of the autopsy. But since with a basal skull fracture (the reported injury), even if the spinal cord has been severed, one could have lived three to five minutes. But that means he still would have died before the smoke inhalation and/or burns would have killed him. There were conflicting reports from witnesses as to what happened right after his spinning Hopkins Special came to rest upside down especially in regards to the movement of his arm as reported by some witnesses. With the reported injuries some spastic type and minor movements of his hand may have occurred. But his left arm was completely pinned by the weight of the car so the movement as apparently described by one witness that he was trying to get out would have been impossible. In fact, the aftermath photos show that the car apparently came down on Vukovich’s arm with such force it bent the body of the car. So there is no way his arm could have been pushed out from the cockpit by him or pulled back by him and there could have been very little movement at all outside of his hand. After exhaustive research and with the help of newly surfaced photographs and techniques to examine them and the motion pictures, it is highly probable, almost certain, that Vukovich was beyond knowing anything after he sustained the head and other injuries as stated by the doctor who did the autopsy when the cockpit of the car smashed upside down on the ground. This disagrees with some reports, some very official, which said Vukovich had definitely received the head injuries from colliding with one of the vehicles and bridge. But according to the movies only the tail section and nose of the car hit the vehicles, not the cockpit area. This report places the fatal injuries occurring when the car slammed upside down on the ground just before coming to rest.
*From we know and could see, had Vukovich been conscious or even unhurt when the car came to rest upside down he would have most likely died of smoke inhalation and/or burns from the fire. Because of where the car landed there was not enough fire equipment readily available and the fire was too intense for rescue people to get him out before he would have suffered fatal injuries.
*The start of the accident was not caused by Vukovich. The track was almost helplessly blocked for him. He made no wrong decisions but he might have had a way out had he continued to go right. But he chose what turned out to be the wrong way. But it must be pointed out that he couldn’t tell which way that was going to be before it was too late.
*Contrary to the rumors Vukie did not have a premonition or have a bad feeling about the race. There were no credible reports that this was fact. According to Jim Smith of the Indianapolis Times who walked into the track with him said Vukie had no premonition about the race. He said he felt good and ready to go after his third straight win. He even said Vukovich told him he had such a good night’s sleep he didn’t hear the midgets racing on 16th Street and asked if they had run.
* This was not necessarily going to be Vukovich’s last race. But by that time Vukovich raced as a hobby and said in an interview in 1954 that there was no longer much of a thrill in driving — it had just become hard work. And in the same interview he did say that if he won his third race he might consider retirement. But he also said in an interview in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1954 that he got fidgety if he didn’t get behind the wheel and that was why he continued to drive Indianapolis. But he had all but retired from regular Championship Trial competition with the exception of Indianapolis. But this could have been strictly from a safety standpoint as Vukovich knew the big payoffs were at Indy and he said from time to time he didn’t feel it financially worth the risk to compete in the other events. Dale Burgess of Associated Press reported that Vukovich promised his wife shortly before the race that it would be his last 500 and the Associated Press was and is very rarely wrong in its facts. But in an interview in the Indianapolis Times two days later Esther Vukovich said “I always felt the longer he stayed in racing the more he pushed his luck. The danger gets worse every year.” But she denied reports that Vukovich was quitting. She admitted that he was getting fed up with it but was not about to quit. And he never promised her it was his last race although she said that’s what the news reports were saying.
*The news media did show some interest in what the films eventually showed. In one widely distributed news story Les Becker of Dynamic Films, after viewing the developed films, gave a very brief but fairly coherent account of the accident. Where the information came up short was a close analysis of the Keller movements. While they had him coming across the track into Boyd, nothing was ever mentioned about what led up to it. Becker also said it was his determination that the Vukovich car burst into flames almost immediately after stopping. Apparently there were witnesses at the crash site who said no fire was visible for a few moments after the car stopped.
*Vukovich’s car did not hit the footbridge. The car went over the outside fence before the footbridge abutment. It missed the abutment by several feet. The best chance the car had at hitting the bridge at all was with the tail section when it was nosed down while going under the bridge. There is nothing from the films of the accident or photos of the bridge after the accident to indicate the Vukovich car touched the bridge. Johnny Boyd’s car, however, did hit the bridge abutment during the accident and there was blue paint and damage at the base of the abutment from that contact.
*The car did not flip “at least five times” as some reports said. The car flipped four and one half times.
More Puzzling Questions and Answers
* Did Vukovich’s car hit the Studebaker, the pickup and the Jeep or did it only hit the Studebaker and the pickup and a tire hit the jeep?
According to photographic evidence and eyewitness accounts three vehicles outside the fence were damaged — a blue and white Studebaker 4-door sedan; a red Ford F-100 pickup truck and a white Speedway Safety Patrol Jeep. The exact involvement of these vehicles is one of the most important factors in determining exactly what inflicted the injuries to Vukovich in the accident. A very important photo shows the Studebaker sedan and the Ford F-100 Pickup parked side by side both with serious damage to their hoods. In fact, the Ford Pickup was smashed so severely the radiator was ruptured and was leaking water. The jeep had damage to its windshield, cloth top, steering wheel and steering column. When looking at the movies and comparing them to the damage to the vehicles and their respective locations it can be difficult to see how the Vukovich car in its travel could have caused the damage to the Jeep. But it wasn’t impossible. It is also difficult to see how a tire could have caused the damage as well. After exhaustive examination it was determined the damage to the sedan and pickup were so severe and of such a nature that a tire could not have inflicted it. It had to have been Vukovich car. To further help confirm this conclusion is that if a tire hit the jeep then why was no tire found as far down the track as the jeep? If the tire hit the jeep it must have bounced back up the track after hitting it but that seems highly implausible. During the crash sequence Vukovich’s car was in a position at one instant to have contacted the Jeep and done the damage. But the final determining factor in all this was the actual damage to the Jeep probably showed much more evidence of being hit by the car than by a wheel — although it is difficult to see how it could have happened in any case. Wolf would have had to have been sitting in the jeep with the Vukovich car — in mid air — slamming into the jeep at the drivers side, bending the steering wheel and steering column down on his lap (without actually hitting him) and then continue on and slam upside down on the ground all in a fraction of a second. The bottom line, though, is that this report has concluded that the Vukovich car clipped all three vehicles — the Studebaker, The Ford F-100 pickup and the Safety patrol jeep, in that order, just before slamming upside down on the ground.
* In the available crash films it is impossible to see conclusively the racecar actually hitting the two vehicles. But there are only two opportunities — one when the car was flying though the air and possibly clipping them and the other was when it crashed upside down. Where then in the crash sequence did the racecar actually hit the Studebaker and the pickup? Did it just clip the vehicles when it was flying though the air or did it crash upside down on them?
It clipped them when flying through the air.
* Vukovich’s arm was pinned beneath the car when it came to rest. When the car was turned over, it could be seen that the bodywork was bent as a result of the car slamming upside down with his arm hanging outside the cockpit. When did this damage to the car occur — the first or second time the car landed upside down?
The second time because Vukovich’s arm was not outside the car until the last minute of its travel.
* Did Vukovich make a pit stop before the accident?
He did not.