A Report On The Accident That Killed Bill

 Vukovich In The 1955 Indianapolis 500-Mile-Race

       

 

 

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The Race and Accident

"Vukovich will not give up his work. The marriage may or may not survive.  Most of the car owners are just big industrialist with huge bank accounts. Vukovich is one of a kind.  The best there is at what he does.  No man can walk away from that."

    The Race The race was run on Monday, May 30, 1955 and began on time at 10:03 a.m. CST. At the start Jack McGrath, who said before the race he was going "to run as fast as I can for as long as I can", jumped into the lead. There has also been a considerable number of versions as to exactly how the duel between Vukovich and McGrath transpired. From analysis of all the available information this is the most accurate that can be determined. At the start McGrath jumped ahead of Jerry Hoyt and Tony Bettenhausen going into turn one. By the time the pack reached turn three Vukovich had picked up one position by passing Freddie Agabashian on the backstretch and then took third place by passing Hoyt as the cars passed the start/finish line on the first lap. On the backstretch on lap two Vukovich passed Bettenhausen to go into second place and as they came down the front straight to complete lap two McGrath was about 300 feet ahead of Vukovich. McGrath's car showed the first signs of smoke coming out of turn four on lap three. McGrath said after he went out of the race that they had put too much oil in the engine and it was throwing it out. Vukovich passed McGrath for the lead the first time going down the backstretch on Lap 4. The Dynamic film tried to make it look like Vukovich passed McGrath in the Southeast Turn on lap three because apparently they didn't have the actual pass on film so they made it appear it happened on lap three. McGrath edged out Vukovich by a wheel at the finish line and officially led lap 15 but was passed again almost immediately and Vukovich then led lap 16. Vukovich held the lead until the 24th lap when McGrath caught and passed him on the backstretch even with his smoking machine. Vukovich fought back down the main straightaway and on lap 25 attempted to pass McGrath going into the first turn by going "dangerously low" on the inside and McGrath slammed the door on him. For the remainder of that lap Vukovich held back and then on lap 26 passed McGrath on the backstretch and turned the fastest competitive lap in Speedway history at 141.350 mph. And that signaled and end to the ferocious duel. After that Vukovich was never headed again. At 125 miles McGrath dropped to fourth. Sweikert was in second and Bryan in third.                                     

    According to witnesses Vukovich never let up. He charged through the field like no one had ever done before passing some cars several times. He had established in the minds of everybody watching that if he were to make it the full 500 miles he would be victorious. After 48 laps Vukovich led McGrath by 10 1/2 seconds and he had lapped everybody in the field with the exception of seven cars -- Jack McGrath, Bob Sweikert, Sam Hanks, Jimmy Bryan, Tony Bettenhausen, Art Cross and Walt Faulkner. Problems with McGrath's car finally forced him into the pits at lap 54. Being his own mechanic he went to work on the car but it was to no avail. He was out of the race. In an interview with Luke Walton of IMS Radio Network McGrath said the overfilling of the engine with oil and the ensuing spray may have led to a pre-ignition situation and knocked out something else but apparently the initial engine smoke was not the direct cause of him going out of the race. According to reports the official timing and scoring had both McGrath and Vukovich with identical average speeds of 136.01 for 54 laps when McGrath pulled in. Vukovich keep up a similar grueling pace for the next two laps until the accident.

                             "Vukovich was the Epitome of Excellence in Motion"

The Accident

     Radio Announcer Sid Collins was conducting an interview with Actress Dinah Shore who was scheduled to kiss the winner of the race at the exact time the accident happened.  During the interview it is possible to hear Vukovich and the rest of those involved in the accident go by for the last time. The accident happened on the 57th lap, not the 56th or earlier as some stories and movies have suggested. According to all the reliable information Vukovich was on his 57th lap when he crashed; Boyd was on his 54th lap and Vukovich was about ready to lap him again; Ward and Elisian were also on their 54th and Keller was on his 55th. Although it was impossible to obtain the official timing and scoring, according to accurate reports it had those cars in that same order when Vukovich crossed the finish line at the end of lap 56 and as they were when coming out of the Southeast Turn before the accident.   Collins had just handed the microphone over to Announcer Charlie Brockman to give the run down at 50 laps when the yellow light flashed and Brockman sent it to Backstretch Announcer Jack Shapiro for the initial description of what happened.

