A Report On The Accident That Killed Bill
Vukovich In The 1955 Indianapolis 500-Mile-Race
Current Racing News
Account By Robert Boyer
1955 Indianapolis 500 Mile Race
It seems like it was quite a while before the announcer told who was involved in the accident. He named Ward, Boyd, and Keller, and I believe he named Elision. But he didn't mention Vukovich. Then, like an after thought, he said "we also notice Vukovich hasn't been around for a while". Several minutes later it was announced Vukovich had been fatally injured.
Raymond Petersen Witness Account
It is May 29, 1955 about 9PM and I'm with my uncle and my Dad and we're just starting out for Indy. My Dad and uncle have been doing this since 1937, my first trip came in 1952. I'm eleven and excited to see my herowin his third 500.
There are no Interstates in 1955 so we travel US41 south from Milwaukee. Getting through Chicago on surface streets takes about an hour and a half even in the middle of the night. Our journey will consume about 8 hours. US41 to Indiana 52 and on to the Speedway.
We always arrive at the track after the opening bomb has gone off and park near the inner nine hole golf course. We've stopped for breakfast at about 4AM so we gather up our old metal cooler and begin trudging to the unreserved bleachers on the back straight. Our seats are about 100 yards north of the pedestrian bridge crossing the track. We occupy ourselves by listening to the radio broadcasts from Gasoline Alley and reading the Indy Papers. All during the month of May both my Dad and uncle have subscriptions to both Indy papers to keep up with the racing news. This year for some reasons my Dad did not bring his 8mm movie camera. We eat fried chicken (almost an Indy tradition) and drink Cokes and I have my Hostess cupcakes.
The tension climbs incrementally and by the time the balloons are released it is almost palpable. At "Gentlemen Start Your Engines" I'm higher than any sugar high could get.
At least this year I won't get sunburned so severely as the last two years, when I really got cooked. I remember the constant wind and I'm wearing a jacket for the first time at race time.
I search for my hero when they come by on the parade lap. Less than two minutes later they are screaming down the back straight followed on the first lap by the aerial bombs that follow them around the track and scare the hell out of most people. I never seem to remember the bombs until they are exploding overhead.
I'm sitting between my Dad and uncle and we all are encouraged by Vuky's progress. They were big Rex Mays fans until he was killed at Del Mar.
I'm timing Vuky and
always watching for him exiting the Southeast turn. I watch him go by and turn
into the Northeast turn. This goes on while the battle goes on with McGrath
which seems to be a war. Suddenly McGrath is fading and always seemed to be
smoking anyway. I'm watching for Vuky to exit the turn when I'm drawn to a
car sliding and hitting the wall just south of the bridge. I see three cars
coming and recognize Vuky's car heading for the wall forced by two other cars.
The front of the car leaps the wall and it starts flipping and bouncing.
I watch it crash down hard and then leap up and twist and come down upside
down. My Dad turns to me and said "He gone!" My uncle agrees and said no one
could survive that or words to that effect. We see men trying to right
another car that is upside down and are surprised
My Dad and uncle agree that they want to leave and I'm not against it. We would have been heading for the tunnel under the main straight by about the 140th lap, but this time we are pulling out early. Not much is said on the way home and we listen to the race on the radio.
This would be the first time I
had ever seen a driver killed, but I have seen many killed since. None has
weighed as heavily.
Raymond Petersen, Wisconsin
Ron Austin's Account of May 30th, 1955
Oct 12, 2007
May 30, 1955, is a day I have not forgotten, and never will. I did not actually witness the accident that claimed the life of "The Fresno Flash", but I was there on that day, and I’d like to share the feelings and emotions that I experienced.
Auto racing came into my life when I was only 9 years old and living in Chicago. My parents took me to the movies to see "The Big Wheel" with Mickey Rooney. and then, only a year later to see, "To Please a Lady", with the dashing and irrepressible Clark Gable. Man, I had to see the Indianapolis race!
Shortly after, I found a bookstore that sold "Floyd Clymer’s Indianapolis 500 Yearbooks." I bought the 1951 book for $1.50. I sent for the back issues and started studying like mad. Indianapolis was only for the gods, Mauri Rose, Bill Holland, Johnnie Parsons, and Lee Wallard. Wow!
Memorial Day 1952 was spent with my ear glued to the radio and listening to Sid Collins’ life-like description of the Indianapolis Classic. There were the favorites: Duke Nalon, Fred Agabashian, Troy Ruttman, and a new name that came from nowhere to dominate the race, Bill Vukovich! I became a Vuky fan before the race was half over. I went out with my friends for a few minutes, and when I came back, I asked my mother if Vukovich had won. She said no, that he hit the wall a few laps from the finish, but he was not hurt. I then said that he’d win next year, and I that wanted to be there and see him do it.
