Stories You Should Know: Bill Vukovich

“Put your foot on the throttle and turn left.”

Those were the words of “Wild” Bill Vukovich describing his philosophy for winning the Indianapolis 500. Born in Fresno, California on December 13th, 1918, he was one of eight children born to John and Mildred Vukovich. His parents were immigrants from Serbia who settled in the California Central Valley. Bill’s childhood was not a pleasant one. The Great Depression hit the family hard. His Dad, John was a hard man, who was strict with his children, especially his three sons. Barely able to feed his family during the Depression, the last straw came for John when their house burned down in 1932 destroying everything he owned. On young Bill’s 14th birthday his father committed suicide, leaving Mildred, who spoke no English, a widow with eight children.

Bill was forced to quit school and get a job to help support the family. He went to work at an auto parts store. This ignited his interest in cars. Bill, along with his brothers Eli and Mike, would soon join the California Midget Car Racing Circuit. His mother passed away in 1939 just as Bill was gaining a name for himself on the Circuit. Despite the loss of both parents, he would become the most successful driver on the California Midget Car tracks during the 1940s.

Bill married Esther Schmidt in March, 1941, and by 1944 would be the father of two. His winnings on the track were not enough to support his new family, so he found other employment when not driving. He purchased a service station to supplement income. Finally he decided to move his family to the Midwest, where the purses were bigger racing cars.

This is where he found an opening for getting into Indy Car Racing. The big break came in 1950 when a former Midget Car Champion, Johnnie Parsons, won the Indianapolis 500. This led to a wave of Midget Car Drivers being invited to compete at Indianapolis. Vukovich qualified for the 500 for the first time in 1951, starting on the outside in the 10th row. He quickly moved up to 10th, before being forced out of the race on lap 29 due to a fuel leak..

In 1952, Bill Vukovich became the central figure at Indianapolis. He started on the 3rd row, but surged to the lead early and was in complete control of the race until his steering linkage broke with nine laps to go. Vukovich expertly controlled his car out of traffic, but he couldn’t continue. Despite leading the race for 150 of the 200 laps he finished a disappointing 17th and waited for 1953.

During his qualifying run the next year it started to rain on his final lap. Despite the rain Vukovich still had the fastest time and qualified for the pole. The temperature on race day was a sweltering 90 degrees, that translated to 130 degrees on the track. It didn’t matter, Team Vukovich had the fastest car and the best driver, leading to one of the most dominating performances ever at the Old Brickyard. Vukovich was one of only five drivers who were able to run the entire 200 laps. Due to the extreme heat, the rest needed relief drivers. Vukovich led 195 of the 200 laps, setting the speed record by averaging 138.39 miles per hour. The heat was so dangerous that driver Carl Scarborough died during the race at the infield hospital of heat prostration. It was a star making performance for Bill Vukovich.

Bill was back the next year going for two straight. He did not qualify well in 1954. He was still the favorite on race day, but starting in the 9th row was not ideal. He was aggressive from the start and had the good fortune to have no yellows cautions for the first 110 laps. This allowed him to pass 18 cars by lap 92 and seize the lead. Once in front there was no looking back. He routed the field, becoming only the third driver to be a back to back winner of the Indianapolis 500. He led 90 of the 200 laps, another commanding performance at “The Brickyard”.

He was now the face of the Indianapolis 500, the one to beat in 1955. Jack McGrath and his team took up the challenge. Sporting a new engine and a unique fuel mixture McGrath felt he had a car to compete with the defending champion. For the first time in four years Bill Vukovich faced a serious challenger. Prior to the race McGrath was running significantly faster laps than Bill in practice. McGrath qualified 3rd, while Vukovich qualified 5th, but Bill’s main concern was that his equipment was not good enough to stay with McGrath. Vukovich approached his two chief mechanics, Frank Coons and Jim Travers, trying to figure out what to do about the new threat. They assured him that McGrath’s fuel mixture was unstable and his engine would fail. With his confidence restored, Vukovich kissed his wife, Esther, prior to the race and told her he would see her in the Winner’s Circle after the race.

As expected Vukovich couldn’t stay with McGrath early, but, as predicted by Coons and Travers, McGrath’s engine began to give him trouble on lap six. McGrath would remain in the race until lap 50, but was no longer be a threat. By that time Vukovich had firmly established himself as the class of the field. Bill Vukovich surged to the lead after his chief rivals problems on lap seven. “Wild” Bill was comfortably ahead on lap 57, when suddenly everything went wrong.

He was approaching slower traffic coming out of turn two. One of those slower cars was driven by Roger Ward. Ward broke an axle coming out of the turn and entering the backstretch. He flipped his car and came to a stop in the middle of the backstretch. Al Keller was the first to come upon Ward, he darted to the left, but lost control of his car and drifted back onto the center of the track and made contact with the side of Johnny Boyd’s car. This pushed Boyd’s car towards the outside wall, where it slammed into Bill Vukovich, who was trying to clear the wreck on the outside. The force of impact when Boyd’s car hit Vukovich caused both cars to go airborne and off the track. Once off the track Vukovich was tumbling end over end, hitting a car, a truck, and a jeep that were on the other side of the wall. Instantly his car burst into flames, he had refueled just a few laps earlier. Fellow driver, and good friend Ed Elisian, stopped his car, got out and raced across the track, dodging other cars in the process, attempting to get to his friend. It was a futile effort, Bill Vukovich was killed instantly. This would be the second, and last, time a defending champion would be killed at Indianapolis. Defending Champion Floyd Roberts in 1939 was killed in the same area of the track that took Vukovich.

The man who felt responsible for the crash that took Bill Vukovich was Roger Ward. Roger Ward would go on to win two USAC National Championships, and the Indy 500 in 1959 and 1962. He would always be haunted for staying on the track with a crippled car on that tragic day in 1955.

The Vukovich legacy at Indianapolis would continue for two more generations. His son Bill Vukovich II, who was 11 at the time of his dad’s death in 1955, would qualify for the 33 car field 12 times in the 1960s and 1970s, finishing in the top ten on six those occasions, with a high of 2nd in 1973.

His son, the grandson of the two time Indy 500 Champion, Bill Vukovich III was Rookie of the Year at Indianapolis in 1988 and then ran the race again in 1989 and 1990. Tragedy would strike the Vukovich Family again on November 25th, 1990. At Mesa Marin Raceway in Bakersfield, California, Bill Vukovich III would be killed during a practice run when his throttle stuck open and he hit the wall at high speed. He was 27 years old and had no children.

His grandfather, Bill Vukovich Sr. was 36 on that tragic May day in 1955. Due to his long career in Midget Cars he only participated at Indianapolis five times. What a five years it was. He ran 677 laps at Indianapolis in those five races, he led after 485 of those laps, an astonishing 72% of his laps run. This includes his rookie drive in 1951, when he was in a non-competitive car and completed only 29 laps. A lasting legacy for a man who dominated the event as no other, at a time when the Indianapolis 500 was truly the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing”, the premier auto race of the year.

Bill Yukovich’s son and grandson followed him to Indy Car racing. His grandson would also die in a car crash.

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