The Gust of Wind

     The accident began at 11:03 a.m. when Rodger Ward lost control of his car in a gust of wind after exiting the Southeast Turn. In a newspaper interview the next day Ward said "I was coming out of the Southeast Turn, when the wind got me." There have been reports over the years that the Ward broke an axle and that sent him into the wall or that he spun in some oil. This was looked at quite extensively and from the most accurate information it was concluded the cause of Ward's spin was a gust of wind. There were several reports that said Ward broke an axle. In the "Heroes of the 500" video featuring Rodger Ward the announcer Paul Page said it was a broken axle that caused the accident. In The Bill Vukovich Biography aired on ESPN Classic Chris Economaki said that Ward broke an axle. But Ward himself did not say so in the program. He did say he should have brought the car in which was because of a vibration. But the vast majority of all information at the time and for several days later in the newspapers said it was a gust of wind that caused Ward to spin. Ward went on to say in the newspaper interview "I couldn't hold it and started sliding down the track and ended up hitting the rail backward just by the footbridge." According to the movies Ward was right which would also demonstrated his apparent accurate memory of the accident. In fact, Ward's descriptions were all backed up by the movies and photos while at least one other driver's memory of the accident showed little resemblance to what actually happened. The films show that Ward spun around to the left and brushed the outside wall several hundred feet South of the backstretch footbridge while going backwards. The car slid down the wall, jumped up into the air, rolled over two complete times, landed right side up and lost the right rear tire which rolled to a stop in the middle of the track about 50 feet past the footbridge. Ward said in the interview that he remembered ending up looking toward the oncoming traffic and the films confirm that is what indeed happen. The films also show Ward not hitting anybody and according to his recollection that was the case. "I don't remember anyone hitting me and there is no evidence on the car, unless someone might have bounced off one of my tires," Ward said.

     As far as the oil scenario is concerned, Freddie Agabashian had, according to him, spun partially because of oil in the Southeast Turn at lap 39. Agabashian said "I just plain lost it going into the Southeast Turn apparently due to wind except that the track is awfully oily and I was changing grooves and I got into a groove that there was plenty of oil I guess and I plain lost her boy. I spun about two and a half times. That was the first time and I guess God takes care of all good children once in a while because had I not looped out then I would have been right smack dab in the middle of this other one that's happened right here because I was in that position exactly. I never touched the wall or the inside rail at all -- never touched anything." . In one photo of Agabashian spinning into the Southeast Turn a car which seems to be Vukovich can been seen going low and almost on the grass to avoid Agabashian. Vukovich actually came very close to being involved in that incident.