In 1953 I was there, with my older brother, in the old wooden Grandstand "C". We took an all-night train from Chicago to Union Station Indianapolis, and a shuttle train to the track. The race ticket was $7.00; the train round trip was $9.00; and the shuttle round trip was $.50. When I first saw the track I felt as though I had been there before, maybe in another life. I was awed! This was the place. This was the day, and it was hot, but my man came through. Vuky, from the pole position, led 195 of the 200 laps on his way to victory. He could have led them all if his first pit stop was just 4 laps later . It was hot, noisy, and smelled of burning rubber, but I loved it and was ready to go again. And again I did go.
Nineteen fifty-four. Same grandstand. Same seats. Same winner. Same car. Some fans near us were pulling for Jack McGrath, but I just kept cheering for the greatest driver ever to turn a wheel at Indianapolis. He did it, and I was proud. Bill Vukovich. Two in a row. In 1955 we would up-grade our seats to the penthouse section of the new Grandstand "B", a view of almost the whole track, but by race day’s end, not much mattered anymore.
On the train ride from Chicago to Indianapolis our mother gave us a gift of a private sleeper room as opposed to regular coach seats. It didn’t matter. I didn’t sleep anyway. Getting off the train I tore my jacket, wasn’t the least bit hungry for breakfast and almost lost the race tickets. The day was cold, cloudy, and windy very unlike the two previous years. The day seemed tragic even before the race began, kind of like you see in movies before something bad happens. Some fans were saying this would be McGrath’s year. Vukovich had a different car, and it was not as good. I thought, hell with them, we will see history made today. We did, but in a much different way.
The start of the race is always electrifying, and to see "Bullet Bill" go from his 5th starting position to pass McGrath for the lead on lap 4 by going almost onto the grass to get by was thrilling beyond words. Then McGrath started trailing smoke and he slowed. I thought OK, I’ll just sit back with my torn jacket and now broken zipper and watch the "Iron Man" collect his third in a row. At 56 laps, I really got into enjoying the race, watching other battles for positions, when PA announcer Tom Carnegie announced, "The yellow light is on", and the cars on the track slowed way down. There was no pace car to pick up the field back then. No details were given for several minutes. I kept looking toward turn 4 expecting to see Vukovich slowing to make a pit stop. They all were soon due. I saw Bettenhausen, and at first thought it was Vuky, as then both had blue cars, but it was not to be. I then knew Vukovich was somewhat involved.
It was at this time Mr. Carnegie announced that an accident of VERY serious nature occurred on the backstretch involving 5 cars. The drivers of the cars involved were Roger Ward, Ed Elisian, Bill Vukovich, Al Keller, and Johnny Boyd. From our high penthouse seats I could see the bridge on the backstrech and a column of smoke rising in the air. I thought, "Well, Bill isn’t going to get 3 in a row, but he’ll get ‘em next year".
Some time went by until the PA announcer gave his erroneous "official report". "Ed Elisian hit the wall, and went end over end. Roger Ward hit the base of the bridge and turned over, as did Johnny Boyd. Bill Vukovich and Al Keller spun to avoid the wreckage". I had to visually run this verbal description through my mind, and came up with Vuky should be OK, but it did not sound too good for Elisian or Ward. Then after almost a half hour since the accident, the green flag was out and the race, or what was left of it, resumed.
Some minutes later Tom Carnegie announced, ‘Ladies and Gentleman, it is with deepest regret I must announce that…." I immediately knew somebody had died. I thought maybe Elisian, or maybe Ward, but Carnegie continued his announcement…"Two-time winner Bill Vukovich was fatally injured in the 5 car accident on the back straight-away." I was stunned. He should repeat the announcement because I didn’t believe him. He must be wrong. But he wasn’t. My stomach was in knots. A woman near me sobbed openly. She cried for the rest of the race. I wondered why she didn’t leave as a number of people around us did. We may have left too, except our train back to Chicago wasn’t leaving until 5:30. It was only a little after noon. Why did they keep running the race as if nothing had happened? A newspaper vendor was going through the stands with headlines stating that Vuky burned to death with a large photo of his overturned, burning car. Vukovich was in precisely the wrong place, at exactly the wrong time. One or two seconds, either way… and why Vukovich? it could have been anybody, or nobody.
When I got home that night, my mother admitted she cried, and that both her and my step-dad were very concerned about me. I went to bed. I hadn’t eaten all day. The next day at school, my friends and some of my teachers were asking me a million questions. By days end, I felt like a mini-celebrity, maybe like those who attended the motorcade in Dallas when JFK was shot. For me, May 30, 1955 and for a long time after, was the day the music died. My brother never attended another race, but I returned for many, many more years.
I only missed the 1964 race, because I was in the army stationed in Korea at the time. Maybe that was a good race to miss. It was another event that had some spectators exiting to never return. Possibly, the most horrific accident in speedway history claimed the lives of the popular Eddie Sachs and rookie Dave McDonald in a giant wall of flame and smoke just after the race began. Indianapolis can be very cruel.
In the late ‘70’s while attending qualifications, I met a distinguished gentleman by the name of Fred Bailey, who owned Championship Race-Film Productions, an independent company that filmed the race for various sponsors. He took me behind the scenes and introduced me to many fine people associated with the track.
