For a while it looked as if luck were riding at Indianapolis this year. Saturday and Sunday had been wet, miserable days. Around the track and among the garage stalls of Gasoline Alley on Sunday afternoon, the drivers and mechanics and owners and officials glanced anxiously at the angry clouds overhead and crossed their fingers against a postponement of the "500." Monday morning the turbulent gray skies were still there, and a cold, gusty wind blew down the infield, but there was no rain. As Dinah Shore stepped to the mike and crooned Back Home Again in Indiana, the sun smiled weakly on the great crowd and the 33 gaily-colored cars and their gaily-uniformed crews. The race was on; the track and customers were dry, if slightly chilled.
The drivers of reputation wasted no time assuming their proper roles. When they hit the first turn at the southwest corner, Jack McGrath pushed his cream-and-black No. 3 into the front of the growling, crowding pack. This was as it should be. His 142.580 mph qualifying speed was the fastest ever posted at the Indianapolis Speedway, and this combination driver-mechanic (the only one in the race) seems to have the habit of putting the fastest car on the bricks.
Past the starter's flag the first time it was McGrath, then Tony Bettenhausen, Bill Vukovich, Jerry Hoyt (who had won the pole position), Fred Agabashian (the wise veteran), Walt Faulkner and Jim Bryan, last year's national champion driver. These, in the main, were the drivers who had monopolized the pre-race speculation in taxicabs and hotel lobbies and the bids in the Calcutta pools around town through the weekend.
It took only one more lap for McGrath and Vukovich to turn the action into a two-car race, leaving the rest of the field to work out their own destinies. Despite a relatively slow first lap (131.579) they were running at close to 139 mph. By the 20th lap—Vukovich had taken over the lead but not by much on the 4th lap, lost it on the 14th and then regained it—they had raised the average to 136.358, just a shade under McGrath's record of last year for the same distance. Somewhere back in the ruck Bob Sweikert in No. 6 was arguing with Tony Bettenhausen, Sam Hanks and Jim Bryan for what seemed like the completely unimportant position of third.
And so it continued through the first hundred miles with Vukie's average climbing to 136.894, now less than a mile under McGrath's record for the distance. As the hour mark passed, McGrath unexpectedly took the edge off the race when he pulled into the pits with ignition trouble, never to rejoin the race. The way Vukie was going it would be a miracle if any of the others caught him. This would be his third consecutive victory at Indianapolis, something never achieved by the great names of the past—Wilbur Shaw, Mauri Rose, Lou Meyer and the rest.
Then the ominous yellow flag. When it goes up, and the cars slow down, you can only start imagining unless you have seen the trouble. First you look for signs of confusion, but they are hard to find in that vast infield with perhaps 60,000 or 70,000 people milling in happy anarchy. Then you start looking for the missing cars as the field loafs around the track. You look first for the big names, the ones you have already begun to follow with some care. And then someone says: "I haven't seen Vukie go by."
Smoke begins to rise from beyond the trees and the crowd on the back stretch nearly a mile away from the main stands. Pretty soon the announcer's voice tells you: "It is a five-car accident of a very serious nature." The rest of the cars restlessly hold their positions or duck into the pits for a quick servicing—taking advantage of the delay so as not to lose too much ground. It is 27 minutes before the track is again clear, the yellow caution lights go off and the high speed resumes.
But something more than Vukie's car has gone out of the afternoon. We are told by that soothing voice on the loudspeaker, as if not to hurt our feelings: "Bill Vukovich has been fatally injured."
It is a new race now with Jim Bryan, the hardy young 214-pounder from Phoenix, holding the lead against the pressure of Bob Sweikert. The race is still in the hands of a big name, a driving celebrity, but the hometown boy who lives but a spit and a jump from the Speedway itself is giving him trouble. His lead won't stretch. In fact, on the 89th lap it dissolves as Bryan obviously has troubles. On the 91st lap Bryan retires for the day with a faulty fuel pump.