     There was no evidence in the available pictures of excessive oil on the track or in the turn. Also, according to Agabashian‘s own statements, he lost control of his car going into the Southeast turn, not coming out of it where Ward lost control. Ward himself later declared that he did, in fact, lose control of the car in a gust of wind, not oil. The car did spin in a way which was indicative of that as the tail came around in an unusual fashion to the left almost as if he was trying to correct from a gust of wind. In addition the films do show Ward was out of the turn before his car got out of control. If it had been oil the car should have gone loose and spun the other way. But in regards to the axle, there has never been any mention as to which axle could have broke. In one aftermath photo there is evidence of a broken axle on the car with both the left front and left real wheels askew. But since the car rolled over two times this damage could have easily have been done in the accident. In another indication that the wind was severe enough to cause a driver to lose control, Tony Bettenhausen said after the race the wind was worse than the day before qualifying and eventual winner Bob Sweikert said later the wind was so bad it was making cars "move around six feet". Keller, Boyd and Vukovich Come Out of Turn At the moment Ward was crashing drivers Keller, Vukovich and Boyd came out of the Southeast Turn with Keller in front and to the left of Boyd and Boyd in front of Vukovich. In one still photograph taken from the outside of the turn looking down the backstretch, Vukovich can be seen looking down and to the left. According to racing experts Vukovich was more than likely checking his tires for wear. It was lap 57 and it was approaching the time in which he would come in for tires and fuel. This particular photograph has been analyzed for years for its content. It is difficult to detect at first glance the fact Vukovich was looking down and to the left. The reason for this is because at first glance it appears he is not looking down and to the left but straight ahead and the black line on his helmet are his goggle straps. Upon closer examination, better quality prints and computer enhancement, it becomes evident that the black line is actually the bottom of Vukovich’s racing helmet. This is somewhat of a startling revelation as it can be surmised quite accurately that Vukovich missed the beginning of the accident and was using up valuable time in which to make decisions. Would it have made any difference as to the outcome of the accident? It is impossible to tell in the Dynamic movie when Vukovich finally did see the accident happening. It cannot be underemphasized just how important this fact is. It is obvious Boyd and Keller have already seen the crashing Ward vehicle while Vukovich is looking down. The Ward crash had already been on for several seconds and Vukovich had not seen it. It can be also concluded quite safely that if Vukovich had seen the accident he would not have taken his eyes off the Ward car to check his tires.

     It is impossible to tell just how much time Vukovich lost before he noticed what was going on. It certainly shortened his warning time. Did it shorten it enough to affect his decision on what to do? This report cannot positively say but the chances are he would still have had enough time to react and his decision would have been the same.

     Vukovich reportedly told drivers to always go to the right in the event of an accident. If he had the full amount of time that was available to him to analyze the situation, would he have made the same decision to go to the inside?

     Keller, when he saw the crashing car of Ward's, started to angle off toward the inside of the track and continued to the very edge of the infield grass and may have touched the grass. According to one of the Boyd statements he felt Keller did not see the Ward car until after being on the backstretch while Boyd said he saw Ward while still in the turn. As a consequence Keller's decision time was reduced and he seemed to overcorrect to the Ward car by going father and maybe quicker to the left than he needed to -- certainly faster than Boyd or Vukovich were to do.

     He headed toward the infield and when he got to very edge of the track and was just putting his left wheel on the grass and when it apparently dawned on him that he was going to spin out and almost certainly be eliminated from the race he drastically turned right and shot back across the track. Furthermore, judging from the movies there probably was just enough loose material on the track surface and the fact he may have barely touched the infield grass in that area that control of his car may have been adversely affected. Also, according to Boyd in an interview, Keller pulled the handbrake, locked the brakes and sent him like a torpedo across the track. Bob Laycock, an Indianapolis Motor Speedway Historian from that era, was reported to have gone out to the crash site the day after the accident and made a small report in which he reportedly said he found tire tracks on the infield grass. But it is debatable which tire tracks these were as both Keller and Elisian made some tracks of their own North of the footbridge. When the car was at the edge of the track the films show large amounts of dust being kicked up. (This determination was able to be made because in most video transfers, because of the need to fill the screen without black areas on the edges, some of the edges of the frame are lost. Furthermore, most commercial television sets do not give you 100% of the frame and cut off additional portions of the edge of the picture. Due to the fact 16mm prints were used and that special video transfers were made without cropping any of the movie frames and my video projection equipment shows the full picture scan it was possible to see just enough of Keller's actions before he turned right and into Boyd to determine exactly what happened.)