Fred talked me into becoming a cameraman, while also creating a great friendship. Rather than just being there on race day, I began spending almost the entire month at the track for many years. It was great enjoying the time spent with the heroes of that era, Mears, Sneva, Rutheford, Andretti, and Foyt.
I attended my last race in 1990 before moving to San Diego. As I drove to the track early on that day, I met my friend Mr. Bailey in the garage area, and said, "This is the first time that I entered the grounds of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and my palms were not sweating."
Fred replied, "My boy, you have finally outgrown this place, and it’s probably my fault". He was right; the ‘spark’ was no longer there. My friend died a year later.
My wife and I now live on the Hawaiian island of Maui. I’m almost 70 years old, but I still think of those golden years of racing at Indianapolis and my hero Bill Vukovich.
Les Sayles was sitting in the backstretch bleachers and a witness to the Vukovich accident. His dramatic witness account follows.
The 1955 Indianapolis 500 was the third "500" that my family attended. I listened to parts of the 1952 race on the radio with my father. I was only nine years old at the time and didn't remember anything about the race or the drivers' names.
The 1953 race was the first "500" we attended. We drove to Indianapolis during the night from north suburban Chicago. We parked on Georgetown Road in this long line of cars waiting for the gate to open at 5:00 a.m. I was 10 years old and going to see this race was a great thrill. Prior to 1953, my only knowledge of the Indianapolis race cars I learned from the two page Firestone Tire ads in Life magazine that pictured the previous winners. We watched the race from the wire fence along the backstretch just north of the bleachers. I remember Vukovich opening up a large lead in the opening laps. We only watched about the first 30 laps and then started our long trip home. From that day on we were Bill Vukovich fans!
We went to the "500" again in 1954 and watched the race once more from the wire fence along the backstretch. I remember some of the fans around us closely watching Vukovich’s rapid progress through the field in the early laps and counting his position each lap. We left early again after watching the first 40 or 50 laps. I remember Vukovich's light grey #14 and the terrible hot weather that day. We listened to the remainder of the race on the car radio on the way home.
The morning of the 1955 race was very overcast and chilly. We bundled up with sweaters and blankets. We planned to stay and watch a little more of the race this time and my dad, my brother and I bought tickets for the backstretch bleachers. There were four sets of bleachers midway along the inside of the backstretch. The first set started just a few feet from the footbridge. There was a gap of about 75-100' between the first and second bleacher. This was where a service road ran out to the race track. For the race, I believe we were sitting about midway in the 3rd set of bleachers.
I somehow was aware that Vukovich had a new race car for 1955. I always brought a program early on race day morning. Inside the program there would always be an insert with the qualifying line-up and the qualifying speeds. Inside the insert the Lap Prize Donors were listed. Vukovich was listed as qualified in the middle of the second row in the "Hopkins' Special #4." At the time I didn't know what his new race car looked like or even what color it was. I could hardly wait for the race to start so I could see his new car. What a thrill it was on the Pace Lap to see the Chevrolet pace car and then those beautiful cars come slowly out of the turn two and come down the backstretch and then under the footbridge. My eyes were searching for the race car -- the car in the middle of row two. I had to know right away exactly what Vuk vich's new race car looked like. We were there that day to watch Vukovich win his third race in a row. He seamed unbeatable. t would just be a few laps and he would be out in front! I thought that brilliant blue and orange #4 Hopkins special was the most beautiful race car ever!
Once the race began my eyes watched for his car on every lap. I remember the exciting early battle for the lead between Vukovich and McGrath. Vukovich seemed to command most of the time and only lost the lead to McGrath briefly once or twice. I recall that McGrath's car began smoking early on. McGrath was clearly Vukovich's only close competitor that day but I didn't think his car would last long the way it was smoking. That reassured me that Vukovich was almost certain to win!
Later in the first hour of the race, when McGrath had fallen back, I remember Vukovich flying down the backstretch adjusting his goggle strap on the back of his helmet with his left hand. I thought this high-speed one handed driving was very brave and daring!
Just minutes before the accident we were actually getting ready to leave and head home. We then decided: "Let’s stay and watch him (Vukovich) go around one more time and then one more time". It was such a thrill to see him so far in the lead and surely on his way to his 3rd win that we hesitated to leave. Just a minute or two later the accident happened.
