Months of May: 1953 – Vukovich Stars Under Sweltering Sun


Bull Vukovich, 1953 (Credit: Indycar Media)

In the build up to the 2014 Indianapolis 500, The Checkered Flag is looking back on significant races that have contributed to the glorious history of the 97 500s that have been and gone.

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When Bill Vukovich pulled into victory lane at the end of the 1953 Indianapolis 500 it was to complete one of the most dominant victories in the history of the race and begin one of the event’s greatest eras.

The race played out under almost gladiatorial conditions, the final weekend of May that year bringing temperatures upwards of 50° to race day before 33 drivers fought it out on track for nearly four hours. In going into battle in the extraordinary conditions Vukovich – ‘the Silent Serb’ – had two crucial things in his favour.

The first was his Kurtis Kraft 500A, powered by the four-cylinder Offenhauser engine that dominated swathes of Indianapolis’ racing history.

The 500A was the first in the line of ‘roadsters’ that would take to the Brickyard over the next decade of racing. The concept behind Frank Kurtis’ creation was revolutionary, yet remarkably simple. Already a successful car builder Kurtis was inspired by his experience working on a project to bring a Cummins Diesel engine car to the track for 1952. Out of necessity – it being the only way to reasonably accommodate the 6.5 litre engine – Kurtis laid the motor over onto its side. When Fred Agabashian drove the car in the 1952 race he did so alongside Vukovich in the first 500A – powered by a more modest 4.4 litre engine, laid over at 36 degrees.

Vukovich came within nine laps and a steering failure of winning the race, and when the Month of May 1953 began he set about taking what had slipped away twelve months earlier.

His sensational pace in the roadster the year before had started the switch to a full field of roadsters, with teams and drivers moving away from the older style ‘upright’ cars. Whereas a year before his car – Agabashian’s diesel Prometheus aside – had been the only roadster on the grid the starting 33 for 1953 included half a dozen roadsters among the examples of the 500B – the second generation of Kurtis’ design – in the hands of previous winners Bill Holland and Johnny Parsons.

Vukovich had lost the technological advantage of a year earlier, but in qualifying he proved his skill behind the wheel of the ‘Fuel Injection Special’ – the car carrying #14 long before A.J. Foyt would make the number his own – in qualifying.

The build up to the race was marred by the death of Chet Miller in practice after he crashed his Kurtis-Novi in practice. Miller had used the V8 Novi engine – though it never achieved anything near the ubiquity nor the success of the Offy – to set new qualifying records in ’52 so it was fitting that while Vukovich paced the field of ’53 at 138.4mph he fell short of removing Miller’s name from the record books.

Sam Hanks, 1953 Indy 500 (Credit: Indycar Media)
A handful of roadsters proved themselves against the older ‘upright’ cars (Credit: Indycar Media)

Agabashian was second fastest in a 500B, with Jack McGrath in an older ‘upright’ Kurtis design third fastest. A little over three miles an hour across the four lap average covered the entire field of 33 as more the 40 drivers failed to qualify including defending champion Troy Ruttman.

That qualifying was that close makes Vukovich’s domination of the race only more surprising.

As soon as the green flag flew Vukovich began to pull away leaving Agabashian and Manny Ayulo to fight for second as the race, the track and the conditions started to catch out some of those behind. Andy Linden’s lap three crash in turn four made him the first retirement, but to teams looking at drivers struggling to make the race distance alone he was the first driver available from the starting 33 as a reliever.

Linden would jump in to the Kurtis’ of both Jerry Hoyt and Rodger Ward before the day was out, though both machines would join Linden’s original ride on the sidelines as only 12 cars were running at the end of the race, eight of which are credited with completing the full race distance.

‘Vuky’ meanwhile was untroubled, claiming his experience of working in the heat of his native Fresno, California, made him less susceptible to heat exhaustion. His one allowance to the temperatures of the day was that during his pitstops, while the team refuelled the car and changed the tyres, he would have cold water poured down his back.

It was during one exchange of pitstops around the quarter distance mark that he would lose the lead it passing from he to Agabashian to Jim Rathmann to Sam Hanks in the Bardahl Special Kurtis Kraft 4000 and back to Vukovich in the space of five laps. Vukovich would never again be headed, leading a total of 195 laps in one of the most dominant performances ever in the 500 – the record, at least in terms of laps led stands at Billy Arnold’s 198 en route to victory in 1930.

Setting a record breaking pace throughout the races Vukovich’s margin of victory was over three minutes – compared to the dozen or so seconds he had in hard over Ruttman when his car failed at year earlier. Of the eight drivers who completed the 200 laps, five completed the race solo, including Art Cross who finished second, McGrath and rookies Jimmy Daywalt and Ernie McCoy, the latter scored more than 10 minutes behind Vukovich in the first non-Kurtis built car, though those ahead were split between roadster and upright configurations.

The cars of Hanks and Agabashian finished third and fourth, though they had been relieved by Duane Carter and Paul Russo during the race after their own cars had succumbed to mechanical failures.

Carl Scarborough was another driver to need to be relieved during the race, his car taken over by Bob Scott after his early retirement. Moments after exiting the car Scarborough would collapse, losing his life in the track’s care centre. Classically his death is blame on heat exhaustion – testament to the day – though there is some thought that CO2 poisoning was at least partly involved, as a fire extinguisher was used during the stop in which he ceded his place to Scott.

Indy 500 victory lane, 1952 (Credit: Indycar Media)
Vukovich, wet rag draped around his neck, receives the spoils of victory (Credit: Indycar Media)

Receiving the victor’s kiss from actress Jane Greer in Victory Lane Vukovich has started the roadster era in style. Arguably the victory should have also started a string of victories for Vukovich himself. The combination of driver, team and car would repeat their victory the following year. Sadly, his reign at Indy was to be tragically cut short. In 1955 he was leading by half a lap, having seen off the early challenge of Jack McGrath seemingly set fair for an third consecutive win – unprecedented before or since at Indy. However, Vukovich would be killed in a chain reaction accident on the back straight as he tried to lap slower drivers.

1955 was also the final win for Frank Kurtis’ designs. However, the roadster layout he had pioneered and Vukovich had showcased so effectively at Indy would remain unbeaten until 1965, when another design revolution broke through at the Brickyard.

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