     Speedway publicity director Al Bloemker, writing in his book "500 Miles To Go", said Keller may have feared hitting the backstretch footbridge which was just in front of him at that instant and may have overreacted to that possibility. This is possible but probably not the main reason Keller shot back across the track. The loose material on the track and Keller locking up the brakes is probably the main culprit here. Even though Keller swerved to the left too far he did have enough control to keep it from going on the grass so it must be assumed that since he had that much control he wouldn't have been worried about the bridge enough to turn wildly right as it appeared happened. The pictures made it appear that the abutment was closer to the edge of the track than it actually would appear if you were there but the abutment support was, apparently, a little too close to the track for comfort. Interestingly enough, an angled wooden guard rail in front of the entire bridge structure exposed to the oncoming cars was modified and painted before the 1956 race. This indicated the Speedway felt either the bridge may have been a contributing factor to the accident or feared a car could conceivably collide with it. It is difficult to see what the guardrail would have prevented. In some ways it was a worse hazard than in 1955 because the guardrail extended to the edge of the track when there was at least a few feet between the track and the abutment before the modification. In the case of Keller, if the changes had been there in 1955, he would have had even more incentive to turn right as all he would seen is an approaching wall. And if a car did hit the angled wall it would have careened off back onto the track much like Dave McDonald in the 1964 Sachs/McDonald accident in the Northwest Turn. If the Speedway had any intention at all, it was probably to prevent the bridge from being hit by a car and actually collapsing. That seemed to be what the corrective measures were meant for, not to prevent injury to a driver or creating a larger accident. But, nevertheless, it seems to show the Speedway thought Keller could have hit the bridge. But the bridge was less of a factor in the actual accident than what the Speedway's later actions might at first indicate. After the 1956 race the bridge was removed entirely.

     The accident would have most probably remained a one car accident involving Rodger Ward if Al Keller had not over corrected twice -- once when he tried to avoid the Ward car and again when he apparently locked his brakes and came back onto the racing line. Although it may have been tight the chances are excellent that Boyd and Vukovich would have made it safely by Ward's machine on the inside if Keller had continued on and had not come back and crashed into Boyd. Keller's actions may have been the result of inexperience from being a rookie. As Boyd said, he may not have seen Ward's spinning car as soon as he should. It may have caused him to dive toward the inside more than was required -- caused him to misjudge how fast he was heading toward the infield -- and then caused him to overcorrect again.

     It seems very obvious that his move toward the center of the track was the result of an overcorrection. A more experienced race driver may very well have handled this differently. There was certainly no reason for Keller to go that far or fast toward the inside to avoid the accident.

     Keller, in a statement the next day which showed he didn't have a precise idea of what happened said, "I was trying to avoid hitting Ward when someone hit me. I don't know whether it was Johnny Boyd or Vukie. This put me into a spin and I ended up just off the track in the infield with the front of my car just on the track facing the traffic. It all happened so fast I don't know what happened to the others." The accident was not the fault of Vukovich but he may have made one "wrong" decision. The films show he initially had an inclination to fade to the right ever so slightly but he quickly abandoned the idea. Had he stuck to this original first reaction to go to the outside on the right there is a slight possibility he might have squeezed through the incident by inches. Ultimately, that was his only chance of staying out of some kind of an accident as the rest of the track was to be hopelessly blocked because of Keller's actions. Even though Vukovich initially pointed his car at the spinning Ward automobile on the right side of the track in front of him for a second or two, it apparently didn't appear to Vukovich (and the movies confirm it) that Ward was going to be out of the way by the time he got there (even though, unfortunately, it wound up to be that way.) But Vukovich could not have made that decision at that instant because he didn't know which way the Ward car was going to go. He gave it a little time but he desperately needed to make a decision so he veered to the left.

     Al Keller's daughter Beth, when interviewed said she was only two years old at the time of the incident and does not remember it. But when she questioned her mother the only response and memory she had of the incident was that Vukovich had instructed the rookie drivers, including Keller, that if there was to be an incident in front of them they were always to go to the right. She added that in this one incident Vukovich had gone to the left, which was exactly what he had told all the other drivers never to do.