At the time of the accident I was looking north watching the cars race down the backstretch and disappear into the northeast turn. Suddenly I heard people screaming! I snapped my head to the right and at that instant I saw Vukovich's blue roadster with the orange #4 on the tail come down on its nose on the service road by the footbridge. As fast as this was occurring, I still recognized his car immediately. I could see him in the cockpit with his white helmet and white T-shirt. I remember thinking: "Oh no he is not going to win!" The scene of his car on its nose for that brief instant is still very clear in my mind today -- I will never forget it. It was such a shock. His car began summer saulting end over end very quickly along the service road. I could briefly see him in the cockpit a couple of times as the car bounced end over end. I remember hoping that maybe he could survive this crash as the front and tail of the car was where the impact was occurring. All of this happened so fast that I did not notice that his car had bounced off the sedan, the pickup truck and then the Jeep. My eyes were focused only on the car and Vukovich. The car suddenly came to a stop upside down and near the outer track outer guard rail. I could not remember the exact last part of the crash sequence, but his car crashed so hard that when it finally came to rest I began to think he might not survive. I was no doubt very frightened and shocked by what had happened (I was only 12 years old at the time). Just minutes before we had been watching him race to a certain victory. It was such a 360 degree shock. The car began to burn right away. The flames were very visible. I recall being upset that something wasn't being done to put out the fire and turn the car upright. Maybe there was a chance he was still alive and could be saved. I don't remember exactly how long that went by but it must have been about 5 minutes and then the fire truck was there. I remember the large billows of fire retardant being sprayed on the car. It was then that I realized that Vukovich almost certainly had died. Between the crash and the fire and then all the fire retardant it didn't seem possible that he could have survived. I don't recall paying much attention to the other cars involved in the accident (Ward, Boyd, Keller). My eyes and thought were focused on Vukovich's upside down burning race car. I was stunned and frightened by the accident scene. It was all a terrible shock to me. I had no idea what the accident was about or how it started or why Vukovich's car left the track. It happened so fast and in seconds it was over. My dad and my brother and I left the bleacher area after the fire was put out. We didn't want to see anymore. We left before the green light came on. We returned to our car in the infield area. My mother and sister had been waiting in the car (they did not watch the race). To this day I clearly remember my father say to my mother as he got in the car: "Poor Vukovich got killed." My mother was stunned and saddened. She would never attend the 500 with us again because of what happen to Bill Vukovich.
We listened to the remainder of the race on the radio on the way back to Chicago but it was a quiet ride home. We were saddened by what had happened that day. We expected to see Bill Vukovich race and win again. We never thought anything like this could happen to him.
A large aerial view photo of the track on race day was in the Chicago newspaper a day or two later with the captions and arrows pointing to the backstretch accident scene (thought the captions I realized later were not completely accurate). I first learned more specific details of the accident when we received our early June 1955 issue of Life magazine. This issue had an article that included six sequence photos of the accident as seen from the exit of turn two. In 1980, I located a copy of this Life magazine issue in a book store. It was many years later (1980's) before I saw a video replay of the fateful 1955 backstretch accident. I now have a couple of videos that replay the race as well as the accident from different angles. This is a bit unsettling to me to see this tragedy again. I was a young boy at the time it occurred and it was a very shocking and traumatic thing to witness. I had never before seen or been around such a tragedy. I have been a fan of the Indianapolis racing for over 50 years. The Bill Vukovich fatal accident has remained on my mind all of my life. I have never gotten over what happened that day, Monday May 30, 1955.
These general admission tickets were purchased on Georgetown Road by Sayles on the morning of the race to gain entrance to the infield.
After being admitted to the infield, separate tickets had to be purchased by Sayles at the backstretch bleacher seating area. Five infield seats were purchased but only three bleacher seats for Les, his brother and his father were obtained. The remaining party watched from different vantage points in the infield.
The rear of the previous bleacher seating ticket.
Les and his father try to stay warm the morning of the race.
The view from Les Sayles backstretch bleacher seats taken prior to the accident. Salyes believes the car going under the bridge is McGrath.
John Becker witnessed the Vukovich Accident and can't stop thinking "if only he had slowed down." Here is his eyewitness account.
1955 was the year I graduated from high school. I was 17 years old and had attended the three previous 500 mile races. My family had always taken an interest as we lived in Indianapolis and my father had sponsored the Consumers Petroleum Special in the 1932 race. (Just as a point of interest the sponsorship fee he paid was $500.00.)
I did attend two of the qualifications days that year. As I remember I was at the two Saturday trials. As many people did then, and still do today, we drove to the Speedway the evening before the race and parked overnight in a field across from the track where we partied until we fell asleep waiting for the track to open the next morning.
We were very fortunate as that year we were one of the first cars to enter the gate so we knew that we were going to have a good view of the race because at that time there were grandstands only inside the track along the Backstretch. As luck would have it, after a mad dash across the infield. we pulled up to the fence and parked between the bridge and Turn Three. From that vantage point we had a perfect view of all cars, leaving Turn Two, the entire Backstretch and entering Turn Three.
As I recall, race day was a warm day, but there were overcast skies and a breeze that helped cool things down. Everyone that year wondered if Vuky would win for the third time. Much attention was paid to where he was on the track and when to expect him to come into your field of view. When Roger Ward spun out and hit the wall, I knew that Vuky was close behind. I had an excellent view of the events of the accident from my vantage point. The accounts in the Vukovich Accident web site of the events of the accident are as I remembered them unfolding. With the supports and stairways of the footbridge blocking my view, I was unable to see Keller's car as it went toward the infield. Based on the web site account, I would subscribe to the theory that he saw the stairs and footbridge supports and turned right back onto the track to avoid smashing into them.
