By: Tanner Watkins
December 21, 2017 | 2:45 PM
Today we are pleased to continue with our “Faces of the 500” series, a set of stories featuring various people involved with the Indianapolis 500 over its history of 101 runnings.
If you missed the first entry in the series, we detailed the curious case of Mike Spence and his involvement in the 1968 Indianapolis 500 in early November.
While Spence was a somewhat unknown subject to kick off the series, we continue with “Faces of the 500” by featuring a more prominent figure: Bill Vukovich.
William John Vukovich Sr. first appeared at the Indianapolis 500 in 1950. Born in Fresno, California, the Serbian-American driver made his name by racing midget cars for the Edelbrock Racing Team.
Driving cars powered by Drake engines, a Harley V-Twin power plant with water-cooled heads, Vukovich captured regional midget car championships in 1945 and 1946 before winning the 1950 AAA National Midget Championship.
Making a name for himself as a versatile racer during 1950, he secured his first opportunity to race in the Indianapolis 500 by driving a Rounds-Rocket chassis powered by the popular Offenhauser engine.
In his first attempt to qualify as a substitute driver for the 500 Mile Race, Vukovich missed the show and was not in the field of 33 starters. Joining Vukovich on the sidelines for the 1950 race was Duke Naylon, the 1949 Indianpolis 500 pole sitter.
In 1951, “Vuky” qualified 20th and made his first start at Indianapolis driving a Trevis chassis for a team named Central Excavating. Unfortunately, an oil leak ended his day before settling into the event, retiring on lap 29 with a 29th place finish.
After two years of up and down experience at Indianapolis, Vukovich arrived at the Speedway in 1952 driving the Fuel Injection Special carrying renewed hope. The California native qualified 8th for the race, and by lap 7 he had assumed the race lead.
From that point on, Vukovich and Troy Ruttman would trade the lead six times over the next 180 laps, dominating the race. Unfortunately for Vuky, his bad luck would continue with nine laps remaining.
While leading the race on lap 192, Vukovich was forced to retire from the event when his steering failed. Ruttman completed the remaining nine circuits, and after leading a total of 150 laps on the day, Vukovich finished a disheartening 17th place.
Amid the disappointment following a late retirement, the dominating performance by Vukovich signaled the start of an impressive three-year run at the Speedway.
Bill returned to the Indianapolis 500 again in 1953, not to be denied. In one of the most dominating performances in Indianapolis 500 history, Vukovich qualified his Fuel Injection/Offenhauser entry on the pole and never looked back.
Relinquishing the lead only five times during the first 53 trips around the historic 2.5-mile oval, he led from lap 54 to the end of the race in an incredible display of consistency while enduring one of the hottest 500 Mile Races to date.
Finally, after three years of heartbreak in three unique ways, Vukovich had tasted victory at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
In 1954, Vukovich would defend his Indianapolis 500 victory with a second consecutive first place finish in the grand race. While he would lead only 90 laps compared to the astonishing number of 195 the year prior, Vuky’s performance in the 1954 race is equally spectacular.
Starting 19th, Vukovich worked his way through the field to lead the race by lap 61. Fellow competitor Jimmy Bryan would trade the lead with Vukovich and Sam Hanks over the next 90 laps, with Vuky assuming the lead for good on lap 150.
In textbook form, Vukovich controlled the latter stages of the event similar to his victory in 1953. The victory made the Californian a two-time winner of the Indianapolis 500, only the 5th driver to accomplish the feat at that time, and well on his way to joining Mauri Rose, Wilbur Shaw and Louis Meyer as the only three-time winners of the race.
Poised to become the fourth three-time winner at Indianapolis in 1955, Vukovich had a wonderful month that resulted in a 5th place starting position. Driving for the Hopkins racing team, Vuky dominated the race early on by leading 50 of the first 56 laps following the green flag.
While leading by over 15 seconds on lap 57, Vukovich was involved in a multi-car crash upon exiting turn two. As it has been told, Vukovich was trailing drivers Roger Ward, Al Keller and Johnny Boyd when Ward’s car swerved quickly from a gust of wind.
Keller, reacting aggressively to avoid Ward, lost control of his car and skidded back onto the track from the infield striking Boyd’s machine. Upon making contact with Keller, Boyd was pushed directly into the path of Vukovich who had no time to react.
The impact with Boyd launched Vukovich’s KK500C chassis airborne and over the backstretch retaining wall, somersaulting nearly five times. When the car came to a rest, the chassis caught fire and despite attempts to retrieve and revive Vukovich, he had passed away at the age of 36.
He became just the second driver to perish in the race as the defending champion, following Floyd Roberts passing in 1939.
After leading 50 laps in the 1955 Indianapolis 500, it capped an incredibly unfortunate but dominant career at the Speedway for Vuky. Out of the 676 race laps completed in the Indianapolis 500, he led 485 of those laps for a remarkable 71.7% laps led rate.
He was well on his way to an unprecedented third-straight Indianapolis 500 victory, a feat that would still be standing today had he continued with an excellent start in the 1955 race.
If not for a steering failure while leading in the 1952 event and better circumstances in 1955, Vukovich could have won an unfathomable four Indianapolis 500 Mile Races in a row, cementing his legacy as possibly the most successful driver in the race’s history.
While Vuky’s death ended his own racing career in the mid-1950s, the family legacy continued with his son Bill Vukovich II and grandson Bill Vukovich III both competing in the Indianapolis 500.
Vukovich II enjoyed 12 starts in the ‘500, finishing runner-up in 1973 to Gordon Johncock and 3rd the next year behind Johnny Rutherford and Bobby Unser. He was Rookie of the Year in 1968.
Vuky’s grandson, Bill Vukovich III, made only three starts in the Indianapolis 500 between 1988 and 1990. He finished a respectable 14th in 1988 while also capturing the race’s Rookie of the Year award, and improved on that result with a 12th place finish in 1989.
The third-generation Vukovich III was killed in a sprint car race in Bakersfield, California in 1990, prematurely ending his life at the age of 27.
In winning the Indianapolis 500 twice, the senior Vukovich went from west coast midget racer to one of the most respected drivers in the paddock.
Two-time Indy 500 race winner, Roger Ward, was quoted saying, “Bill Vukovich was probably the greatest actual driver we have ever known in terms of his skill and determination.”
It is unclear what was in store for Bill Vukovich had he avoided death in 1955, and his standing among Indianapolis 500 legends could have been level with the names of Foyt, Unser and Mears in due time.
Regardless of what could have been, Vukovich should be considered as one of the most talented and dominant drivers in the race’s grand history. His hard-charging style and smooth demeanor earned him monikers such as the “Mad Russian” and “Silent Serb.”
For Bill, nicknames were somewhat unnecessary. All he cared about was winning the race, and everything that followed was for show. A racer through and through, he explained how to tackle the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“The only way to win here,” Vukovich said, “is to keep your foot on the throttle and turn left.”
Maybe, if we all followed that advice in life, we could end up as successful as Bill Vukovich.
Images courtesy of IndyCar and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.