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Vukovich was fearless

Wednesday, November 19, 2003
Mad Russian won first Indy 500 in 1953
By Lisette Hilton
Special to

Signature Race
May 30, 1953 - Ignoring the blistering heat and leaving his fellow drivers in his fumes, Bill Vukovich put on a dominating performance in winning his first Indy 500.

The air temperature was in the high 90s, causing the track temperature to reach 130 degrees. While most of the other competitors needed relief drivers because of the oppressive heat, Vukovich was one of the five to stay in his cockpit for the full 500 miles.

Vukovich, who was on the pole, charged into the lead, as was his custom. He didn't give it up until the 49th lap, when he went in for his first pit stop. In the next five laps, three different drivers took over the lead, but by the 54th lap, Vukovich was back in front.

And he never looked back.

Averaging 128.74 miles per hour in his Fuel Injection Special, the Mad Russian was an easy winner, finishing 3 minutes ahead of runnerup Art Cross. The 195 laps Vukovich led was the second best for any Indy winner; only Billy Arnold in 1930, with 198 laps, was in front more often.

Odds 'n' Ends

  • Vukovich was the youngest of two brothers and five sisters.

  • His mother, Mildred, died of a blood clot ailment in 1938.

  • Vukovich met Esther Schmidt, a tall brunette, when she was 17. He was so shy that he'd ask Esther's sister to arrange their dates. In 1941, three months after meeting, they were married.

  • They had two children, Marlene (born in 1942) and Billy (1944).

  • He worked as part of a military civilian mechanic unit in 1942.

  • Vukovich disliked the press and was upset that reporters couldn't seem to spell his name right. Not only did they butcher Vukovich, but they couldn't agree on a shortened version of the driver's name, be it Vuky, Vukey or Vukie.

  • In 1946, he was voted most popular midget driver by the Pacific Coast Speedway News.

  • Despite Vukovich's success in midget racing, he earned less than $7,000 a year. Still, he insisted that no one would ever have to "pass the hat" for his family.

  • Vukovich paid cash for his first house, in Fresno, Calif.

  • With his share of the first-place prize of $74,934 for the 1954 Indy 500, he bought two gas stations in Fresno.

  • In his five Indy 500 starts, Vukovich led in four races for a total of 485 laps.

  • Vukovich was inducted into the International Motor Sports Hall of Fame in 1991 and the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America the following year.

  • Vukovich's son Billy heard of his father's death on the news on the radio. He was 11.

  • Billy, who preferred not to be called Bill Vukovich, Jr., said he didn't know his father very well, because dad was always racing. But he credited his father with one thing: spurring his interest in racing.

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