While MastroNet's recent auction totaled over $9 million in sales, there
was a single item that seemed to stand out among all the others. It was the sale
of Bill Vukovich's trophy for winning the 1953 Indy 500.
Car racing has
really come to the front of the American consciousness the past few years. For
our hobby, it has brought new collectors into the field and exposed older
hobbyists to a new collectible area that always seemed to slide under the radar.
Listed in the recent MastroNet success was the winner's trophy from the 1953
Indianapolis 500. It had been won by Bill Vukovich.
This was the first
time Vukovich had won the trophy. He would go one to also win the 1954 Indy 500.
In the history of the Indy 500 only 5 drivers have managed back-to-back
Racing in 1955, Vukovich was a heavy favorite to capture a third
win. However, that hope for a third win was crushed on the 485th lap.
Vukovich's car crashed over two back marker cars in front of him. He went
careening over the back stretch wall and into the car park. The accident took
Car racing was significantly different back than. For one
thing, drivers were unable to support themselves on a standard racing circuit
and they often held down demanding jobs in order to provide for their families.
In order to get racing experience, drivers would often spend free hours during
the week driving midgets and sprinters on quarter mile dirt tracks or a half
mile oval. Several times a season they would meet at mile-long tracks to take a
chance on the bigger cars.
Safety for the drivers was often a simple
helmet and tank goggles. Many drivers of the late forties and early fifties had
come directly out of the combat of World War Two. Almost all of the drivers wore
t-shirts when they raced. Fireproof suits didn't become mandatory until 1959,
Seat belts? Are you kidding? They were daredevils in the most precise
Vukovich, like many of the other drivers was a mechanic by
trade. He was up on the changes to the racing vehicles of the day and many
considered him a master mechanic of the time. The early fifties saw racing cars
start the move away from heavy front-wheel drives to the smaller designs that
had come into favor on dirt tracks. The brick speedway of the Indianapolis track
caused these lighter, smaller vehicles to slide as they took corners.
lifelong California resident, (he had been born in Fresno on December 13, 1918),
Vukovich earned his name by driving in midget car races on the West Coast. He
was known as a fierce competitor and loved psyching out other drivers. This
gained him several distinctive nicknames. Some called him The Mad Russian
because of his hard-charging driving style. Strangely enough his cool demeanor
in a race also caused him to be named The Silent Serb.
was not a cakewalk. On his 14th birthday, his father had committed suicide..
During the depression he and his brother had to work hard and long hours to
support the family. Their only form of fun was to spend countless hours working
on the family's Model T. Often they could be found chasing jackrabbits through
fields while driving that same Model T.
Realizing there were a few bucks
in the idea of racing cars, he started to compete in races in the thirties. He
didn't smoke or drink and he worked out every day. A short and stocky man, he
quickly accumulated his share of scars, concussions, broken bones and enemies
among the other drivers. This was a type of racing where drivers would simply go
over the car in front of them if they couldn't get around. Vukovich drove at an
intensity that few others could maintain or even understand.
It was a
car-related injury that kept him out of the War in 1941. At the time, many
drivers showed up at the track without a car. They would make an agreement with
the owners of the car to take a percentage of the possible winnings. This was
the only real income they would make from racing. Vukovich was bit different. On
the midget circuit of California, he started driving his own vehicle and also
worked for sponsors.
By 1951 he was one of 12 rookie drivers who
qualified for the Indy 500 that year. That first race at the Brickyard race
found him having to dropout after 129 laps due to an oil tank fracture.
Vukovich knew he would be back.
The 1952 race saw Vukovich driving for a
millionaire named Howard Keck who had sponsored several previously winning cars
at the Indy 500. He was leading the race until a quarter-inch steering pin gave
out on lap #192.
The next year he qualified for the pole position at
Indy and led the race for 195 of 200 laps. His average speed was 128.74 mph.
That year five drivers finished the race without relief.
The next year,
fans roared as Vukovich once again raced across the finish line in first. This
time out his speed was 130.84 mph. He appeared unstoppable. The following year
saw him change sponsors and cars. Heck left racing and Vukovich went over to
Lindsey Hopkins who owned a brand new roadster.
The money he had won at
the two Indy 500s was important to him. He had bought two gas stations and also
invested soundly. He may have been a daredevil on the track, but in life he was
practical and took care of his family.
The 1955 Indy opened strong and
fans rooted for Vukovich to pull a third win out of his hat. Throughout the
country radio brought the lap by lap events to eager fans that gathered around
their sets or held the newest portable to their ears. At lap 55 the news started
to come across hurriedly. There had been a multi car crash, the announcers
didn't know everyone involved at first. It seems that Vukovich had been trailing
three slower cars. As he tried to deal with them he became entangled in their
mess and soared over them into the car park.
Flying over the wall, his
skull had been fractured and he died instantly. Fans everywhere were speechless.
Many had expected this larger than life legend to bring home a third trophy. The
danger of car racing was brought home to millions that day.
Vukovich is remembered as one of the best who ever drove in the Brickyard. He is
lamented as a story that never really finished. One or two people remember him
laughing as he and his brother chased jackrabbits over a field in a Model
How did Vukovich explain his incredible driving skill? "There's no
secret. Just press the accelerator and steer left."