Howard Keck won both the Indianapolis 500 and the Kentucky Derby

June 12, 2015 by

American businessman Howard B. Keck has a unique place in sports history.  He was the owner of a Championship auto racing team which won the Indianapolis 500 twice and the owner of a thoroughbred horse which won the Kentucky Derby.

Keck was the son of California oilman William Myron Keck.   In 1921, William Keck founded Superior Oil Company in California which, when sold to Mobil Oil in 1984, was the country’s largest oil producer.  Howard B. Keck joined his father in Superior Oil and his wealth allowed him to sponsor race cars in the Indianapolis 500.

A Keck owned car first appeared at the 1950 Indianapolis 500.  The previous year, Mauri Rose, three time winner of the Indianapolis 500, had a dispute with the Blue Crown team owner, Lou Moore, resulting in Rose leaving this well-funded team.   Keck seized the opportunity to hire Mauri Rose to drive the Pennzoil Special.  Starting on the outside of the first row, Rose led fifteen laps of the race and finished in third place, one lap down from the winning pace.     Rose was back in 1951 in the Pennzoil Special for his fifteenth Indianapolis 500 and qualified on the fifth row.  On lap 126, Rose lost control of the car when it “threw a wheel.”  Rose ended upside down in the infield.  After the race, Rose decided to retire from auto racing.

Jim Travers and Frank Coon, mechanics on the Keck team had come from the California midget racing scene.  They were familiar with Bill Vukovich from his participation in midget racing.

Encouraged by Rex May, Vukovich first came to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1950.  He passed his rookie test using the aged Maserati in which Wilbur Shaw had won the Indianapolis 500 twice.   Unfortunately, the car wasn’t competitive and Vukovich didn’t make the field.

The next year Vukovich was back.  The best cars were already taken so Vukovich took a ride in the Central Excavating car.  Like the Maserati, the car wasn’t competitive but Vukovich decided to show what he could do.  Predicting the car would run 30 laps before a mechanical failure, Vukovich was able to drive the car from a 20th starting position to tenth before the car failed.  Vukovich’s strategy work.  He attracted the attention of the top teams including that owned by Howard Keck.

With a strong race car, Vukovich was eight laps away from winning the 1952 when a pin broke on the steering column ending his day of racing.  In extremely hot and humid weather, Vukovich won his first Indianapolis 500 in 1953.  The following year, Vukovich added a second consecutive victory joining legendary racers Wilbur Shaw and Mauri Rose.

Keck had been planning on a new “streamliner” car for the 1955 Indianapolis 500.  When it became obvious that the racer wouldn’t be ready for the race, Keck released Vukovich to drive for another team. Lindsey Hopkins hired Vukovich for the 1955 race.  The favorite to win the race, Vukovich was leading the pack when he was involved in a five car accident which he did not survive.  Keck who had anticipated reuniting the team was devastated with the loss of his star driver and made the decision to quit auto racing.

Several years later, Keck was involved in a new passion—horse racing.  His horse Ferdinand won the 1986 Kentucky Derby and the 1987 Breeder’s Cup.   Ferdinand was named the 1987 Eclipse Horse of the Year.

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