| Bill Vukovich came out of of California's Midget circuit
to become one of the greatest drivers to ever compete on the massive Indianapolis Motor
He won the race twice in a row and lost his life
trying to become the only man to win it three times in succession. Beyond that, he won
countless Midget races, barnstorming the country.
Vukovich's father died when Vukovich was 13 years
old. The family farm, located near Fresno, Calif., was lost and that meant Vukovich and
his brother Eli had to go to work to help make ends meet. They did anything they could
during the hard years of the Depression - farming, truck driving - and took turns paying
for the groceries.
At 18, Vukovich drove in his first race. He came in
second in a Chevrolet-powered Modified. The third time out, he won. His car owner, Fred
Gearhart, let him keep all the winnings and on a good week, Vukovich could clear $15.
In 1938, Gearhart steered Vukovich to Midgets and in
his first race, he crashed, breaking his collar bone and several ribs. Seven weeks later,
he was back at it.
Brother Eli joined him and for two years, they
competed together, traversing the countryside. They drove as many as 15 to 20 heats and
races per week, often sleeping in their truck. For good races, they would clear $50; on
bad ones, nothing.
After World War II, Vukovich wanted his own Midget
and bought one from Gearhart. He painted it bright red and called it "Old
Ironsides." He scarred his hands, broke shoulders and ribs and suffered many
concussions - but he was the terror of the Midget circuit. He simply couldn't bear to lose
and he didn't very often.
Vukovich was the West Coast Midget champion in 1946
and the National champion in 1950. By that year, Midget shows were drying up so he headed
for Indianapolis, where he got into Wilbur Shaw's Maserati - which had won the 500 in 1939
and '40- to take his driver's test. He passed, but the car couldn't qualify for the race.
He returned to Indy in 1951 and lasted 29 laps.
However he was so impressive in the race he was hired by car owner Howard Keck to replace
the retiring Mauri Rose.
In 1952, Vukovich qualified second at Indy and led
from the 32nd lap until a mixup in the pits cost him the race. However, he felt he had
Indy licked. In the sweltering heat of the 1953 race, Vukovich won easily, leading 195 of
the race's 200 laps.
The next year, he won again, this time with a
then-record average speed of 134.85 miles per hour. With his share of the prize money, he
bought two Fresno gas stations and invested soundly. He wanted only the best for his
family. He remembered far too well the harshness of his youth.
In 1955, Keck got out of racing and released
Vukovich to Lindsay Hopkins. It was in Hopkins' car that Vukovich was involved in the
fateful, fiery accident on the 55th lap which cost him his life. He was only 36. He never
scored his Indy hat trick, but no one ever had to pass the hat for his family.
And no one could ever doubt the greatest of a Midget driver who
went on to conquer Indianapolis in ways few men ever did.
Bill Vukovich, Inducted 1991
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