Strange But True: Carrying On the Tradition

Bill Vukovich began racing cars when he was 18 years old. He was reckless, often taking great risks during a race. He earned the nickname the Mad Russian because of the way he drove.

In 1952 Vukovich was leading in the Indianapolis 500 race with about 100 miles to go. The car’s steering mechanism began to falter, and at last the steering column broke. Vukovich was forced to stop. As he watched the rest of the cars go by he said, “It’s not hard to win here. All you’ve got to do is keep turning left.”

Vukovich was back in 1953. It was so hot on the track that one of the drivers, Carl Scarborough, died of heat exhaustion Vukovich won the race. He won again in 1954.

In 1955 Vukovich was leading again. He was almost a full lap ahead of all the others when suddenly driver Rodger Ward had an accident. His axle broke and he swerved out of control. The cars began to pile up. Driver Al Keller tried to avoid Ward and sideswiped a car driven by Johnny Boyd. Vukovich was right behind those cars. Instead of “always turning left,” Vukovich had to swerve to the right. His left front wheel hit Johnny Boyd’s right rear wheel. Vuckovich and his racer went up in the air and came down in an end-over-end crash. He was killed.

A driver who never won at Indianapolis was Melvin Eugene Bettenhausen. Everyone called the likable diver Tony. He was an excellent driver and twice won the United States driving championship. In 1955 Tony finished second at Indianapolis, and anyone who comes that close can be proud of himself. In 1961 he was at Indy again for the fifteenth time.

One of Tony’s friends, Paul Russo, was having trouble with his car, but he couldn’t figure out exactly what was wrong. He asked Tony to test it in a practice run. Tony was the kind of man who would do anything to help a fellow driver. He had the car going at full speed when it began to swerve and sway. A little metal cotter pin had been installed improperly. It fell out. Tony went into and over the wall, flipped over, and crashed. He died.

But racing is the kind of sport that gets into a whole family’s blood. It’s dangerous, drivers are killed, but that doesn’t stop anyone.

In the 1968 Indianapolis 500, two familiar names were entered: Gary Bettenhausen, the son of Tony; and Billy Vukovich, Jr., the son of the Mad Russian.

From The Giant Book of More Strange But True Sports Stories by Howard Liss. Illustrations by Joe Mathieu.

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When you can walk its length, and leave no trace, you will have learned.

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