William John "Bill" Vukovich, Sr. (VOO-koh-VITCH; born Vaso Vukovich on December 13, 1918 in Alameda, California – died on May 30, 1955 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Speedway, Indiana) was a United States racing driver who won two Indianapolis 500s in the mid-1950s, and was tragically killed on his way to what would have been a third consecutive victory.
He was nicknamed "Vuky" (VOO-kee), or "The Mad Russian" (despite having Serbian ancestry) for his driving style, and "The Silent Serb" for his demeanor. He is generally considered one of the best racing drivers of his generation, and is the only driver to lead the most laps in three consecutive Indy 500s.
Vukovich made his first forays into top-level American motorsport in 1950, making his first attempt at the 1950 Indianapolis 500, which was a round of the first season of Formula One. He failed to qualify neither his Maserati or his Rounds Rocket. Come 1951, Vukovich, in his Trevis made the race, but retired early with a broken fuel tank.
Driving a Kurtis Kraft-Offenhauser in 1952, Vukovich started eighth but pulled out a dominant performance to lead 150 laps, before crashing out in the lead on lap 192 with steering failure. Undeterred, he took pole in 1953 and led 195 laps en route to his first victory at the Speedway, with a three-minute gap to second-placed Art Cross.
Starting a lowly 19th in 1954, Vukovich pulled off a stunning performance to lead 90 laps and win by over a minute. A third successive victory looked on the cards in 1955, when, on lap 57, 17 seconds clear of second place, Vukovich got caught up in a three-car incident involving Rodger Ward, Al Keller and Johnny Boyd. Vukovich's car became airborne, went over the catch fencing, and landed upside down, killing Vukovich instantly.
His son, Bill Vukovich II, and his grandson, Billy Vukovich III, both competed at the Indy 500. His son was 1968's Rookie of the Year and finished second in 1973; his grandson was the first third-generation driver to compete at Indy as he took Rookie of the Year, in 1988.
Formula One Career
Bill Vukovich was born as Vaso Vukovich in Alameda, California; his Serbian parents, John and Mildred, had arrived with the surname Vučurović (VOO-choo-ROH-vich), which later was changed to Vukurovich, and finally Vukovich. Growing up in Fresno, Vaso had become William John by the time Vukovich had entered school.
Vukovich started racing aged 18 in 1937 in stock cars, and moved into midgets in 1938 where in one race he managed to break his collarbone. Following a break from racing during World War II, he secured the California midget title in 1945, West Coast midget titles in 1946 and 1947 and finally the national title in 1950.
Vukovich's first foray into the Indianapolis 500 was in 1950 Indianapolis 500. Vukovich was entered with two cars, a Maserati (jointly with Hal Cole) and a Rounds Rocket (in a sole entry), neither of which he was able to qualify, and with Cole not qualifying the Maserati either, Vukovich sat out the race.
Attempting his first full season of the AAA National Championship, 1951 would see a more fruitful showing from Vukovich. He managed to qualify his Trevis with the 17th-fastest time, and started 20th on the grid. Sadly, his race ended early on with an oil leak, and he earned $1,912 in prize money.
Later in the year, Vukovich obtained a Kurtis Kraft car in which he took his first top-three finish at Syracuse, New York.
1952 was a much more successful year for Vukovich. Starting the Indy race in eighth on the grid, he took the lead in his Kurtis on the seventh lap and lead much of remainder of the race to secure his 150th led lap on lap 191. However, on lap 192, his steering rod broke and his car crashed into the wall, cruelly taking away a deserved victory. 22-year-old Troy Ruttman took the lead and won; Vukovich was classified 17th; however, he still received $18,693 in prize money.
Later in the year, he won two AAA Championship races in Detroit and Denver.
Vukovich's 1953 attempt on the Indy 500 was completely dominant. He took pole with an average speed nearly an entire mile per hour quicker than second-placed Fred Agabashian. He managed to lead the race from the start and overall lead 195 laps en route to victory. Art Cross, who came home second, was over three minutes down. More remarkable was that Vukovich ran the entire race without a relief driver despite the air temperature being over 90 °F (32 °C) and the track temperature exceeding 150 °F (54 °C).
