A LEGENDARY REUNION : If It's May at Indy, Then Jim Hurtubise Can't Be Too Far Away

Times Staff Writer

Jim Hurtubise is a living legend at the old Brickyard, a race track that is itself a living legend.

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway has its own museum, for heaven's sake. Year round, race fans wearing vulgar T-shirts and black-and-white-checked caps pay to walk through and stand next to the old-time race cars and watch films about the old-time riding mechanics.

Race fans, who on weekdays wear pinstriped suits, also pay to spend the Memorial Day weekend at the Indianapolis 500 with Hurtubise.

Really. That's one of the ways he pays his bills, now that he's not racing anymore--or even entering cars in the Indy 500.

He fishes in his shirt pocket and comes up with a business card. It says: MONKEY BUSINESS A Division of Jim Hurtubise Enterprises.

"I'm the head monkey," he says with an impish grin.

Hurtubise holds the card in one of the hands that plays a major role in his legend.

Racing has taken its toll on his hands. Sure, he has other scars that make him recognizable as a driver. There are burn scars on his face--the end of his nose has been burned away, leaving nothing but skimpy skin grafts.

But on the racing circuit, they tell tales about his hands.

Fire in the cockpit has left him with hands that are most often described as claws.

Actually, his hands are still hands, but the fingers seem to be melted together at odd angles. One finger is gone and some of the others have been joined together by skin grafts. The multicolored skin is smooth and shiny, and because there is no way to tell where some parts of fingers started out to be, it seems that fingernails grow where they will. And they grow hard and gnarled like claws.

It is true, as they say, that the fingers are permanently set in a gripping pose. They say he told the doctors to mold them so that they could hold a steering wheel, a beer can and a screw driver, in that order.

Grinning that devilish grin, Hurtubise shoots down that popular tale.

"No, no," he says. "The doctors told me that they were going to have to pin them in place, and they asked me how I wanted them pinned. I told them to make them so that I could hold a beer can, that's all. But I knew that if I could hold a beer can, I could hold a steering wheel."

The lively, light blue eyes watch for the response. He's good at this storytelling. It's his business, remember? But he's usually holding a can of beer when he tells the story.

Ask around Gasoline Alley for Hurtubise, and everyone has seen him recently--at least in the last day or so at some little bar or other. Nobody knows for sure where he's staying, but a couple of guys left him late last night in the lounge at the Speedway Motor Inn.

No doubt he's at the track on this last day of practice, but he kind of floats around now that he has no garage to call his own. An old-timer in the Bettenhausen garage says he passed through less than an hour ago and will probably be back before the day is out. He suggests looking in the Miller beer hospitality room.

A page gets no response, but the man at the microphone is sure he saw him just a few minutes ago.

Hurtubise is found, finally, having a late breakfast in the greasy spoon restaurant under the grandstand, between Gasoline Alley and the pits. Nothing posh about it, but it's the place to be because it's for drivers and officials only.

He's wearing a light blue cap with a Speedway insignia, and he is, of course, visiting with friends.

Always room for one more, especially if it's a reporter willing to listen to how the tire companies are ruining the sport of Indy car racing.

Twenty-five years ago, Jim Hurtubise was a rookie at Indy, a young hotshot who had been tearing up the dirt tracks in California.

He had broken into racing in stock cars around his home town of North Tonawanda, N.Y. But he headed west to run sprint cars in the California Racing Assn., and was having a big season in the International Motor Contest Assn., a Midwestern circuit, when he got his first chance in a championship car.

Johnny Thomson was injured just before the 1959 Hoosier Hundred at the Indiana state fairgrounds here, and Hurtubise was called upon to drive. He spun out in that race, but he won his second, at Sacramento, in October.

Still, his name meant very little at Indianapolis when he showed up here the next May. He was to drive a Watson, the same car in which Ed Elisian had been killed the year before in Milwaukee. But when Elisian was killed the car had been green, a color that every race driver knows is unlucky. Hurtubise painted the car purple and took off.

The brash young rookie with the crew cut went out on the second weekend of qualifying and set single- and four-lap records for the track, qualifying nearly three miles an hour faster than pole sitter Eddie Sachs.

Hurtubise was the first ever to reach 149 m.p.h. here, setting the four-lap record in qualifying at 149.056 and the single-lap record at 149.601.

Those qualifying records made him Rookie of the Year in 1960, a year of note for legends of the Indy 500.

At the start of that year's race, a hastily erected aluminum and board tower in the infield collapsed under the weight of the fans who had perched on the nine tiers to see the start of the race. Two people were killed and 82 were injured.

