FRESNO, Calif. (KSEE) – Fresno native Bill Vukovich won the Indianapolis 500 twice in the 1950s; some say he was on his way to becoming one of the greatest Indy Car drivers of all time.
He tragically died in 1955 while leading the Indy 500 – but his legacy lives on.
As the 105th running of the Indy 500 is set for Sunday, KSEE24 took an exclusive look at Bill Vukovich’s legacy in the Central Valley and beyond. Vukovich’s niece Janet Vukovich King still lives in Fresno. Her father Eli Vukovich worked as a mechanic and drove midget cars with his younger brother.
“Billy drove like there was no tomorrow,” King said. “I think that he drove with no fear.”
Vukovich sometimes known simply as ‘Vukcy’ was won the Indy 500 in 1953 and 1954. Vukovich was a Fresno native. When a style of racing known as midget car racing was booming in the 1930s, California was a hot spot. Vukovich and his brother Eli became hooked and wanted to win.
“With his upbringing, he had a lot of pride,” said Bob Gates, an Indy 500 expert who wrote a biography on Vukovich in the 1990s. But with a very tough childhood, it made him want to achieve more.”
In their late teens, the Vukovich brothers would connect with Fred Gerhardt, an accomplished racing engineer and race car designer in Fresno. Gerhardt was a midget car designer and would also design top-performing Indy cars in the 1960s and 1970s. Janet Vukovich King keeps an archive of photos from the early days of Eli and Bill’s racing career in the 1930s and 1940s. Many of those races on dirt tracks across the Central Valley.
“When the Vukovich brothers were coming, they could plan on a big crowd,” King said. “Because they would always battle it out.”
Vukovich would win the national midget championships in 1945, 1946, 1947, and 1948. The Gerhardt family still has his 1948 winning midget car. Phil Casey is a Fresno native and accomplished Indy 500 mechanic who worked with the Gerhardt family. He recalls watching Bill Vukovich race midget cars in the 1940s as one of the reasons why he pursued becoming a racing engineer.
“We went to races all the time at Kearny Bowl, I was only 10-11 years old,” Casey said. “My brother would take me, and we’d go every Sunday when they’d run in Fresno, and of course Bill was the favorite because he won most of the time, and his brother Eli.”
Bill and Eli Vukovich dominated the midget car circuit for about a decade, but it was Bill who would continue to climb the racing ladder and make his way to Indy Car by the early 50s. Vukovich qualified for the indy 500 in 1951, and almost won in 1952 but his car crashed with 9 laps to go. He was hungrier than ever to win in 1953.
“When the green flag fell on race day, he immediately took the lead, led 195 of the 200 lap to win his first 500,” Bob Gates said.
That win set the momentum for Vukovich. He would return in 1954 and dominate the race despite a rocky qualifying. He was on his way to becoming a legend. With two wins under his belt, Vukovich was poised to do something that had never been done in 1955: win the Indianapolis 500 three years in a row. On about the 60th lap Vukovich had dominated once again and was almost an entire half lap ahead of second place. But his meteoric rise came to a quick and tragic end.
“He looked well on his way to a third consecutive 500 which had never happened,” Gates said. “When he got involved in a crash on the back stretch and that crash took his life.”
Janet Vukovich King was only 7 years old, but she remembers that awful day.
“They said ‘Bill Vukovich is dead’ and my dad reached up and turned the radio off, unplugged it, pushed away from the table, and went for a walk.”
Vukovich was laid to rest at Belmont Memorial Park in Fresno. The tragic loss would push his older brother Eli to retire from racing.
“My dad went to a couple races afterward and he would take me to the races then, but he didn’t race a lot after his brother was killed. The interest was gone.”
But the interest would be renewed in the family. Bill Vukovich II and Bill Vukovich III, known as Billy, would both go on to have accomplished midget and Indy Car careers. The Vukovich family’s legacy is also enshrined in Downtown Fresno with a memorial to Bill Vukovich outside Selland Arena that was built in the aftermath of his death. More recently in 2019, a second memorial constructed honoring all the Vukovichs. For Janet Vukovich King, racing is everything.
“The love of speed is so strong,” she said. “And the smell, and the sounds, it’s hard to explain how it’s part of my life, I don’t know of any other part of my life that has meant that much.”
The 105th running of the Indy 500 airs on KSEE24 at 8:00 a.m. on Sunday, May 30.