SI Vault
Kim Chapin
May 15, 1978
Every May Jim Hurtubise wraps his scarred hands around the wheel of an outmoded racer to celebrate the days when the small could be mighty
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May 15, 1978

The Ghost Of Indy's Past

Every May Jim Hurtubise wraps his scarred hands around the wheel of an outmoded racer to celebrate the days when the small could be mighty

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This, then, is what Jim Hurtubise is: a hero, a victim and a clown. The first two roles more or less just happened. The third is more difficult to analyze. There is a tendency to feel sorry for Hurtubise in his present circumstances, but that is unnecessary. Herk knows full well what he's up to, and he's having a good time, to boot.

It might be said that Hurtubise is sort of slip-sliding through life nowadays. He certainly doesn't want to be in Southern California this late-autumn week. He would rather be fishing with some buddies down in Texas or just hanging around his home on the western edge of Indianapolis, maybe sipping a beer at a nearby watering hole or gabbing over coffee in the grill of the Speedway Motel, in the very shadow of the Brickyard. But Herk is on a hot streak. He has recently closed down his muffler repair shop, a business venture whose ill fate could have been predicted from its office hours—8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Thursday—and pocketed $2,400 from the sale of a tubing bender, and he is another $200 richer for having popped down to Atlanta earlier in the month and qualified a friend's stock car for the Dixie 500. He has simply used his winnings to come west in the hope of working a deal.

The deal is this: Hurtubise wants Fred Carrillo—who owns a shop in San Juan Capistrano that each year churns out 14,000 or so high-performance connecting rods—to buy a 1976 Ford Grand National stock car from John Kennedy, a driver-owner from Villa Park, Ill., who just happens to be in town, so that Hurtubise can take the car south and drive it to victory in the Daytona 500. Just like that.

The sale of a race car, especially a used race car, can be tricky, and the week's negotiations among Hurtubise, Carrillo and Kennedy prove no exception. From Herk's perspective, there are two problems. The first is that Kennedy's car has a rather amusing past. The second is that Carrillo is no dummy. He has been a race-car owner for 34 years—on seven occasions his cars have entered the Indianapolis 500—and he knows good stock when he sees it. But the most nagging problem is the question of Hurtubise's motive in all of this. Why is a former 500 driver of some fame trying to get a man to buy a Grand National car for him to race? Why hasn't he raced seriously at Indianapolis for over a decade? What, in short, is his bottom line?

"Racing has to be fun," Hurtubise says, bottom-lining it, "and it's no longer fun at Indianapolis because they've taken the race away from the little guy—from guys like me."

Hurtubise is holding court for Carrillo and others in the lounge of the 94th Aero Squadron, a restaurant and bar designed to resemble a recently strafed French chateau at the time of World War I. Full-size models of a Spad and a Fokker sit on either side of a machine-gun emplacement in the front courtyard, and the whole thing looks rather ridiculous considering its location, next to the Orange County Airport. During the course of the evening Hurtubise proposes two theories about what has happened to him at Indy over the past 10 years. One is technological, the other has to do with support money.

Herk's first argument goes like this: everything was fine until the mid-1960's. Everybody had access to the same uncomplicated engines and chassis, and they were reasonably affordable. Whatever slim edge a team created for itself was the result of the skills of its driver or the talents of its mechanic. This changed radically, however, with the coming of the turbocharged engine. By itself, the blower was no problem. Its overall effect was simply to boost the speeds down the long straightaways. But a race car still had to slow down for Indy's four 90-degree turns, and when it did the blower tended to cut out. The solution to this problem was twofold. The tire companies developed wider and wider tires, and the car builders designed chassis with wings, spoilers, trim tabs and other aerodynamically helpful devices. All with the goal of getting the cars through the turns faster, so the turbocharger could continue to function.

This cost money—a great deal of money—and pretty soon drivers such as Hurtubise and car owners such as Ernie Ruiz, who had brought Jim to the Speedway for the first time in 1960, were on the beach.

In 1974, because of the previous fall's energy crisis, the Speedway put a limit on the amount of fuel a car could use during the race. What this did, says Hurtubise, was to all but eliminate the driver from the racing equation. The race no longer went to the swift but to the cagey, those who could best calculate how much boost to dial into a turbocharger without running out of gas. For perhaps the first time in the history of the Indy 500, it was impossible to drive a car to its limit and still finish the race. "A mechanic can drive these cars now," says Herk. "They might as well send the driver home."

Meanwhile, says Hurtubise, Goodyear was assuming a bigger and bigger role at Indy. In time, the tire company became far and away the largest source of financial support for owners and drivers. This largesse, says Herk, went only to a chosen few. Once upon a time, he continues, there were a dozen, perhaps 15, teams capable of winning the 500, but now there are only a handful. And Jim Hurtubise is not among them. Which, strangely, is how Hurtubise would have it.

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