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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It is the week before Thanksgiving, and all through the massive garage area of the Ontario Motor Speedway preparations are under way for the Los Angeles Times 500, the last event of the 1977 Grand National stock-car racing season. The heroes of the moment—the Cale Yarboroughs, Richard Pettys and David Pearsons—lean languidly against their sleek, decal-covered machines and flash smiles of contentment and prosperity as clusters of fans and friends move from garage to garage, eager to catch glimpses. Which is as things ought to be. But at Ontario there is another brigade of men who pound the asphalt and kick tires and chew the fat, unimpressed and unencumbered by the trappings of fame. Once, perhaps, they belonged on center stage themselves, but now they are faces without names, until something tickles a corner of your memory and you ask yourself, "Say, isn't that...?"

Sure it is. Lean and angular Sam Hanks, who will drive the pace car on race day, walks about looking generally unchanged from that fine afternoon in 1957 when he took the checkered flag at Indianapolis and gracefully retired from driving race cars. George Snider, a former Indianapolis teammate of A. J. Foyt's, makes his rounds. He is snappily dressed, and at 38 still young as race drivers go, but he seems a little weary and sad, perhaps because his right arm, injured in a sprint-car accident, doesn't work as well as it might. Billy Cantrell, a midget driver in the 1940s through '60s, sips coffee in the track cafeteria and sucks on a cigarette, his small, frail body protected against an unseasonable chill by an outsized windbreaker. One season many years ago, Cantrell started 287 midget races and finished 284, an awesome feat of consistency considering that most midget drivers, then as now, seem to land on their heads at least once a fortnight. "I never liked seat belts," Cantrell says in explanation. "Never liked to have to use them. I always figured a car ran better on four wheels than it did on its roof."

And who is the short, stocky fellow in the rust-colored pullover? The guy with the quarter-inch haircut and the sly, darting eyes who walks briskly but stiffly, and presses the flesh with the eagerness of a candidate for alderman, punctuating his conversation with a crooked laugh that sounds like that of a silly cricket: erk, erk, erk. The guy who signs autographs with hands that are so horribly mangled, fused and scarred.

A teen-age boy, clutching his racing program and a pen, is unsure. He sidles up to this vibrant, somewhat out-of-place presence and watches him scrawl his name on a program. The young boy glances at the scrawl and then, shaking his head, still puzzled, walks off in pursuit of other names.

The signature reads: Jim Hurtubise.

O.K., it's a fair question: Who is Jim Hurtubise, anyhow? From a racing career that has spanned more than a quarter of a century, the events of three Sunday afternoons help supply the answer.

May 22, 1960 was the last day of qualifying for the 44th Indianapolis 500. Throughout the morning, 70,000 fans sat patiently waiting for the track to dry following a series of annoying showers. Shortly after 12 noon, even though tiny rivulets of water still trickled between the ancient bricks that then covered the full length of the front straightaway, the track was declared open. Hurtubise, a 27-year-old rookie whose exploits in sprint cars had earned him the nickname Herk (for Hercules), charged out of the pits in the garish, lavender-and-purple Travelon Trailer Special, hoping only to make the race. Four laps and 4:01.52 later, he had become a Brickyard hero. His four-lap average speed of 149.056 mph was 2.4 mph faster than that of pole-sitter Eddie Sachs; his fastest lap, the third, missed being the first one-minute lap (150 mph) in Indy history by only .16 of a second. Today, when qualifying speeds have exceeded 200 mph and there is often a spread of five mph among the three fastest cars, it is hard to appreciate the size of Hurtubise's accomplishment. In 1958 before the appearance of many of the new wrinkles that have boosted speeds—turbochargers, rear-engine cars, wings and wide tires—all 33 cars qualified within 3.4 mph of one another. It was not until 1962 that the 150-mph barrier was finally broken.

June 7, 1964 came just eight days after the disastrous 500 in which Sachs and Dave MacDonald were killed. Rodger Ward, A. J. Foyt and Hurtubise, now driving the STP-Tombstone Life Special, waged a magnificent fight for first place in the 100-mile Rex Mays Classic in Milwaukee. For Hurtubise the battle ended almost precisely midway through the race when he hit the outside wall as he came out of the fourth turn, flipped and landed right side up on the front straight. Hurtubise was knocked out. His head was slumped over the steering wheel and his hands dangled limply between his knees, immersed in a pool of burning racing fuel that had spilled around him. It was 60 seconds before rescue crews could extricate him. At first Hurtubise was expected to die; later there was uncertainty as to whether he would ever walk again. Nobody talked about his hands. The following March, Hurtubise finished fourth in an Indy car race at Phoenix.

May 21, 1972 was another last day of qualifying for the Indianapolis 500. It had been several years since Hurtubise had entered the race with any kind of chance to win it, lead it or even qualify well for it. For most of that time he had been engaged in a quixotic attempt to qualify an improved version of the outmoded front-engine "roadster" that had dominated the Speedway until the rear-engine revolution of the mid-1960s. With time growing short, there was a fever of activity around Hurtubise's Miller High Life Special, as it slowly moved toward the head of the qualifying line. The crowd buzzed. Would the old Mallard, as Hurtubise called his car in tribute to its ducktail rear end, get a chance to make even a ceremonial tour of the Brickyard? No. Precisely at 6 p.m. the gun sounded, locking in the field for another year. At which time Hurtubise removed the cowling from his Mallard to reveal neither an Offenhauser nor a Ford, but rather five cases of his sponsor's product, already chilled and ready for folks to drink. Which is what most of the Speedway officials soon did. Erk, erk, erk.

The beer-case caper has not been repeated, but every year—usually during the second weekend of qualifying—the appearance of No. 56 with Hurtubise at the wheel and, more often than not, a beer company as sponsor brings enthusiastic cheers from the grandstands and causes a noticeable tensing of Speedway officials' faces. Is the whole thing just a long-playing joke? Sure, it must be; no one can take seriously a car that looks like a huge soap carving. Oh? Last year Herk and the Mallard circled Indy at an average speed of 177 mph and missed making the 33-car field for the race by only 8 mph.

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