SI Vault
Alfred Wright
June 06, 1955
A home-town boy from Indianapolis—Bob Sweikert driving salmon-pink No. 6—won the 500-mile Memorial Day race, but the victory celebration was muted by the death that earlier overtook 'the 500's' modern champion, Bill Vukovich
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June 06, 1955

Victory And Death At 'the Brickyard'

A home-town boy from Indianapolis—Bob Sweikert driving salmon-pink No. 6—won the 500-mile Memorial Day race, but the victory celebration was muted by the death that earlier overtook 'the 500's' modern champion, Bill Vukovich

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For a while it looked as if luck were riding at Indianapolis this year. Saturday and Sunday had been wet, miserable days. Around the track and among the garage stalls of Gasoline Alley on Sunday afternoon, the drivers and mechanics and owners and officials glanced anxiously at the angry clouds overhead and crossed their fingers against a postponement of the "500." Monday morning the turbulent gray skies were still there, and a cold, gusty wind blew down the infield, but there was no rain. As Dinah Shore stepped to the mike and crooned Back Home Again in Indiana, the sun smiled weakly on the great crowd and the 33 gaily-colored cars and their gaily-uniformed crews. The race was on; the track and customers were dry, if slightly chilled.

The drivers of reputation wasted no time assuming their proper roles. When they hit the first turn at the southwest corner, Jack McGrath pushed his cream-and-black No. 3 into the front of the growling, crowding pack. This was as it should be. His 142.580 mph qualifying speed was the fastest ever posted at the Indianapolis Speedway, and this combination driver-mechanic (the only one in the race) seems to have the habit of putting the fastest car on the bricks.

Past the starter's flag the first time it was McGrath, then Tony Bettenhausen, Bill Vukovich, Jerry Hoyt (who had won the pole position), Fred Agabashian (the wise veteran), Walt Faulkner and Jim Bryan, last year's national champion driver. These, in the main, were the drivers who had monopolized the pre-race speculation in taxicabs and hotel lobbies and the bids in the Calcutta pools around town through the weekend.

It took only one more lap for McGrath and Vukovich to turn the action into a two-car race, leaving the rest of the field to work out their own destinies. Despite a relatively slow first lap (131.579) they were running at close to 139 mph. By the 20th lap—Vukovich had taken over the lead but not by much on the 4th lap, lost it on the 14th and then regained it—they had raised the average to 136.358, just a shade under McGrath's record of last year for the same distance. Somewhere back in the ruck Bob Sweikert in No. 6 was arguing with Tony Bettenhausen, Sam Hanks and Jim Bryan for what seemed like the completely unimportant position of third.

And so it continued through the first hundred miles with Vukie's average climbing to 136.894, now less than a mile under McGrath's record for the distance. As the hour mark passed, McGrath unexpectedly took the edge off the race when he pulled into the pits with ignition trouble, never to rejoin the race. The way Vukie was going it would be a miracle if any of the others caught him. This would be his third consecutive victory at Indianapolis, something never achieved by the great names of the past—Wilbur Shaw, Mauri Rose, Lou Meyer and the rest.

Then the ominous yellow flag. When it goes up, and the cars slow down, you can only start imagining unless you have seen the trouble. First you look for signs of confusion, but they are hard to find in that vast infield with perhaps 60,000 or 70,000 people milling in happy anarchy. Then you start looking for the missing cars as the field loafs around the track. You look first for the big names, the ones you have already begun to follow with some care. And then someone says: "I haven't seen Vukie go by."

Smoke begins to rise from beyond the trees and the crowd on the back stretch nearly a mile away from the main stands. Pretty soon the announcer's voice tells you: "It is a five-car accident of a very serious nature." The rest of the cars restlessly hold their positions or duck into the pits for a quick servicing—taking advantage of the delay so as not to lose too much ground. It is 27 minutes before the track is again clear, the yellow caution lights go off and the high speed resumes.

But something more than Vukie's car has gone out of the afternoon. We are told by that soothing voice on the loudspeaker, as if not to hurt our feelings: " Bill Vukovich has been fatally injured."

It is a new race now with Jim Bryan, the hardy young 214-pounder from Phoenix, holding the lead against the pressure of Bob Sweikert. The race is still in the hands of a big name, a driving celebrity, but the hometown boy who lives but a spit and a jump from the Speedway itself is giving him trouble. His lead won't stretch. In fact, on the 89th lap it dissolves as Bryan obviously has troubles. On the 91st lap Bryan retires for the day with a faulty fuel pump.

There are still 250 miles to go, and now Sweikert leads, followed by Art Cross and Johnny Parsons (a familiar name at last!—the 1950 winner) and Don Freeland and Cal Niday and Pat O'Connor. The crowd has to reorient itself to a whole new set of names, build up a new excitement over these little-known figures who only a few minutes ago appeared to be just stage dressing for the principals. Cross's blue car, Freeland's yellow one, O'Connor's yellow one and Niday's dazzling orange all have to be memorized and tucked into the mind. These are the plodders who sat in the background and nursed their cars on the chance that the flashy front runners with the speed might collapse, as indeed they did.

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