April 20, 2012  |   By Donald Davidson

Returning Legend: Bob Harkey

Editor’s Note: This is part of a series by Indianapolis Motor Speedway Historian Donald Davidson featuring Indianapolis 500 veteran drivers returning to IMS for “Legends Day Honoring Roger Penske” on Saturday, May 26. The veteran drivers will participate in autograph sessions and other fan-friendly activities.

There aren't very many people still around today who can lay claim to having driven in the Indianapolis 500 in both a front-engine and a rear-engine car. The total is a mere eight.

And of those who can claim to have finished within the top 10 in a "500" in both types, well, that number becomes even smaller: Six.

A.J. Foyt, Parnelli Jones and Gordon Johncock can make that claim, as can Jimmy McElreath and Chuck Hulse.

And so can Bob Harkey.

A North Carolina native who now lives just a couple of miles from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Harkey is one of a growing number of “returning veterans” who have indicated they will be on hand to sign autographs in the Plaza area behind the Speedway's Pagoda during Legends Day Honoring Roger Penske on Saturday afternoon, May 26.

Harkey has led a most interesting life.

A veteran of six "500" starts between 1964 and 1976, three of which resulted in top-10 finishes, the colorful Harkey gained quite a reputation for being able to jump into a car at the very last minute and "brave" it into the starting field just before qualifications ended.

Between 1963 and 1979, Harkey had 84 starts in USAC National Championship competition, scoring 22 top-10 finishes during that time, including a fourth-place finish in 1964 at Trenton, N.J., behind Foyt, Lloyd Ruby and Don Branson.

And he can make a number of other interesting claims, some of which have absolutely no connection with auto racing.

As a boy, Harkey boxed in Golden Gloves competition where he says one of his opponents was eventual heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson. Harkey later turned professional and fought several bouts as a middleweight.

Obsessed by a lifelong fascination with aviation, he performed in aerial circuses in the South, both as a "loop-the-loop" pilot and as a wing-walker. He later worked on several motion pictures as a stunt man, specifically in the 1958 cult classic "Thunder Road" in which he did the driving for the character played by Robert Mitchum. He was also one of the drivers who helped stage the choreographed "mock" racing scenes in the Paul Newman epic, "Winning," shot during the summer of 1968.

Although Harkey never drove in the Daytona 500, he did compete in the 100-mile NASCAR convertible race which took place at the brand-new track the day before the very first one in 1959. Driving a 1958 Chevrolet "ragtop" owned by Buck Baker, he started sixth and moved up to take the lead on Lap 5 by passing none other than a very young Richard Petty. He ended up 10th.

It wasn't exactly easy for a young fellow from down in North Carolina to follow his dreams of driving in the Indianapolis 500, but he made it, mainly by heading north in search of some sprint and midget racing experience. In October 1959, Harkey was one of several drivers who drove rather outclassed ARDC midgets against a field of sports cars and open-wheel road racing vehicles in a Formula Libre event on the road course at Watkins Glen, N.Y. The race was won by the great British driver Stirling Moss, and Harkey well remembers being impressed by Moss' legendary sporting gesture of waving acknowledgement to lapped competitors who had given him sufficient room as he passed.

Harkey briefly relocated to the Chicago area in order to drive UARA midgets and then headed back east to continue with ARDC midgets and URC sprints. Late in the 1962 ARDC season, Harkey found himself frequently battling with the sensational 22-year-old Mario Andretti, the pair finishing first and second to each other on more than one occasion.

Once he had become established at Indianapolis, Harkey was invited by the late Dick McGeorge to serve as a lecturer for Champion Spark Plug Company's hugely successful Highway Safety program in which Indianapolis 500 drivers would visit high schools to pass on safe-driving tips to students. He lectured almost daily between September and March for 15 straight years, visiting 36 states, 12 military bases and several Canadian provinces. To this day, he still occasionally has an adult come up to him to say, "Hey, I remember when you came and spoke at our high school."

Although aviation buff Harkey still owns a 1941 Boeing-Stearman PT-17 biplane, it has been a while since he has snuck a friend out over the western Indiana countryside for an unofficial loop-the-loop and snap roll. But he will be at the Speedway on Saturday, May 26 to sign autographs along with a number of his colleagues. The returning veterans will sign, in shifts, from noon-4 p.m. in the Plaza Area behind the Pagoda.