     In an interview the next day Boyd said Keller "locked up" and nicked him. It is assumed that Boyd was saying Keller locked up his brakes. According to one reliable source the Keller car had been set up for dirt track racing and had no foot brakes -- only a hand brake. It is possible that Keller went for that hand brake and locked up the brakes which led to his loss of control. Boyd, in a later interview, said Keller definitely locked his brakes as a result of pulling the handbrake. Just before Keller was about to hit Boyd, Vukovich apparently saw what was about to happen to him and made two quick movements to the right and when it became apparent there was going to be a collision he then made a desperate attempt to turn right. This was definitely an attempt to get away from the two vehicles rather than changing his mind to go to the outside of Ward. He had already committed to going to the left. The unfortunate part about this is that even if Vukovich was to have stuck to his original thought and gone to the right initially, with Wards's car eventually sliding out of the way, there is still some question he would have made it through on the right without some kind of collision because Boyd's car literally shot across the track toward the outside fence upon impact with Keller and would have, possibly, still blocked Vukovich's path. Furthermore, Wards right front tire in the middle of the track would have also come into play if Vukovich had gone toward the outside because it would been directly in his path. However, it is safe to say the scope of the accident would have been certainly different. His car may not have gone over the fence or any number of scenarios. There was even the possibility that if Vukovich would have kept to the right and remained on the throttle he might, just might, have squeezed through on the right by inches. But his final desperate move was his only move at that instant as there was no way he was going to avoid a collision with Boyd if he didn't at least try.

Over The Wall

      Vukovich's left front tire contacted the right side of Boyd's car near the right front tire and probably came in contact with the tire. At this same instant Boyd's rear wheels were virtually off the ground as a result of the Keller collision. The angle of the impact, the fact Boyd's Sumar Special was sent to the right and the probable contact with Boyd's tire caused Vukovich's car to jump into the air putting all four wheels off the ground, the tail dragging on the track and headed toward the fence. In detailed examination of the movies it can be seen that Vukie had already turned his wheels back to the left just before the car jumped into the air. He was already thinking about making it around Boyd and continuing on. The car continued on to the wooden fence, which was approximately two feet high, and three wheels -- the two front and the right rear -- cleared the fence. The tail of the vehicle, however, hit the fence and at the same time the left rear tire hooked on the fence and both of these events helped to send the vehicle off on its crazy wild ride over the fence just a few feet short of the bridge. In addition, just at that instant, Boyd’s car swung around and made one final contact with Vukovich’s right rear tire and further helped to send Vukovich’s car over the wall. In one 8mm view of the accident which is included in the Dynamic "Unforgettable 500" film it is evident just how close Vukovich was to the bridge abutment when he went over the fence. It was a mere few feet short and in another instant his car would have collided with it. (In should be noted here that the 8mm film is not particularly clear and the incident happens extremely fast. Again, with slow motion film analysis, cropping techniques and computer scans of each frame it was possible to decipher considerable detail. Three sources were found which said blue paint was found on and near the bridge abutment and they implied it was from Vukovich's car. But it was not from Vukovich but from Boyd's car who hit it a millisecond later. The 8mm film confirms that Vukovich's car did not hit the bridge abutment or the bridge.)

     As fate would have it the car cleared the bridge and then immediately nosed down. There was a service road, which ran by the polo barns on the east side of the fence which at that time had a slightly lower elevation than the track surface. Because of this the car had more space and time to nose down. Had the road been at the same level, there was a slight chance the car would have not gone end over end quite as violently. And hitting the fence with the tire and getting the final tap from Boyd, did contribute to the severity of the accident as it helped propel the car into an end-over-end motion. The car hit the ground after going under the bridge and skidded for a short distance on its nose before starting to go end over end. The first impact was more of a glancing blow with the ground. But this is not to say it was not a very hard impact as the films do show Vukovich being thrown forward in the cockpit upon impact. It is difficult to determine if this could have produced fatal injuries to the driver but it is surprising how much he was thrown forward considering the restraint systems. The tail of the car cleared the bottom of the bridge, by only inches, and there is no indication from later photos that the car clipped the underneath of the bridge nor was there any mention of it in reports at the time.