Earning prize money of $89,497 (roughly $795,000 in 2015), roughly one and a half times Ruttman's 1952 winnings, Vukovich did not make any serious attempts at AAA races for the remainder of the year.
Having commanded the previous two races, in 1954 the rest of field was given half a chance as Vukovich wasn't able to qualify on the first day of pole trials, and so started 19th. Nevertheless, Vukovich eclipsed the field, leading for a lap on lap 61 and fully gaining the lead on lap 92, a lead that would only be relinquished as he pitted on lap 129, and with the lead regained on lap 150, the Californian eventually took the checker flag nearly 70 seconds over Jimmy Bryan. For the third year in a row, Vukovich led the most laps, a feat so far unequalled throughout the history for the Indy 500. A second consecutive win earned him another large set of winnings, this time $74,935, roughly $660,000 in 2015 money.
Like in 1953, he made only one attempt at the other AAA races that season.
The question going into 1955 was whether Vukovich could achieve an unprecedented third consecutive win. After pole day was effectively washed out (but two drivers set times), Vukovich could only make fifth on the grid. Not that it really mattered; by lap four Vukovich had already taken first place and looked set to regain his crown once again, and after swapping the lead a few times with Jim McGrath, Vukovich had pulled out a 17 second lead by lap 57, when disaster struck.
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Two laps down, his 55th lap, one of the axles broke on Rodger Ward's Kuzma-Offenhauser car while he was heading down the back straight. Ward's car hit the outer wall and flipped in the middle of the track. Al Keller swerved out of way only to lose control and be side-swiped by Johnny Boyd, who hit the lead car of Vukovich, who was on his 57th lap. Vukovich's car was shot over the low barrier into the parked cars of some spectators, causing damage to a passenger car, a truck and a jeep. Vukovich, in his car, was flipped a number of times, 20 to 25 feet into the air; as a result he received skull fractures and was partially decapitated. The car soon burst into flames; but Vukovich had already been killed. The race continued, and was won by Bob Sweikert, Vukovich's family received the $10,884 prize money he won.
Vukovich was survived by his wife, Esther, his two children, Marlene and Bill Jr., two brothers and five sisters. He was buried at Belmont Memorial Park, Fresno, California.
Formula One Statistical Overview
Formula One Record
|Year||Entrant||Team||WDC Points||WDC Pos.|
|1950||Indianapolis Race Cars||Maserati||0||NC|
|R. E. C. / NJ Rounds||Rounds Rocket-Offenhauser|
|1951||Central Excavating / Pete Salemi||Trevis-Offenhauser||0||NC|
|1952||Fuel Injection / Howard Keck||Kurtis Kraft-Offenhauser||1||22nd|
|1953||Fuel Injection / Howard Keck||Kurtis Kraft-Offenhauser||9||7th|
|1954||Fuel Injection / Howard Keck||Kurtis Kraft-Offenhauser||8||6th|
|1955||Lindsey Hopkins||Kurtis Kraft-Offenhauser||1||25th|
|Front Row Starts||1|
|Distance Raced||2720 km (1690 mi)|
|Distance Led||1951 km (1212 mi)|
|Win Number||Grand Prix|
|1||1953 Indianapolis 500|
|2||1954 Indianapolis 500|
|Complete Formula One Results|
|3rd||DNQ||Did not qualify|
|5th||Points finish||DNPQ||Did not pre-qualify|
|14th||Non-points finish||TD||Test driver|
|Italics||Scored point(s) for Fastest Lap||DNS||Did not start|
|18th†||Classified finish (retired with >90% race distance)||NC||Non-classified finish (<90% race distance)|
|4thP||Qualified for pole position||[+] More Symbols|
- STATS F1 profile
- ChampCarStats profile
- OldRacingCars.com profile
- Motorsport Memorial entry
- Indianapolis Star article on his death
- ESPN biography
- Wikipedia article
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