When Ward spun out and hit the wall, as shown in the photographs, Vuky appeared to be two car lengths behind Boyd looking down and to his left, but by the time Keller came back on the track and hit Boyd, Vuky was almost along side of Boyd. The only way for this to have happened was for Vuky to be going faster than Boyd. Neither driver’s cars appear to be, nor do I recall them doing any heavy braking. I do recall vividly thinking, "why didn't they slow down". My recollection is that Vuky was not only not braking, but in fact accelerating at the time of the accident.
My brother was sitting in Turn Four and he recalls the stands all abuzz with "Where's Vuky? Where's Vuky". After the accident, nobody knew if Vuky was alive or not. I don't recall the public address system making an announcement to that effect. Somehow, however, word spread while the race was still running that he had died in the accident. Vukovich was a popular driver and he had many fans. Although Vuky was not one of my favorites, I had met and was a big fan of Tony Bettenhausen.
I do recall realizing that a great driver was gone. As a 500 race fan for several years, I knew of the dangers that auto racing presented and had never met Vuky. I can’t say that I felt any greater sorrow than I felt for other drivers who had died in the sport.
Additionally, that year there was a lot of cars that dropped out of the race for mechanical reasons. At least half of the cars were out before the race ended. The greatest excitement for me was that Tony was in the chase right up to the last, but fell short at the end.
In the web site report it is mentioned that Vukovich instructed the rookies to turn right when an accident occurred in front of them. After the drivers meeting, it was rumored that Vukovich also warned the rookies that he intended to win his third race and that if they got in his way he would "Drive over them". This was a major topic of conversation the evening before the race among the fans. We talked among ourselves afterwards about the irony of his statement, if true.
There have been many other accidents at the brickyard and other deaths but none as memorable as Bill Vukovich's in 1955. I recall saying after the accident, "If he had slowed down, he could have driven a truck through the accident". However after reading the analysis of the events of the accident on the web site, there was probably no way that he could have avoided an accident, however I do believe that had he been further back, and slowing down, there is far less likelyhood of his going over the wall.
There is no question that Bill Vukovich was a talented driver, but he had a reputation as being an aggressive driver who took unnecessary chances. That his desire to win posed a threat to the safety of his fellow competitors. Perhaps he saw the Ward accident as a chance to gain further advantage for his desire to win his third Indy. No one can ever know, but to this day I can't stop thinking, "If he had only slowed down".
Larry Williams, who worked as a USAC Official from 1987 - '98, was 12 years old when he witnessed the Vukovich accident from Grandstand G. Here is his fascinating account of the events of that day.
May 30, 1955 was my 2nd race, and my 12th birthday. Dad and I sat in Grandstand G, and every time I go near it, I can still see the events of lap 57 of that race. Vuky was my favorite driver. I started going to races with dad in 1951. We were at Black Sunday in Winchester the day Green and Mackey got killed in qualifications. Went to sprint car bull rings all over Indiana, Ohio, and Illinois. Dad had seen I was turning into a race nut, so in ‘54 he took me to Indy time trials on pole day, and to the race. I was in hog heaven when Vuky won that day. I really liked it when Vuky lapped Bryan on either the last lap or next to last one, to put him a lap down, so he would be on the lead lap all by himself. Although he had engine problems the morning of time trials, and had to go on the 2nd day and start 19th, he chopped the field up, and was ahead shortly after the 1/2 way mark.
So, in 55 dad and I made the trek up old 37 for Pole Day Qualifications --this was before the days of 4 lanes, to old Lynhurst Drive, and then to 10th, and east to Main, as dad worked for GM, and had a pass to park at the GM place on 10th and Main. We walked in shortly after the gates opened, and went to Grandstand G. However, the wind was so stout that day, that there was not much practicing at all. Some man had a "transister radio" close to us, and the updates from the track kept saying that the drivers had all got together, and said, "No way are we going out in this wind." So, we all set there on our hands, and about the time dad said we were leaving, they said a car was ready to qualify. Remember, this is before the "Jigger Sirois" rule. If only one went out on pole day, and made his run, he was on the pole. Well, Hoyt went out, and made an attempt, as did Bettenhausen (Tony). They were the only two who made an official attempt, and thus wound up one and two. Dad and I went home, and I begged him to go back on Sunday. It's only 75 miles I kept telling him. Well, he got me up the next morning, and though he had to work 3rd shift that night, away we went. We got there in time for practice, and then quals started. I can't remember the exact order, but McGrath set a track record, and Agabashian got 4th, Vuky was 5th, and Hanks was 6th. If memory serves me, there weren't really that many attempts that day, but I had seen Vuky, and knew if he could win from 19th as he did in ‘54, he sure could win from 5th in a new KK500C with Travers and Coons. We went back home, and dad worked that night, and I went to school the next day. I was in the 6th grade at the time.