Some race fans in the area went to the aid of the hundreds of people piled in a moaning heap. Others in the area continued to drink beer and eat fried chicken as they watched the start of what turned out to be one of the best races ever at the Speedway.

Although Sachs, who four years later was killed in a fiery crash here, was on the pole that year, the race came down to a battle between defending champion Rodger Ward and Jim Rathmann. In the last 50 miles, Ward and Rathmann exchanged the lead nine times and the crowd roared each time they raced past the main grandstand.

Ward had hurt his chances early in the race with a prolonged pit stop on the 42nd lap, killing his engine twice while trying to get out of his pit. Then, at 370 miles, both Rathmann and Ward charged into the pits at the same time for tire changes and fuel. Ward was out in 20 seconds, Rathmann in 22.

But then, with about 7 1/2 miles to go, Ward had to let up on the throttle because his right front tire was dangerously worn. Rathmann went on to win by 13 seconds.

Hurtubise, the hotshot rookie, had gone out of the race. He had worked his way up from 23rd and was running fifth when his car went out with a broken connecting rod after 470 miles.

Asked if he remembered watching one of the most exciting finishes in Speedway history, Hurtubise said: "Not really. I was probably off somewhere having a beer."

Although Hurtubise stamped himself as a driver to be reckoned with that year at the Speedway, he didn't take his new-found acclaim very seriously. In fact, he freely told reporters about someone he considered to be, perhaps, a little better. Another youngster he'd been racing over the past few years, Parnelli Jones, was sure to get an Indy ride soon, he said, and they'd love him.

True enough, Parnelli Jones was co-Rookie of the Year with Bobby Marshman in 1961, sat on the pole in 1962, and won the race in 1963.

Those were good years for Hurtubise, too--not necessarily at Indy, but in sprint cars and stock cars all over the country. In December, 1960, for instance, Hurtubise set a track record in qualifying at Ascot Park and went on to beat A.J. Foyt in the 40-lap main event. That was typical.

In 1961, Hurtubise qualified for Indy on the outside of the front row and led the race for the first 35 laps, setting a record on every lap. he went out after 102 laps with a burned piston. That year he won the Indy-car race at Springfield, Ill., and finished sixth in the national standings. He also won six sprint car races, finishing second in that division.

It was much the same in 1962 and 1963. He was fast, he was fearless, he was right up there in the standings. But at Indy, he had mechanical problems that took him out of the race.

For Hurtubise, though, 1964 is the year of record.

In 1964 he entered the Indy race with his own lightweight roadster and qualified 11th. He was running third when he started losing oil and was black-flagged.

The next week, he went to Milwaukee.

It was sunny and hot at the Rex Mays 100-mile race in Milwaukee June 7, 1964, but no hotter than the racing. Ward, in one of the new rear-engine cars, hooked up with Foyt and Hurtubise in an intense battle for the lead that went on for 51 laps.

Then, on the 52nd, as the three went into the fourth turn, the transmission failed in Ward's leading car, and he suddenly lost power.

Ward threw up his left hand, signaling the drivers behind him that he was losing speed. Foyt got around, barely.

Hurtubise, racing about a foot behind Foyt, was not so lucky.

The left front wheel of Hurtubise's car climbed the right rear wheel of Foyt's racer, and Hurtubise was airborne, flying over Foyt and into the outside retaining wall.

As Foyt described it at the time: "I just looked up and there he was, going over the top of me."

Hurtubise's car hit the wall and burst into flames, then rolled backward to the top of the front straightaway. The track's safety crew had Hurtubise out of the car within 15 seconds, but he was unconscious, gloveless and had been burning since the point of impact.

"I had the fuel tank in the wrong place," Hurtubise said. "The fuel tank was in the front, so when I hit the wall, it broke and fuel went all over me. In those days, nobody wore the (fireproof) underwear or gloves. If I had had gloves on, I could have saved my hands."

He was taken to West Allis Memorial Hospital, then was moved the next day to the burn center at the Brooke Army Medical Center at San Antonio.

In addition to being burned over 42% of his body, Hurtubise had a punctured lung and three broken ribs.

Skin grafts began a week later.

While dead flesh was being washed away in a special whirlpool, Hurtubise would sing "You Are My Sunshine" at the top of his lungs to keep from screaming.

Three months later, he was back at the track in Milwaukee--not to race, but to watch the 250-mile stock car race from the pits. Before the accident, Hurtubise had driven stocks for Norm Nelson, and he wanted to get back into the swing of things.

Hurtubise moved his family from New York to Texas, reasoning that the winters were nicer and, besides, he still needed some skin grafts on his hands.

