William John “Bill” Vukovich, Sr. (/ˈvjuːkəvɪtʃ/; Serbian: Bil Vuković, Бил Вуковић; December 13, 1918 – May 30, 1955) was a Serbian American automobile racing driver. He won the 1953 and 1954 Indianapolis 500 plus two more American Automobile Association National Championship races. Several drivers of his generation have referred to Vukovich as the greatest ever encountered in American motorsport.
He was known variously as “Vuky” (/ˈvuːki/ voo-kee) and “The Mad Russian” (though he detested that name, having been born in Fresno, California, of Yugoslavian ancestry) for his intense driving style, as well as the “Silent Serb” for his cool demeanor He was also referred to as the “Fresno Flash” in Floyd Clymer’s Indy yearbooks, and in an interview (available at the Vukovich Accident link below) his former mechanic Jim Travers calls him “Vuke”.
Before he began Indy racing, Vukovich drove midget cars for the Edelbrock dirt track racing team. He raced on the West Coast of the United States in the URA, and won the series’ 1945 and 1946 midget car championships. Vukovich won the 1948 Turkey Night Grand Prix at Gilmore Stadium, and six of the last eight races at the stadium track before it was closed for good.He won the 1950 AAA National Midget championship. Vukovich was known for racing midgets powered by Drake engines. The Drake was a Harley V-twin with specially built Drake water cooled heads. His last Drake powered midget was a Kurtis-Kraft that was built by Ed and Zeke Justice, the Justice Brothers, in their shop in Glendale from a Kurtis kit. Previous to this car Vukovich drove a “Frame Rail” midget that was also powered by a Drake engine.
In 1952, his sophomore year in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s 500-Mile Race, he quickly moved up from his starting position in the middle of the third row to take the lead, and led 150 laps in dominant fashion before suffering steering failure on the 192nd of the 200 laps. He returned to win the race in consecutive years, 1953 and 1954. He led an astounding 71.7% of laps that he drove in competition at the track, and remains the only driver ever to lead the most laps in the race three consecutive years.
Vukovich was killed in a chain-reaction crash while holding a 17-second lead on the 57th lap of the 1955 Indianapolis 500. He was exiting the second turn, trailing three slower cars—driven by Rodger Ward, Al Keller, and Johnny Boyd—when Ward’s car swerved as the result of a gust of wind. Keller, swerving into the infield to avoid Ward, lost control and slid back onto the track, striking Boyd’s car and pushing it into Vukovich’s path. Vukovich’s car struck Boyd’s, became airborne, and landed upside down after going over the outside backstretch retaining wall and somersaulting four-and-a-half times, bursting into flames. As the car burned Ed Elisian stopped his undamaged car and raced towards Vukovich in an attempt to save him. But it didn’t matter as Vukovich perished instantly in the accident.
Vukovich was the second defending Indy 500 champion to die during the race, following Floyd Roberts in 1939, and the only former winner to have been killed while leading. Roberts’ car was also thrown over the backstretch fence after exiting the second turn in his fatal accident. Since the 1955 race was counted as part of the Formula One World Championship, Vukovich is also the first driver to be killed during a World Championship race.
His son, Bill Vukovich II, and his grandson, Bill Vukovich III, also competed in the Indianapolis 500, with Vukovich II taking second in 1973, and Vukovich III being named Rookie of the Year in 1988.
The Indianapolis 500 was part of the World Drivers’ Championship (which later became the FIA Formula 1 World championship) from 1950 through 1960. Drivers competing at Indy during those years were credited with World Championship points and participation. Bill Vukovich participated in 5 F1 World Championship races. He started on the pole once, won 2 races, set 3 fastest lead laps, and finished on the podium twice. He accumulated a total of 19 championship points.