Dad and I left real early on race day, as we went to downtown Indy, and caught that old race day special train from the train station, and it would stop right across from the south end of the track. For a buck, you could get a round trip ticket. When the race was over, it was first come, first serve. We being in G (time trials was 50 cents, and our tickets in Grandstand G were either 5 or 6 bucks) always made the first train. We did this till ‘59, and in ‘60 we parked in the GM lot, and in ‘61 dad didn't go, and a buddy of mine and I parked in the GM lot. Anyway, we caught the first train out, as they started running the train when the bomb went off, and you could hear the bomb downtown, believe me.
I know the day was kinda cloudy, and the sun would come and go, and the wind was gusty. I can remember dad telling me before the race started that the wind would be a little tricky on our end of the track. Dad was a helluva race fan, too. He watched things like that. We saw the parade of bands, and yes I remember the ‘55 Chevy pace car with Dinah Shore. I whistled at her. As if she heard. I know at the start, McGrath took the lead in 1 going by Bettenhausen and Hoyt rather easily. Vuky came by in 5th, and then moved up to 3rd the next time by, but McGrath had a pretty good lead. I can't remember exactly when Vuky caught him, but it was in the first 5 laps, and that move that everyone talks about in 1 when Jack shut the door, I still say I saw Vuky's right front kick up dust. I had watched the duel between he and McGrath with wide open eyes. His car was set up so fine, that on more than one occasion during the race, I swear I saw the left front come up ever so slightly off the ground going through one and two. I don't know if it really did, but dad and I both thought the left front was up off the ground, slight as it may have been. And as I said, my dad watched for things like that, and taught me to. When Jack started smoking, I told dad "He's gonna do it, he's gonna be the first driver to win 3 in a row." I remember when McGrath started smoking, and I was really excited, as I knew if he went out, the biggest threat to Vuky's 3rd in a row would be gone. As he started slowing some, I knew Vuky was gone. He was taking them as he caught them. In the short chute, corner, or going down the backstretch, what I could see of it. Jack was back in 4th or 5th when he dropped out after 52 or 53 laps with what they said was "magneto problems." Hell, his car was black with oil grime to where it looked like a two tone on the bottom. Two of the colors I remember most that day are the smoke that was coming out of McGrath's car, and how that kinda dull yellow car was getting a lot of grimy oil residue on it.
I saw Ward loop it, and I watched in horror as Vuky went there, and I honestly thought he had it made on the inside, and I did not see Keller come back across. I saw Ward loop it and did not have the binoculars on him, but I had seen him come through 1 ahead of Keller, Boyd, and Vuky, and remembering thinking that on the next lap Vuky would be ahead of them. There had been a couple other cars earlier in the race -- can't remember who, "wiggle" going out of two, just as they started to drift out, like they did back then. All I saw was Vuky get Boyd, and climb the fence, and go up in the air. As the events unfolded I watched in horror from my seat, as Vuky went up, and out, and hit the car, truck, jeep, and came to a halt upside down and on fire. The tire smoke from accident turned to just plain old dust getting kicked up by Vuky's car over there as it was banging off everything. Then there was that guy that was taking pictures going out of 2 standing there in a red shirt or sweater waving his arms as the wreck was going on. I had hoped he Vuky would be alright, but deep down, I knew no one could survive a crash like that. I know everyone in G was on their feet straining, and some people took off around on the outside of the corner going down there. That bridge was a pretty good hike from G, and I did not have the binoculars on it. A bunch of people around us had them, as did dad, and I can remember the guy on my right saying "There ain't no way he can live through that one," as he had watched it unfold though his binoculars.
I sat there and cried like a baby. I had went from the joy of thinking he was gonna do it again, to some guy telling me there was no way he would live. I remember the PA saying that Bryan was now ahead. As everyone was standing, watching what they could, I can remember how damn quiet it got, and I mean quiet. What I can still remember is how when it happened, everyone got up, and stayed up, and how damn quiet it got. There were some trees behind G, and you could hear the breeze blowing through them. God, it got quiet. A lot of people had radios, and my God, you had no trouble hearing them. It seemed as if it took forever for all the events to happen. I did look through dad's binoculars once, but all I could see was a mob of people down there, and I couldn't see the car. But, I could see the smoke from it. I remember a fire truck coming up the old access road down the back stretch, and wondering what was taking so long. I remember the people around us with those transistor radios, and Sid Collins saying the word had come down, Vukovich had been fatally injured in the accident. Shortly after that, like a minute, or maybe less, Carnagie said something like "It is with deep regret he had to inform us that the injuries to Vukovich were fatal." Something like that. I was in a half way daze. I know the yellow was on forever, and I thought I was watching a horror show. I told dad I was ready to go. It was over as far as I was concerned. Dad said he wanted to stay and watch the rest of the race.
