2011.05.18 Mel Torme jinxes driver and other Indy 500 lore

Written by David Green.


Later this month, the Indianapolis 500 celebrates its 100th anniversary. Technically speaking, it’s not that simple. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway itself opened for business in 1909. The track chose not to run races during both world wars, so there was no “500” in 1917-18 and again in 1942-45. That means the 2011 event is actually only the 95th. But it’s the 100th anniversary of the first “500” in 1911, and that’s what the hoopla is all about.

Over the years, nearly 750 drivers have competed in at least one event. They include six members of the Unser family (three of whom won a total of nine times), five Andrettis, and Bill, Don and Dale Whittington, who in 1982 became the only trio of brothers to qualify for the same race. There has even been two drivers named Howdy Wilcox who were completely unrelated. But, amazingly, no driver named “Smith” has ever made the race.  

The race’s history includes six-wheeled race cars and others with turbine engines, diesel engines, even two engines. But the personalities involved make some of the best stories. Take, for instance, France’s Jules Goux.

Goux arrived at the Speedway in 1913 with a Peugeot race car and several cases of French champagne. Starting from seventh position, Goux drank a pint of champagne during each of six pit stops while refueling, tire changes and other mechanical needs were completed. Then he returned to the race.

You might think his actions were a disaster waiting to happen, but just the opposite occurred. Accounts of the race say, if anything, Goux’s driving got better after each pit stop (and pint). He won the race with a lead of 13 minutes, 8 seconds over the second-place car. Goux spent the time waiting for his rivals to finish by celebrating his win with a seventh pint of the bubbly.

 In some of the early races, a second person, known as a riding mechanic, accompanied the driver in the race car. This led to one of the oddest coincidences in Speedway history. 

In 1931, defending “500” champion Billy Arnold was leading the race at the 400-mile mark when he crashed and flew over a wall. Arnold suffered a fractured pelvis while his riding mechanic, Spider Matlock, broke his shoulder. 

Fully recovered in time for the 1932 race, the Arnold-Matlock duo were leading on lap 59 when they crashed again, once more vaulting the track wall. This time, Arnold broke his shoulder and Matlock suffered a fractured pelvis.

Superstition has been a big part of Speedway history, and to a lesser extent, continues to the present day. Traditionally, green cars have always been considered unlucky, as is the presence of peanuts near a car. Another superstition played a role in the death of two-time “500” winner Bill Vukovich.

Vukovich had few friends by choice, and tried to keep to himself whenever possible. He was called  “The Mad Russian,” even though his ancestors were from Yugoslavia. He was also the greatest “500’ driver of his era.

In 1952, Vukovich was leading the race with just nine laps to go when his steering broke, ending his chances. He won back-to-back races in 1953-54, making him a favorite entering the 1955 event. At least, until entertainer Mel Torme opened his mouth.

The Indy 500 draws a long list of celebrities each year, and 1955 was no different. Singer Torme was a friend of track owner Tony Hulman and received credentials giving him almost complete access. Thus, he was standing near Vukovich before the race when the order was given for drivers to go to their cars.

As Torme told an interviewer nearly 40 years later, “I walked over to him, patted his helmet and said, ‘good luck.’ Well, you never say that to a driver. It just came out. I clamped my hand over my mouth, but it was too late.”

Torme had unwittingly committed one of the biggest offenses of all. The volatile Vukovich swore at him and stomped off to his car. Leading the race on lap 56, Vukovich got caught up in another driver’s wreck and was killed instantly.

“That stopped me from going to the Speedway,” Torme said in 1994. “I’ve never, never been back...I just couldn’t face the guys again.”

The latest celebrity to announce his absence from the Speedway is billionaire Donald Trump, who had been set to drive the 2011 pace car before bowing out. Do you suppose he was afraid of subjecting his hair to race speeds?

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