Final Events and Statements
The Memorial Service in Indianapolis
According to news reports an unprecedented Memorial Service was held in Speedway on Wednesday, June 1 in the Conkle Funeral Home on 16th Street just West of the Speedway — the Rev. Kenneth Thorne presiding. Approximately 200 people were reported to have attended the 1:00 p.m. service including Esther and Mike Vukovich, (who both sat in a private room) and drivers Bob Sweikert, Johnny Boyd, Pat Flaherty, Jim Rathmann, Duane Carter, Fred Agabashian, Jimmy Bryan, Tony Bettenhausen, and Johnny Parsons. Also in attendance were Vukovich car owner Lindsey Hopkins, Frank Coons and Jim Travers of the Hopkins Special and Fuel Injection Special teams, Speedway owner Tony Hulman, Joe Cloutier and Speedway Chief Steward Harry McQuinn. Much of the service, according to news reports, centered on the advance in highway safety that the race has help promote.
The Return to Fresno
Vukovich’s body was flown to Los Angeles on Thursday, June 2 in the company of Esther and Mike Vukovich. The plane arrived in Los Angeles at 5:30 p.m. A hearse then drove the body up to Fresno. Esther flew to Fresno and Mike drove a vehicle there that evening.
The Funeral in Fresno
Two thousand people attended the funeral in Fresno at Free Evangelical Lutheran Cross Church on Saturday, June 4 at 2:30 p.m. The Rev. Carl J. Maier, who presided at the funeral, said “he is a prince among men. Of him can truly be said ‘that a winner never quits, and a quitter never wins.’ We shall forever mourn his passing. Yet it can be said that he died for what he lived for”. A checkered flag draped the coffin. Howard Keck, Vukovich’s car owner when he won the race in 1953 and ’54, sent a huge flower arrangement in the shape of the number 14 (his car number in ’53-’54) with a yellow number and red background. The White House sent condolences. Pallbearers included Dale Drake, Bill Stroppe, Mel Straw, Alex Horn, Fred Gerhardt and Kenney H. Smith, Sr. The solemn procession to the cemetery was reported to be a mile long led and flanked by a police motorcycle escort. Internment was at Belmont Park Cemetery, space 13-1605-4, Fresno, California.
The Life Magazine Article
In the June 13, 1955 issue of Life Magazine on page 119 there appeared an article on the Vukovich accident entitled “What Really Happened in Fatal Crash at the ‘500”. It should be noted that Life Magazine in that era was almost the definitive word in news reporting and were by many considered nearly the gospel. It didn’t mean they were right all the time. Sometimes they did made mistakes. It meant that if they said it in the pages of their magazine then it should have been trusted and that what they reported should be believed. And therein lied the danger of possibly being led to believe something that wasn’t quite true.
But in fact, it was a very good article and the information describing the accident was mostly correct. It did not go beyond the events leading up to the time Vukovich went over the wall, however. It did nothing to definitely clear up the injuries or what happened after the car went over the fence.
In one photo of the car upside down and burning the caption read in part “wreck blazes as firemen stand by”. The picture is interesting because it doesn’t really show firemen “standing by” but it does seem to show them struggling with their meager fire fighting equipment in an effort to start putting the fire out. One caption under a photo of Vukovich’s hand protruding from underneath the car says Vukovich was “dead or unconscious before the car caught fire”. The article also stated the common theory that Vukovich had planned to retire after the race which is contradicted by many sources.
What one can readily appreciate, however, is the quality of the photos of the accident. They were taken from 16mm film and are excellent. Life Magazine at that time specialized in exclusive photos for publication in the magazine and had sophisticated equipment to make excellent photocopies from just about any format. The pictures, while they mean seem blurry to some observers, considering the source material, were excellent. For this report it was difficult to make pictures that drastically exceeded the frames off the 16mm film in the article. The best results came from ultra high-resolution computer scans made off the 16mm film
There was a quote in the Fresno Bee a few days after the accident by Eli Vukovich, Bill’s brother. When the reporter was speaking with him, Eli said his brother Mike had said, “Billy didn’t burn to death. He was killed when the car went over the wall and smashed down on two cars parked outside the wall, a highway patrol car and another car.”
While it wasn’t really known at the time to everybody else reading the newspapers, Mike had evidently, before he left Indianapolis, done a little investigation on his own to be able to give Eli that type of information. And he also may have been informed of what the Speedway officially knew at that early stage (or thought they knew) about what happened in the accident. Anyway, he had it close. Not exactly right according to this report, but close. So while the world suffered through the maze of media reports, pictures and movies, the Vukovich family had the comfort of knowing from the beginning what turns out to be, according to this report, very accurate information.
And those are the facts of what happened to Bill Vukovich on May 30, 1955 as best that this report could determine them. This report concludes that the events of that day transcend anything that has ever happened at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway since its inception and was among the largest and most significant events ever to take place in the history of sports.
While this research was based on finding out just what happened that day, a great deal was learned about Vukovich the man. It is the conclusion of this report that he was the greatest race driver that ever pulled on a glove in the most colorful era of the Indianapolis 500-Mile-Race and a fascinating person as well. While the circumstances of his life may forever be overshadowed by the incredible details of that day (the decisions, the wildly flipping car, the fire, the other scenes forever emblazoned in people’s minds) it should never be forgotten what he accomplished in his career as an incredible race car driver