449 & 1/2. Bill Jr.
Bill Vukovich Jr was eleven years old when his father was killed at Indianapolis. He and his sister Marlene were home in Fresno. According to Jim Travers, they wrote to their father. “Dear Dad, you’ve got to win. Need new money. Old money is gone.”
Minus a father, Bill Jr still had a normal childhood. His mother Esther had many friends in racing. She took the kids to the local races, and the USAC meets in Sacramento. In ’57, they even visited Indianapolis. When Jimmy Bryan gave Jr his goggles, Bill had a new hero. His first date with Joyce Astone was to the old airport speedway, but he had no thoughts of hopping behind the wheel. “It wasn’t until I was out of school, married, and our son Billy was born that I even started thinking about it… When you’re nineteen years old and with a family, you definitely need a job.”
Bill Haase gave him a job, building and, eventually, driving cars. The NASCAR “hardtops,” with modified suspensions and powered by Chevy small block V-8s, were kings of the half mile tracks on the west coast. Driving for Red Stainton, Bill earned 1963 California rookie of the year. The next season, he took the Clovis Speedway track championship.
Stainton also gave Vukovich his first midget ride, in Norm Britton’s car, an inauspicious start. “I was so bad that on my three qualifying laps, I managed to hit every wall on every corner.” The next night he qualified 4th, then, captured the (5-lap) trophy dash. Indoors, he won two features. In the summer outdoor season, he claimed another feature, finished 3rd in the BCRA series, and claimed another rookie of the year honor.
Vukovich was grateful to Stainton, but had to leave central California to make a name in USAC. Stainton arranged Bill’s first championship ride, at Phoenix in ’65. Driving Fred Gerhardt’s old roadster, Vukovich placed 9th, behind AJ Foyt, Mario Andretti, and Bobby Unser, but ahead of seventeen champ car regulars. Feeling he wasn’t ready for the big cars, Vukovich continued collecting midget wins, and started running supermodifieds, sprint cars with roll cages.
Vukovich’s first champ car season was with J.C. Agajanian, but they skipped the 1967 Indy 500. Bill thought he’d hit the jackpot when Firestone kicked in $60,000. Unfortunately, the tire wars weren’t kind to the shy, unassuming Vukovich or independent little teams such as Agajanian’s when lightweight winged cars replaced the old roadsters.
with Agajanian at Indy 1968
For the ’68 Indy 500, Vukovich lined up next to Gary Bettenhausen. “I think I was fourteen when (Bill Sr) died. He used to come by our family’s farm in Tinley Park when he was on his way to Milwaukee. He would bring Bill and Marlene and we would all play together. Vukovich finished 7th and claimed rookie of the year.
Vukovich & Bettenhausen 1976
With most sponsorship money going to the well-funded teams including Roger Penske, the Granatellis, Dan Gurney, AJ Foyt, Jim Hall, and Parnelli Jones, drivers for shoestring teams, including Vukovich, Bettenhausen and Lee Kunzman often traveled together and shared accommodations. Vukovich and Agajanian eventually split, and Bill’s next chance came with Jerry O’Connell’s Sugaripe Prune team and chief mechanic Jud Phillips. They ran 5th in the 1972 Indy 500 when the transmission failed. Vukovich placed 2nd in the championship points that year. The next season, he finished runner-up to Gordon Johncock in the Indy 500.
Vukovich appeared in twelve Indy 500s, with six top tens. He earned one championship win, 24 top fives, and 84 top tens, but had trouble finding rides in the late ‘70s. Joyce explained, “It was a time when going out and hunting for sponsors was taking more of a driver’s time than racing. He didn’t feel that it was a driver’s place to raise money… Bill is an introverted person, and doesn’t have the gift of gab you need to do that.” In 1980, Bill Jr quit driving to support his son’s quest to become the third generation to visit the Brickyard.
unsponsored ride in '79