There are still 250 miles to go, and now Sweikert leads, followed by Art Cross and Johnny Parsons (a familiar name at last!—the 1950 winner) and Don Freeland and Cal Niday and Pat O'Connor. The crowd has to reorient itself to a whole new set of names, build up a new excitement over these little-known figures who only a few minutes ago appeared to be just stage dressing for the principals. Cross's blue car, Freeland's yellow one, O'Connor's yellow one and Niday's dazzling orange all have to be memorized and tucked into the mind. These are the plodders who sat in the background and nursed their cars on the chance that the flashy front runners with the speed might collapse, as indeed they did.
Sweikert made his second and last stop for fuel and new tires at the 133rd lap, leaving Art Cross, a midget-car graduate, to assume command. He was in the pits for only a brief 44 seconds, but by that time he was trailing both Cross and Freeland. By the 160th lap they too had to make refueling stops and Sweikert regained the lead.
From then on only Sweikert's pit crew doubted the outcome. The other 160,000 or so people—adjusted now to the new stars of the show—watched the salmon-pink roadster, a brand-new car with no previous racing experience, eat up the remaining 100 miles with no serious opposition. The wonder seemed to be that he insisted on clocking laps at 135 mph or more when the outcome seemed so safe. Yet the pit crew worried, knowing his fuel might run short, that he could lose a precious lap or so to pick up a new load.
As Sweikert flashed past the pits with only 20-odd miles left, his salmon-shirted crew held up a sign: "RES?" They wanted to know if he had switched to those last precious ten gallons in his reserve tank. None was more nervous than John Zink, the furnace and air conditioning manufacturer from Tulsa, whose $25,000 or so was invested in the car. They had tuned his car to this point of perfection ; they had handled his two pit stops perfectly. Would it all go down the drain while he ran out of fuel? Sweikert's insouciant, almost gay signals in reply to the blackboard questions left his friends in the pit chewing their nails until he took the checkered flag.
Perhaps it was not a "500" for the history books except for its tragedy. Not since 1951 had there been such a slow race, but nearly half an hour of it was run under a yellow flag. Yet drivers will remember it as one of the most treacherous, with the gusty winds fish-tailing the cars down the straightaway and roughhousing them in the turns. Luck, which had seemed so beneficent at the start, had changed her mind and splattered the track with more oil than most veterans could remember. It was a slippery, difficult ride for the only nine drivers who completed the 200 laps.
Twenty-nine-year-old Bob Sweikert, finishing his first "500" in four attempts, accepted his triumph modestly. Afterwards he said: "We just figured we'd go out there as fast as we could as long as we could. It was a nice cool day, and the car stayed in good shape."
INDIANAPOLIS '500' BEGINS WITH PACE STOCK CAR LEADING THE 33 ENTRANTS IN FAST PROCESSION AROUND BRICK-AND-ASPHALT
TRACKPHOTOJOECLARKBILL VUKOVICH'S blazing Hopkins Special, in which the 1953-54 Indianapolis champion had set the early pace, lies upside down after crash which trapped him.PHOTOJOECLARKBOB SWEIKERT, OIL-STAINED AND SMILING, HEADS INTO THE PITS AFTER TAKING CHECKERED FLAG AND PREPARES FOR VICTORY KISS FROM DINAH SHORE. HE LED THE RACE FOR LAST 40 LAPSPHOTOJOE CLARKBILL VUKOVICH
'TAKE THE LEAD AND STAY THERE'
Bill Vukovich, also known as Wild Bill and Vukie, was a foot-grinding daredevil who considered the Indianapolis "500" his own special race. While other drivers scorched lesser tracks on the racing circuit from Langhorne to Sacramento, Bill Vukovich managed a filling station in Fresno, Calif., waiting, planning and training like a boxer for the main go on Memorial Day.
Vukie used any strategy to conquer the proud Speedway. In 1953, just a year after he had been wrenched from victory by a disabled steering gear, he announced "I'll take the lead and stay there"—and he went on to win $89,000 in prizes and lap money. Last year, with a poorer starting position, he hung off the pace and then, when his rivals had all but counted him out, roared up to win again in the record speed of 130.84 mph. Born 36 years ago in Alameda, Calif., Bill Vukovich did his first driving in a pony cart but was racing cars on dirt tracks by the time he was 14. Another victory this week would have given him an unprecedented three in a row. He had held most of the early lead when the crash came.