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Vukovich Blazed Path to Unmatched Glory in Short Indy Career

"I still wake up in the middle of the night, thinking about what might've been," laments Jim Travers.

Travers was the chief mechanic, friend and confidant of the man many consider the best Indianapolis 500 driver of all time: the pensive, phenomenally talented, enigmatic Bill Vukovich.

Vuky is highly regarded for good reason. In a four-race span, he dominated Indianapolis like no driver before or since. He's one of only five drivers in Indianapolis Motor Speedway history to win consecutive Indianapolis 500-Mile Races. He led an incredible 72 percent of the laps he drove. More than six decades after his death, his 485 leading laps keeps him in the top eight in total laps led, and he remains the only driver to have led the most laps in three consecutive races.

It's a spectacular, enviable record. But what yet haunts Travers is that it easily could have been better. Only a couple of wicked, fateful twists kept Vukovich from becoming Indianapolis's first four-time winner, or, at the very least, the first consecutive three-time winner.

Vukovich's Indianapolis prowess caught the attention of Travers and his mechanical partner, Frank Coon, in 1951, Vukovich's rookie year. Starting 20th, Vukovich pushed his uncompetitive car into the top 10 before it broke.

"Vuky impressed a lot of people that year," Travers said. "Frank and I decided we'd better grab him before someone else did."

Travers and Coon worked for wealthy Los Angeles oilman Howard Keck, who agreed that Vukovich should replace their retiring driver, three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Mauri Rose. 

Keck also insisted on a new car. To that end, he sent Coon to Italy to coordinate the purchase of a new Ferrari and Travers to car builder Frank Kurtis, where he oversaw the construction of a car of radical design.

Both cars arrived late at the Speedway. After thrashing with both for days, it was decided to focus only on the little, gray Kurtis speedster that Vukovich had dubbed "The Roadster."

The original roadster design eventually evolved into the predominant Indianapolis car, winning 12 consecutive “500's,” but in 1952 many dismissed it. There were so many development problems that it wasn't even ready until the second weekend of qualifying. 

But by then, “Vuky had it going like Jack the Bear," Travers said.

Vukovich qualified eighth, establishing a one-lap track record en route.

On Race Day, Vukovich quickly jumped into the lead and, other than for pit stops, never let it go. He led 150 laps and was well on his way to his first “500” victory when he slammed the Turn 3 wall just eight laps from the checkered flag. A faulty steering arm, overlooked in the hurried construction process, had failed. Troy Ruttman cruised to the win.

Vukovich, not one for lengthy interactions with the press, was livid.

“That Ruttman never won an easier one," he snapped, "but you can be damn sure it won't happen next year."



It didn't.



Vukovich 1953

 

 

(Bill Vukovich, with Wilbur Shaw to his left, celebrates in Victory Circle after winning the 1953 Indianapolis 500.)

 

The car, meticulously rebuilt for 1953, proved exceptionally fast. Not unexpected, Vukovich grabbed the vaunted pole position. But not without captivating drama, either.

Pole Day was rained out, and intermittent showers interrupted the second qualifying day until late afternoon. As Vukovich anxiously waited while a half-dozen cars qualified, rain again threatened.

"When we pushed Vuky out, it was sprinkling," Travers said. “I could see drops of rain in the standing water, and every time one hit, my heart wrenched." 

Aware of the urgency, Vukovich took only one quick warm-up lap and was on it. His first three laps were quick. The pole would be his if he could outrun the rain on his final circuit. 

Powering down the backstretch, ominous, black clouds roiled over the Speedway. Pealing thunder nearly drowned the roar of his engine. Raindrops peppered his windscreen. He had to make a split-second decision. Go for the pole or back off. 

 

Ever confident in his skill, he went for it.

Hard into Turn 4. Suddenly, a downpour. The car slid wide, but Vukovich caught it and slithered to the checkered flag slinging rooster tails of water so high they nearly obliterated the car. Improbable as it sounds, he won the pole in the rain.

At the drop of the green flag on race morning, Vukovich jumped to a huge lead down the frontstretch. Afterward he told Travers, "I looked back going into Turn 1, and the SOB's didn't want to race!" 

On a day when scorching heat took the life of one driver and left many begging for relief, Vukovich simply poured a cup of water down his back, drank another during his pit stops and drove on.

Tough. Hard. Relentless. He obliterated his competition, leading 195 of the 200 laps to capture his first “500.”

1954 proved as difficult as 1953 was easy. The team struggled with engine problems all month, forcing Vukovich to qualify back in 19th spot. Still, few dared to bet against him. Jack McGrath, perennial front row starter and routine race favorite, said, "As long as Vuky is in this race, I'll never win."

McGrath's words rang true. By the halfway mark, Vukovich was in command. He never looked back, taking the win a full lap ahead of runner-up Jimmy Bryan. 

May 1955 arrived with a microscopic focus on the introverted Vukovich. His bid to win three consecutive “500's” attracted attention far beyond sports coverage. Even the mainstream media picked up on the "jinx" that supposedly was attached to the Indianapolis hat trick. Wilbur Shaw had crashed while pursuing three consecutive wins, in 1941, and Rose's car had failed just laps short in 1949.

Vukovich remained supremely confident, telling Jack and Lois McGrath at dinner the night before the race, "No one's ever won three in row, but this little Slav just might pull it off."

Ironically, Vukovich expected McGrath to be his toughest competitor. Vukovich planned to push him hard from the start, forcing pole sitter McGrath into a mistake or his car into failing. 

That's exactly how it transpired. From his fifth-place starting spot, Vukovich snatched the lead on Lap 4. From there, McGrath and Vukovich fought one of the fiercest battles ever witnessed at the Speedway. 

They challenged, pushed and feinted. The crowd, refusing to sit, cheered wildly. Finally, Vukovich had enough. On Lap 27, he turned the fastest race lap ever recorded at the time and pulled away.

On Lap 54, McGrath rolled to a stop, his engine smoking. Passing the pits, Vukovich acknowledged his closest competitor's demise with a nod to his crew that implied, “I'm in control, see you at the end.”

The end came sooner than expected. On Lap 57, Vukovich was fatally injured after being trapped in a multi-car crash.



 

Vukovich 1955


 

(One of the last known photographs of Bill Vukovich in the No. 4 car, racing Jack McGrath in the No. 3, in 1955.  Vukovich lost his life after being caught up in a wreck on Lap 57 while in the lead.)

 

Even as the accomplishments that elevated Vukovich to the status of Indianapolis icon are recalled, the idea of what could have been fascinates followers of the Indianapolis 500 yet today.

Years after Vukovich's first 500 win, the prose of writer Russ Catlin, a Vuky contemporary, perhaps still best epitomizes his remarkable legacy.

"He will be remembered, always, as being as great as any man who ever pulled on a racing glove."

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