     As the sequence continued the rear of the car came over and hit tail first a hundred or so feet beyond the bridge at the base of the second utility pole past the bridge kicking up considerable debris and dirt in the process. There is no indication in the movies or later photographs that the car hit the telephone pole as some reports suggested. Even if it did brush the pole it probably would not have been a fatal situation because the underneath of the car was toward the pole and later photos of the underneath of the car show no significant damage. In one aftermath photo it is possible to see where the car hit in relation to the telephone pole and it is doubtful the car would have been close enough to make contact with the pole. However, the car was still traveling at an extremely high rate of speed and the impact almost definitely slammed Vukie's head back onto the headrest. When examining the photos of just how Vukovich sat in the car in relation to the headrest it is easy to see how he could have sustained an injury to the back of his head by slamming into the headrest. The car jumped into the air again and then made another 1/2 flip and hit nose first on the hood of the Studebaker and then instantly skittered over and contacted the hood of the Ford F-100 pickup with the nose section as well.  The car then immediately did a 1/2 flip and hit tail first on the ground just beyond the pickup.  In the next sequence as the car bounced off the ground it made a 1 3/4 flip in mid air and then in one quick sequence the nose of the car hit the Safety Patrol Jeep in the drivers seat area then slammed upside down cockpit first with tremendous force on the ground. In the very next instant the car jumped up off the ground and bounced back up onto its wheels for an instant and then bounced back upside down making an almost 360 degree turn in the process and came to rest upside down. The car traveled a distance of approximately 400 feet from the place it went over the fence until it stopped.

     Fire broke out almost immediately. There were witnesses that said there was a few seconds that elapsed but most evidence collected indicates the fire erupted almost at once. In fact, there may have actually been an explosion associated with the eruption of fire even when the car was still moving because the fuel tank at the filler cap was blown out as indicated in the aftermath pictures and looked similar to the Parnelli Jones car after the pit incident in the 1964 "500". Some witnesses did indeed report hearing an "explosion". In one motion picture of the accident it is possible to see excessive movement of the trees above the flipping racecar as if they were reacting to the force of exploding fuel.

     Rodger Ward’s car did not come in contact with any of the three other cars. The tire which came off Ward’s car was not a factor in Keller's overcorrection and in Vukovich going over the fence. Both Boyd and Keller did come in contact with the Ward tire after Vukovich went over the fence. Boyd's car, after being hit by Keller and getting the rear wheels off the ground and being struck by Vukovich, clipped the side of the bridge abutment. Films show the bridge shook so much from the impact that a big cloud of dust was kicked up off the entire height of the supports and he came very close to going over the wall himself. Boyd hit the abutment at almost the exact moment that Vukovich was flying by on the service road on the other side. In fact, the abutment may have saved Boyd from going over the wall also. At that point both Boyd and Keller went over the tire that had come off Ward's right front but the tire did not leave the track. Boyd's car reversed ends and began to roll over. The two right side tires separated from the car at this point. The right front tire went first and sailed over the fence and landed in back of the Studebaker and the Ford Pickup. The right rear tire ended up just over the fence from where Boyd's car stopped. The car rolled 1 1/2 times, reversing ends while doing so, and came to rest upside down. Boyd was very lucky to not have received a head injury judging from the crash and the damage to the roll bar. In one aftermath photo a tire is shown next to Boyd's car after the car was lifted over the fence. This tire was off Ward's car and someone apparently thought it was off Boyd's car and placed it there. When Keller was together with Boyd in the accident he himself got all four wheels off the ground momentarily before rolling backwards down the track gradually slowing toward the inside and stopping with the right rear tire just on the infield grass and the remaining three wheels on the track. Wards car stopped in the middle of the track and both Boyd and Keller slid by Ward's car on the outside thereby proving there was ample room for somebody to miss him. Both ended up considerably farther down the track than Ward.

     Ward was still rolling over as Boyd and Vukovich came out of the turn so that was the first thing they observed. There were five seconds for Vukie and Boyd to decide what to do which in racing is an eternity. Ward's car was rolling over during that time and both of them were being forced into making a split-second decision. But it was only at the instant when the Keller-Boyd-Vukovich impact took place that the Ward car finally stopped moving. Had it not been for Keller's sudden movements, Boyd would have most definitely made it through on the inside and it is highly likely Vukovich would have made it also -- but not an absolute certainty. There was not a lot of time or space left and it was going to be closer for Vukie than Boyd but all indications are he would have made it on the inside although, again, it would have been tight.

Next: The Aftermath Scene of Confusion

 

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