Puterbaugh has never stopped showing persistence, loyalty
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 presented by Shell on Saturday, May 26. The veteran drivers will participate in autograph sessions and other fan-friendly activities.
Not only did 1975 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year Bill Puterbaugh have at least one start in each of the 500-mile races which used to make up USAC's Triple Crown in the 1970s—Indianapolis, Pocono and Ontario—but he managed to score top-10 finishes in all of them. Just one month after placing seventh in the rain-shortened 1975 Indianapolis 500, he finished ninth in the Pocono 500, and then, competing in his one and only Ontario 500 in September 1976, he scored another seventh. He was also 12th at Indianapolis in 1977.
The third-ranking USAC Sprint Car driver of 1969 (behind Gary Bettenhausen and Larry Dickson), Puterbaugh was a five-time winner in USAC Sprint competition who had dreamed of driving in the "500" ever since his youth. But he had to labor long and hard to make it—even after he was already a USAC Championship driver. He landed a "500" driving assignment virtually every May from 1968 until 1974, but when the allotted qualifying time would run out each year, he would always be on the outside looking in.
Enter Lee Elkins.
A leading sprint car entrant and "500" car owner between 1951 and 1959, Elkins had dropped out of the sport for several seasons until the mid-1960s, when a handful of runs with a USAC Midget signaled the beginning of his return. One thing led to another, and it wasn't long before Elkins-entered McNamara Specials were running up front again, just as they had done in the 1950s with Bob Sweikert, Dick Rathmann, Mike Nazarauk, Joe James, Andy Linden, Ed Elisian and numerous others.
The crusty and cantankerous Elkins took a liking to Puterbaugh, and after an absence of 16 years, he was back as an Indianapolis 500 car owner, taking delivery of a "hand-me-down" turbocharged Offy-powered Eagle from the Patrick Racing Team.
Of his 1975 Indianapolis adventure, Puterbaugh said with a laugh: "I had a lot of help. I was real good friends with Al Unser and Lloyd Ruby and they were both wanting to help me, but not at the same time. They'd been down in the turns together and discussing where I should be shutting off, but they didn't want to be standing side by side while they were telling me. So they flipped a coin to decide who was going to do it. Ruby lost the toss and became my coach. He went round to the front of the car, stuck his foot under the nose cone and says, 'Drop this down an inch.' Then he goes round the back, looks at the wing and tells them to put on a bigger wicker bill. Then he tells me, 'You're backing off too early. Drive her all the way down to the gate.' I tell him he's crazy, but we try it anyway and we pick up 7 mph. So we fuel her up and put her in line."
Just a few minutes before qualifying ended on the opening day of time trials, Puterbaugh breezed into the field with a four-lap average speed of 183.833 mph. The scene which followed was something to behold. Solidly in with three full qualifying days still remaining—when so many times in the past he had he suffered through to the final crushing minute, only to come up short—the extremely popular Puterbaugh gave a most emotional speech over the public address and then spent the next hour or two staggering around the pits and Garage Area in an apparent state of shock, well-wishers slapping him on the back every inch of the way.
While Puterbaugh's closest friend among the drivers was Sam Sessions, his bond with Ruby and Al Unser was just about as strong. Thus it came as a one-two punch in March 2009 when news was received that not only had Ruby passed away, but within a matter of hours, so had Al's daughter, Mary.
Mary's viewing was to be in Albuquerque, N.M., on Thursday evening, March 26, with Ruby's down in Wichita Falls, Texas, approximately 24 hours later. Feeling the need to be with both families, Puterbaugh got out the maps, filled the gas tank and headed west. He left Indianapolis virtually in the middle of the night and drove, by himself, straight through to Albuquerque. He arrived at the funeral home with time to spare and so he caught a nap in the parking lot until people started showing up for the viewing. After spending some time with the Unser family, he quietly snuck out of a side door and found a motel for the night.
Just before bedding down, he learned that heavy snow was in the area, so he grabbed a few well-earned hours of sleep and was up again before daybreak. He headed east out of Albuquerque on his way to Amarillo, Texas, aware now that the freeways were apparently closed! But it takes a lot more than that to keep an old USAC Sprint car driver down. As luck would have it, he found a ramp which had not yet been blocked off and so he hopped on it and hoped for the best. After a few miles of steady progress, he caught up with a pair of snow plows which were travelling about 20 mph. He happily rolled along behind them for a while until they suddenly pulled over and stopped. Reason? A 10 or 12-car pileup a few miles down the road had everything blocked. Still not defeated, Puterbaugh found an exit and eventually linked up with the road which would take him south to Wichita Falls.
"I had so much snow packed under the car," he recalls, "that I was bottoming out from the weight. I had thought about trying to find a car wash, but because I was now heading south, it started warming up and pretty soon all of the ice and snow began melting and falling off."
It was a worn-out version of Puterbaugh who finally arrived in Wichita Falls that night and collapsed in a chair next to Ruby family members at the viewing.
The following morning, he sat with Johnny Rutherford, Parnelli Jones, Jimmy McElreath, Dave Laycock and others at Ruby's celebration of life, but at the graveside burial service which followed a short time later, he was nowhere to be seen. Contemplating another solo run of better than 900 miles, he was already on the road and high-tailing it back to Indianapolis.
Any compliments paid to him at that time or since concerning that supreme gesture has always been brushed off with, "Hey, when I was racing, we used to make hauls like that all the time."
The popular Puterbaugh is one of several Indianapolis 500 Rookies of the Year who have indicated they will be among the returning veterans who will be signing autographs for the fans on Saturday, May 26, the day before this year's "500," during Legends Day Honoring Roger Penske presented by Shell. They will be signing, in shifts, in the Plaza Area between 1-4:30 p.m.
2012 Indianapolis 500 tickets: Tickets are on sale for the 96th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race on Sunday, May 27, 2012 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
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