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Mad Russian won first Indy 500 in 1953
Vukovich was a fearless racing legend
By Lisette Hilton
Special to ESPN.com
"Bill Vukovich was probably the greatest actual driver we have ever known in terms of his skill and his determination," says two-time Indy 500 winner Rodger Ward on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.
Bill Vukovich was a racing legend during the fifties, best remembered for three Indy 500 races. He won the first two; he died in the third.
Vukovich had been the outstanding driver at the Brickyard since his third race there, a fearless charger who had said,
Driving a Fuel Injection Special, Vukovich dominated the 1953 and 1954 races. The next year, the man nicknamed both the Mad Russian (for his charging driving style) and the Silent Serb (for his cool demeanor) sought to become the first driver to win three consecutive Indy 500s.
Perhaps Vukovich had a premonition about what would become his last race. About a week before it, he remarked that he didn't think he'd finish.
Normally, Vukovich didn't call his wife Esther before a race, but on May 30, 1955, Vukovich telephoned her, asking when she'd be at the track. He waved to her at the start of the race.
Driving his Lindsey Hopkins Special, Vukovich took off where he left off the previous year, and took a huge lead. Then, on the 57th lap, tragedy struck. Three cars crashed in front of him. Vukovich had only about six feet of passable space by the outer wall, but a car spun into that space, sending Vukovich's car over the wall. Its nose hit first, bouncing, spinning and burning.
Before the flames from the car reached him, Vukovich was already dead, from a fracture at the base of his skull. He was 36.
A Hall of Fame driver, Vukovich was known for his intensity and will to win. A short, stocky man -- some said with bitterness in his eyes -- he enjoyed psyching out other drivers. He also was a master mechanic and he refined the science of the car's setup.
One of eight children, he was born on Dec. 13, 1918 in Alameda, Cal., and grew up in Fresno. His parents, John and Mildred, had changed their name from Vukurovich to Vukovich when they immigrated to the United States from Yugoslavia. John was a carpenter and owner of a farm. On December 13, 1982 -- Bill's 14th birthday -- he committed suicide.
Growing up during the Depression and money being scarce, Bill and his older brother, Eli, had to drop out of high school and work. Their only relief was the family's Model T. Bill would drive it, chasing jackrabbits through a field.
Vukovich soon realized that racing cars could bring in money -- and he started competing for cash in the 1930s. He came in second in his first competition, which was in a Chevrolet-modified owned by Fred Gearhart. At 18, Vukovich won his third race. Gearhart let him keep the winnings and Vukovich would earn what he thought was terrific money, clearing $15 on good weeks.
Gearhart was instrumental in helping Vukovich get out of modified racing and into a midget career beginning in 1938. Two years later, he suffered his first serious injury in a racing accident -- a broken collarbone and a burned hand.
In 1941, while mending from a crash-related injury that would keep him out of World War II, he married Ester Schmidt.
Vukovich's spirit was to win at all costs. When Eli started racing, Bill warned him: "Don't tangle with me. Out on that track you're just another driver." Still, the brothers' goal was to make money and they planned to make as much as $50 a week at West Coast races.
It was fierce competition -- the kind of racing where drivers would barrel over others if they couldn't pass them. Vukovich raced with everything he had. He also was into keeping into shape physically; he didn't smoke or drink and he ran or bicycled daily.
During World War II, Vukovich repaired Jeeps and trucks, earning money to buy a midget from Gearhart for $750 and prepped it for the 1945 racing season. Naming the car Old Ironsides, he painted it a bright red. Behind its wheel, Vukovich became a champion in the California midget races.
Concussions, scarred hands, broken shoulders and rib didn't stop him. He didn't want to lose -- especially to Eli. Winning the United Racing Association's West Coast championship handily in 1946 and 1947, Vukovich established himself as the dominant driver in midget racing. In 1950, he captured the AAA National Midget crown, paving his way to the American motor racing's major league.
With midget racing losing its appeal to the fans, the best drivers -- Walt Faulkner, Andy Linden and Manny Ayula -- went to ride Indy cars. While Vukovich didn't seem interested in racing anything besides midgets, he changed his mind when he got a ride as a substitute driver for the Indy 500. However, his old car wasn't able to qualify for the race.
Vukovich returned in 1951 with a sponsor, Pete Salemi from Cleveland. His car: a Central Excavating Special. After starting in the 20th spot, he climbed to tenth 15 laps into the race. But the car lasted just 29 laps as a broken oil tank knocked him from the race.
While he earned only $750 for finishing 29th, Vukovich was noticed by millionaire sportsman Howard Keck, who needed a replacement for the retiring Mauri Rose, a three-time winner of the Indy 500.
Vukovich respected Keck and left midget racing after the 1951 season. At the following year's Indy 500, Vukovich qualified Keck's car in the third row. He was leading the race when a quarter-inch pin on the steering arm gave out on the 192nd lap, sending his car into the wall and allowing Troy Ruttman to surge past him and victory.
While he was out of the race -- he finished 17th -- Vukovich realized that Indy was easily within his reach. He succeeded in his quest the next year after capturing the pole position at 138.392 miles per hour. A relaxed Vukovich led 195 of the 200 laps and was one of five drivers to finish the 500 without relief on the 130-degree track. He drove at an average speed of 128.74 mph. His astounding performance netted him $89,496.
In 1954, Vukovich was even faster. Despite starting from the 19th position, he set an Indy 500 record by averaging 130.84 mph as he became the third driver to win back-to-back Indy 500s. He won $74,934.
While Vukovich declined offers of big money that year, he accepted the invitation to drive the Pan American Road Race that fall. His driving and personal styles became evident during that race in Mexico, when Vukovich terrified his co-driver, Vern Huell.
The Mad Russian cut corners, as he wound through the dangerous mountain course. Vukovich and Huell were running second in their class in the 1,908-mile race when they went off the road in the Sierra Madre Mountains and barely escaped with their lives.
Keck dropped out of racing in 1955 and released Vukovich to Lindsey Hopkins, the owner of a new roadster. Vukovich accepted, but insisted that his mechanics come along. With his new owner and new car, Vukovich would meet only tragedy at the Indy 500.
His death didn't stop his family from taking up the sport. His son Billy was Rookie of the Year for the 1968 Indy 500 (when he came in seventh) and finished second in 1973.
And Billy's son, Billy Vukovich III, was named Rookie of the Year for the 1988 Indy 500 for his 14th-place finish. Tragically, Billy III's life ended just as his grandfather's had. He died in a sprint-car accident in Bakersfield, Calif., in November 1990.
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