The green come back out, and I went down in back of the grandstand and sat under a tree for a long time. There were a lot of people down there just setting there, and there was not much being said. I thought after Agabashian had looped going out of 2 earlier in the race would be all the happenings we would see. I guess not. I went back up later, and asked dad "Who's ahead?" He just said "Sweikert." I said "Who?" Anyway, he was really pulling away in the later stages, and about lap 185 or so, dad said, "Let's get the jump on them to the train." I had been ready for over 100 laps. We went to the train, and got on, and we weren't the first ones there by no means. One man had a transistor radio, and we heard the last few laps unfold, and when the checkers came down, the train started filling up, and we went back downtown, and we jumped in dad's Chevy, and we headed back toward Bedford. I didn't say much, and dad knew I was really upset. I remember him asking me, "Larry, are you gonna go back anymore, or do you want me to let the tickets go back for next year?" I just said, "Yeah, I'll go, it's in my blood now."
I went home, and just kinda moped around the rest of the night, and dad had to go to work on 3rds. School was out, so I just layed around the next day. I read the Star the next day, and it gave all the accounts of the wreck, the why's and what for's. I still remember that picture in the Star on the front of the Sports page of Vuky's car upside down, on fire, and his hand sticking out. Not one of the neighbor kids asked me about it, as there were not many AAA race fans. I went over to the park, as GM's Parade Of Progress was in town, and quite a few people were talking about it, and what they had read about it, and how they had heard it on the radio, and how Sweikert had won by over 2 minutes. I remember thinking, "He never won and easier one." A year and a month later, I watched him go out at Salem, and crash to his death in that sprint car. As the days passed, Dad kinda started talking racing to me again, and it was not time than we were watching the sprinters at Salem, Winchester, Terre Haute, etc. I know when we went to time trials in ‘56, we went back to G, and I just looked at that bridge, and remembered what had happened the last time I had been there. But, as they cranked them up, I got back in the swing of it. I kept thinking, well, he died at doing what he liked the best, and where he wanted to be---in a race car at Indy, in front.
I was a USAC Official from ‘87-‘98, and could write a book on that. I got to know Rodger and Johnny well enough to call them by first name. I know Rodger really considered giving it up after ‘55, but someone, and I know not who, talked him out of it, as he had heard all the stuff being said behind his back that he had caused the wreck that killed Vuky. Johnny told me that himself, honest. I heard Roger holding court one day in the garage area with some people, and someone asked him to give his remembrance of the wreck, and he told them "The wind caught me", very emphatically. I heard that with my own two ears. He had that look as if to say, "Don't remind me of it." And although the people swear up and down, and I can't tell from any of the film clips or pictures, that Vuky never touched that pedestrian bridge, Johnny told me more than once that he saw Bill clip it with his head, and that he was dead before he come down. And Johnny told me what he saw, and how he always told me Vukie's head hit the bridge. But who knows?
I will close with this. In ‘57 when we went up for time trials, I remember they had built the access tunnel under the exit of turn 2, and tore down that old pedestrian bridge. I pointed it out to dad, and said, "Man, I'm glad they tore that thing down, because every time I looked at it, it reminded me of Vuky's wreck." Then dad told me about the tunnel, and said to me, "If that had been there when the wreck happened, who knows, maybe he would have lived if help had got there sooner." I never answered. I just thought, "Maybe, but I doubt it."
I have not missed a race since ‘54, except the two I was overseas in the Navy. I gave up the USAC Official business in ‘98, but I am still up there at least 10 days out of the month during May. I set in #1 now during the race, as I have since the SW Vista was built in ‘66, but when I go to #2 to watch time trials and practice, sometimes my mind goes back to that fateful day, and I can still see the carnage of that wreck as if it happened just yesterday. The best driver to ever compete at the Brickyard died that day, doing what he was best at -- driving a race car, and leading the race that mattered most to him -- the Indy 500.
Editor's Note: This witness account was provided by Larry Bainaka who was 12 years old in 1955 and was at the accident scene. Here is his account.
Since I lived so close to the track, it was a great fascination to me. I could hear the cars practice all day long while I was in school. A lot of days we had the school windows open and you could really hear the cars. At the 16th street corner was Mike Petrovich gas station I think it was a Mobil station. A lot of the 500 drivers would hang out there. Of course I wanted to be a race driver when I grew up. And 15 yrs later I did drive sprint cars for awhile.
Some days when I was a kid I would walk through the neighborhood past Bob Sweikert's house. He kept Jerry Hoyt’s sprint car there, this was before he won the 500. After he won the 500 he moved up around Kessler Blvd. and a guy named Mesosky (sic) lived in the house and he built race cars too. Mostly sprint and Champ. dirt cars. Us kids didn't hang out there he didn't like kids around much. Anyway I'm getting off track, so I would walk through the neighborhood, over the railroad track, wade and jump across the narrow part of little eagle creek, cross the golf course (the outside 9) and remove a board from the fence and I was in the speedway. Then I would walk across the walk bridge and be in the infield.
