Bill Vukovich grew up on a farm in California. He tried his hand at racing when whe was 18. Right off, he placed second in a stock car event. Then he headed for the midget tracks. In his first Midget race in 1938, he flipped and suffered broken ribs and a broken collarbone. Seven weeks later he was back in a race car.
After spending the war years repairing Jeeps and trucks, he bought a Midget and became a Champion. He won the 1946 and 1947 UBA West Coast titles and in 1950 he won the AAA National Midget crown. Within a few years, Bill Vukovich was one of the country's top drivers. Racing fans said that Vukie liked to drive just one way - hard and fast. There were many stories about his love of speed. Vukie's blazing spirit cloaked in a cool demeanor was evident in the 1954 Pan American Road Race. His terrified co-driver repeatedly protested as Vukovich sliced corners on the precipitous mountain roads. When the car shot over a bank and dropped 50 feet, Vukie took his hands off the wheel while the car was still airborne and said, "OK, you drive it".
Vukie's Indianapolis 500 career was meteoric and placed him among the best ever to compete at the famed Memorial Day Classic. A Hall of Fame open wheeler with only five races at the Brickyard must have been mighty good! This charger with fire in the belly and a beat-the-devil attitude was as good as they come!
After a lackluster rookie year in 1951, he began a streak that easily could have resulted in four consecutive Indy wins. In 1952 he appeared headed for victory when a quarter-inch pin on the steering arm gave out on the 192nd lap, sending his car into the wall and allowing Troy Ruttman to post the win.
Bill won the 1953 Indy 500
In 1953 he endured searing heat and led for 195 laps to win the 500, one of only five drivers that year to finish the race without relief. His average speed was 128.74 mph. His qualifying speed is 138.392 mph.
Bill won the 1954 Indy 500
In 1954, he started in the 19th position but he fought his way into the lead at the 375-mile mark. No one ever caught up with him. Vukie crossed the finish line, 1.1 minutes ahead of the second-place car, Jimmy Bryan. Vukie's average speed was a record-breaking 130.84 mph (210.561 kph). Vukie had joined Wilbur Shaw and Mauri Rose as the only drivers to have won the Indy 500 two years in a row*.
Then it was 1955. It was time for a third straight win. It was time to face the Indy Jinx. Though he was a tough driver, Bill was a quiet man. This year, he seemed especially quiet. He acted as if he didn't want to be in the race. One day he told a friend he had the feeling that he wouldn't finish.
On the night before the race, he turned to his wife. He said they ought to forget the 500 and go home. The next morning, he stopped alongside a fellow driver and looked at the crowd. He said that the fans thought the drivers were "freaks." He added that they were right. Perhaps he sensed the tragedy that was to come.
Still, Bill Vukovich raced as hard as ever that day. Starting in fifth position, he quickly knifed his way to the front. By lap 57, everyone thought a third straight win might be his. Vukie was leading by half a mile. He shot down the back straightaway. He came up to the rear of the pack. Just ahead were Rodger Ward, Al Keller, and Johnny Boyd.
The racers swept into the turn. Without warning, Rodger Ward's car went out of control. It had a broken axle. The car flipped over on its back. Al Keller swerved to avoid Ward. He headed for the wall, swung back onto the track, and plowed into Johnny Boyd.
Boyd skidded between the overturned Ward and the wall. He headed directly into Bill's path. Bill hit him broadside. The Vukovich car bounced across Boyd's rear wheel, shearing it off. Then the car sailed over the wall. It turned over while in the air and smashed nose-first into the ground. It bounced high twice. Then it exploded in flames and landed on its back. At the wheel, Bill Vukovich was dead.
Track officials investigated the crash. They found that Bill had died before the flames reached him. The cause of his death was a skull fracture. He was 36 years old. Bill's son and grandson would go on to compete in future Indy 500's. Fire and ice -- Bill Vukovich shunned adoring crowds, yet had an unquenchable desire to excel for them. His life ended as it had been lived -- going for it all.
* Regarding the Indy jinx, After winning two races in a row, Wilbur Shaw wrecked while leading and was injured in a career ending accident in 1941. Mauri Rose went on to win that race. The war years put the Indy 500 on hold until 1946. Mauri techincally could have two in a row by winning the '46 race. However, he hit the wall and was thrown out and he landed on the track in a sitting position! Stunned, he sat there as the pack shot past. His mind began to clear, and he started to think he was ok, he got up, and found he'd fractured his hip! Mauri came back and won the following two Indy 500's though. If he could win in 1949, he could still make three in a row.
He was closing in on the leader, 20 laps from the end, when his magneto strap broke forcing him to limp into the pits, ruining his hopes for three in a row. Al Unser almost did it too, winning in 1970 and 1971. He finished second to Mark Donohue in 1972. Perhaps someday a driver will beat the Indy jinx once and for all.
Bill Vukovich's Indy 500 Record
||29 - oil tank
||191 - steering
||56 - wreck