Book Review–Vukovich, an inspiring story of American achievement

June 9, 2015 by

Book Review:  Vukovich, an inspiring story of American achievement by Bob Gates.

Bill Vukovich was quite possibly the greatest auto racer to ever win the Indianapolis 500.  He was one of the California midget racers who took Championship racing by storm in the early 1950s. The record book clearly shows how Vukovich dominated the Indianapolis 500.  What makes his record more amazing is that unlike others, he rarely raced at Champ car venues other than the Indianapolis 500.   In six short years, he won the race twice and was leading in two other races when fate intervened.

Although he made the 1951 race in an old racer owned by Pete Salemi, the car didn’t stand a chance.  Vukovich predicted that the car would last thirty laps.  It failed on the twenty-ninth lap.    Vukovich made the most of the twenty-nine laps and his performance led to aligning with the well-funded Howard Keck team.  Vukovich would dominate the Indianapolis 500 in the next three years.

After having started on the third row in 1952, he was leading by 25 seconds on the 192nd lap when a ¾ inch pin on the steering arm broke.  Vukovich kissed the wall ending his day.   Returning in 1953, he easily won the race on a day where the track temperatures reached 130 degrees.  Humidity hovering around 90% made the hot day even more miserable.  Amazingly, he was one of five drivers who drove the full 500 miles in the stifling heat without a relief driver.   In 1954, from a starting position on the 7th row, he won a second time setting a new track record.

After notification that the engine for the new “streamliner” car being designed by Keck’s mechanics, Jim Travers and Frank Coon, wouldn’t be ready for the 1955 Indianapolis 500, Keck allowed Vukovich to drive for Lindsay Hopkins.  In the weeks leading up to the race, Vukovich was the favorite to win an unprecedented third consecutive race.  Vukovich was easily leading the race when he was killed in a five car wreck.

Through a variety of people close to Vukovich, author Bob Gates tells the story of Vukovich’s rise from obscurity to the top of the racing world.  Vukovich’s public persona was of a quiet, introverted man who shunned publicity.  Through his sister, Babe,  his brother, Mike, and his son, Bill, Jr.  Gates tells of a man who was devoted to his family.  Vukovich’s generosity to fellow drivers and friends was told by his mechanics, Jim Travers and Frank Coon, and others in the racing community.

Although Bill Vukovich died in the 1955 Indianapolis 500, the Vukovich story continued through his son, Bill, Jr. who was a talented driver in his own right, and his grandson, Billy III, who was driven to follow in his father and grandfather’s footsteps.   Sadly, just like his grandfather, Billy’s life was cut short in a racing accident.

Witness Publications, $35, hard cover.

Sigur Whitaker is an auto historian.  Her third book, The Indy Car Wars, The 30-year Fight for Control of American Open-wheel Racing will be available in September.

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