Depending on the time of year they would have coca colas in the little white concession stands that were sprinkled around the infield. Of course these concession stands were closed as was the race track on days I would do this. I would take a couple of the small 6 oz. bottles and cross the main straight and sit up in the main grandstand and just imagine what it would be like to race or win the 500. Sometimes a maintenance truck would come around the track and I would wonder if they would see me and kick me out. I thought from where I was I could out run them if it came to a foot race. This I would do 3-4 times a year for a 3-5 yr. period. On other days maybe Sundays I was there all alone not another person in the whole track. It's strange I don't remember ever going back to the accident scene although the place where I crossed the track was at the footbridge (very close). Maybe I didn't go there was because of the maintenance building was there and someone would see me.
In 1955 I was 12 years old and lived east of the 500 track a few blocks (Alton Ave). That race day me and my friend Bill walked across the golf course and found a rotten board on the fence outside of the backstraight. After prying it loose we gained access to the area where the Vuky car came to rest. I remember the fire, the odor, the hand outside the car and it had a red glove on. I stood 20 ft. from the burning race car until enough policemen and track guards arrived and joined hands around the car, this took several minutes. During this time I was watching the red gloved hand to see if there was any sign of life (I saw none).
I realize 50 years can dim the memory but after reading most of the accident reports and looking at some photos I can find no reports of the red glove. I can still see it yet today, parts of it started smoldering as if it were about to burst in flames.
I don't think the red on the gloves was blood. But I’m not sure what the leather would look like with menthol or oil on them or maybe smoldering (burning).
As far as the smell, it was not a pleasant odor at all, very distinctive, something I thought I would recognize if I ever smelled it again. At the time I thought it was the odor of a body burning but I guess it could be the leather upholstery in the cockpit. I still really think it was the body odor.
The fire was mostly the fuel, almost invisible sometimes you could see yellow flames mostly on tires. Once in awhile some blue or yellow from under the car but mostly fuel burning and you could see heat waves almost constantly. I don't remember anything about the heat or the time it took to get a fire truck to the accident.
I do remember I was very fascinated by the hand and was plenty close to get a very good view. Of course I was 11 and a half at the time and had never seen anything like that. I do remember there was a loud pop at the time I thought it was a tire but now I guess it could have been a fuel or oil tank expanding or contracting probably expanding with the heat of the fire.
Also at the time I remember thinking if this thing explodes we were pretty close to some gasoline pumps that was used by maintenance vehicles around the track.
I remember the gas pumps being close yet I don't see them in any photo. I was made to move back at least once and snuck up closer by slipping between a cop and the gasoline pump so I know it wasn't too far away. I also remember the cops and track officials holding up a canvas which blocked my view.
The gas pump in the 80's is not the same one. The one I remember was taller thinner, maybe red in color also. I thought it was in front of the building to the north also it kinda seems there was 2 pumps side by side, although I don't know why they would have two. Anyway I am positive there was one pump. (A taller thinner pump).
I was made to move back at least once and snuck up.I don't remember anything about people yelling or any significant other sounds. I do remember the gurney sitting on the ground and I was within 10-15 feet of it but there was a circle of policemen holding hands in front of me and I was directly behind the policemen kind in the center right where their hands joined. It was almost the best seat in the house, if you can say that about such a tragic event. I remember thinking they would remove him from the car and bring him to the gurney but they didn't.
I don't want to give the impression I stood in the same spot the whole time. I moved about as to get the best view, and sometimes was told to"move it kid". The part about the gurney is one time I thought I would move closer to the car as they were preparing to take him out, but by now such a crowd had gathered I realized if I moved I would never get as close again and besides I thought they would bring him to the gurney. (they didn't)
I never did see in person the 2 guys in suits with the white sheet. I know it sounds morbid but I was disappointed by not being able to see them remove him from the car. After it was all over, me and my friend Bill went back to the board fence and sat on the ground and leaned against the fence and tried to eat our lunch which is what we were starting to do before the accident. I remember my mother had fixed our lunch. It was fried hot dog with mustard on white bread I only ate part of it as I was not hungry now. Also we had an apple and orange.
I think I found a photo of myself in your article photos but the quality is so bad I'm not sure but I do know there weren't any other kids in the area because we weren't supposed to be in that area except we tore a hole in the wood fence to get in to see the race.
I'm still not sure if that's me in the photo. My wife and I and Father looked at old photos taken about that time. The closest we could find was one taken on my 11 birthday, It was taken at quite a distance and difficult to see clearly.
My father says it's me in the photo and the wife says it's very possible but I'm not sure, although the boy in the photo and me both part our hair on the right side and most men part their hair on the left. I really don't remember having binoculars with me that day although I did have binoculars. That I remember very clearly, they were made of metal not plastic, and my mother could have put them in my hand on my way out the door as she did my lunch sack. Mom was very much the mother hen type, maybe overprotective I thought. So it wouldn't surprise me if she had binoculars and lunch ready for me. Editors note: The boy in the photo with binoculars is holding an apple.)
I don't remember much about the weather, except it was not comfortable for a skinny kid .I was chilly all day except for the walk home. I don't remember it being as cloudy as the photos show it was, this surprised me when I saw almost every photo was cloudy. I don't remember anything about the wind one way or the other. Maybe we were shielded with the board fence being to our back?