2011.05.18 Mel Torme jinxes driver and other Indy 500 lore

Written by David Green.

By RICH FOLEY

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?

  • Front.tug
    MORENCI pep rallies generally end with a tug of war. The senior class entry, shown above, did not advance to the finals. Griffin Grieder, Alaina Webster, Kyle Long and Jazmin Smith are shown at the front of the rope, giving it their best effort.
  • Accident
    FAYETTE resident Patricia Stambaugh, 64, was declared dead on the scene of a single-vehicle accident Friday morning south of Morenci. Rescue units were called around 9 a.m., but as of Tuesday, law enforcement officers had not yet determined the time of the accident. According to Ohio State Highway Patrol, Stambaugh was driving west on U.S. 20 when her Chevrolet Malibu traveled off the north side of the road and down a steep embankment, coming to rest in Bean Creek (Tiffin River).
  • Athletic Fields
    SPORTS COMPLEX—Fayette’s outdoor athletic facilities will include three ball fields for summer recreation leagues at the southwest corner of the school. The baseball and softball fields, along with the running track, will be constructed on the east side of the school. Outdoor athletic fields were not part of the new school project from 2007, but voters approved a $1.4 million levy for a school addition and the sports fields last August. Both projects are scheduled to be complete by July 20.
  • Front.teacher Leading
    PRESCHOOL MUSIC—Fayette band director Jeffrey Dunford spends the last half hour of the day leading the full-day preschool class in musical activities. Additional photos are on page 7 of this week’s Observer.
  • Front.F.band
    TROMBONISTS Jake Myers (left) and Max Baker perform Friday at the annual Senior Citizens Luncheon at Fayette High School. The National Honor Society and the FFA chapter teamed up to serve a meal to area seniors and to provide musical entertainment. Both the school band and choir performed. Additional photos are on page 7 of this week’s Observer.
  • Station.2
    STRANGE STUFF—Morenci Elementary School students learn that blue isn’t really blue when seen through the right color of lens. Volunteer April Pike presents the lesson to students at one of the many stations brought to the school by the COSI science center. The theme of this year’s visit was the solar system.
  • Front.poles
    MOVING EAST—Utility workers continue their slow progress east along U.S. 20 south of Morenci. New electrical poles are put in place before wiring is moved into place.

Weekly newspaper serving SE Michigan and NW Ohio - State Line Observer ©2006-2017