He made his comeback in an Indy car race at Phoenix the next March, and he finished fourth.

Hurtubise won some more races over the next few years. He raced in 14 Indy car events in 1965, including the 500. But the big, supercharged Novi he was driving that year went out after the first lap with stripped gears. He drove stock cars for Nelson again, won a race. He finished fourth in the standings.

He was back at Indy in 1966 in a car with a rear-mounted, turbocharged Offenhauser and started 22nd, but went out after 29 laps. Again, he had a good stock car season, winning the Langhorne 250 and the Atlanta 500.

But the career of Jim Hurtubise, which had seemed so promising just six years earlier, was winding down.

By 1967, when he built two roadsters for the Speedway, the sport was already starting to leave him behind. The rear-engine revolution had long since rendered the roadster obsolete, and Hurtubise seemed to be following in their wake.

Because of the setbacks he suffered in that fiery crash?

No. Because Jim Hurtubise was determined to be his own man, to go head to head with the tire companies, with USAC officials, with Speedway officials, with anyone who wanted to tell him how to go racing.

He couldn't beat them but he refused to join them.

Asked if he regretted the way he handled the politics, for which he has such disdain, Hurtubise said, "Never."

He said: "A.J. Foyt joined them, and look at him. Do you ever see A.J. happy?"

Well, every once in a while, A.J. seems happy.

"But most of the time he's crowing at somebody, right?" Hurtubise said. "That's because somebody is always trying to tell him what to do.

"Go up and ask one of these big-time drivers if they want to play golf tomorrow. Know what they'll say? They don't know whether they can or not. They don't know whether a sponsor wants them to take somebody to lunch or a PR man is going to set up an interview or a speaking engagement--they don't know who's going to send them somewhere. That's not for me."

Hurtubise is a free spirit. He's a holdover from the days when drivers had dirty fingernails from digging into engines. In fact, he still does some tinkering in his shop in a building--he says it's a former house of prostitution--in downtown Port Arthur, Tex.

He's not a bitter old man, striking out at a world that has passed him by. Not at all. For one thing, he's only 52. And for another thing, being cantankerous and outspoken is nothing new for him. He's been that all along.

If he's eccentric at 52, he was eccentric at 27.

Hurtubise had been bucking the Establishment for years, long before his crash. If he didn't like a rule, he would say so. If he didn't like the way a race was officiated, he would say so.

He had been bucking the tire companies, too, accusing them of giving some favored drivers gumballs, tires with stickier, softer compounds.

He had established himself as a renegade even before he decided to build his own cars and go racing on his own. He didn't like the feel of the rear-engine cars with the Ford engines, so he built his own front-engine cars.

He built the Mallard, a car that he was convinced could be as fast as any on the track. He argued that his car was no heavier, no higher than the new, aerodynamically designed rear-engine racers. And that his turbocharged Offy could come up with equal horsepower.

In 1968 he set a world-speed record of 191.938 for a closed course in a special run around the Daytona International Speedway in his roadster, just to make his point.

But no one individual is going to compete, today, without big-time sponsorship.

He knows it. He knew it then, too. But he doesn't like it, so he'll continue to preach against it.

"When I came into racing, a guy could build his own car and afford to race it, and a driver who was good enough could walk in here and compete, like I did in 1960," Hurtubise said. "I used to say that racing was becoming one big tire test. Now I say it's just one big TV show.

"Everything is controlled by the tire companies. And there's hardly any driving involved any more. It's about 90% car and about 10% driver. Now, all a driver does is sit in there and hold his foot down. A good driver is nothing without big, big money behind him.

"I tried to get the Speedway to make rules that would allow the individual to compete, but nobody would listen to me. I didn't like the idea that they were taking over the Speedway.

"What it comes down to is that everything that goes around that track still has to go around on those four black round things."

He contends, to this day, that his roadster could do 200 m.p.h. on the right tires--which, of course, he says he could never get.

Even when he was no longer competitive, Hurtubise was still a force to be reckoned with. Every year he would bring his big, old outdated car and go through the motions of trying to qualify.

He loved it. He had a great time. The fans loved it. They've always loved Herk and his funny old cars. His paying guests loved it, because a competitor gets all kinds of passes and privileges.

The Speedway officials and the other drivers did not love it.

Hurtubise started to grandstand to make his points.

He had managed to get the front-engine Mallard into the California 500 in 1970 and the Pocono 500 in 1971, but he had not been in the race at Indy since '68.

So, in 1972, when he knew the car would not go, he rolled it out to the starting line, feigned confusion when he couldn't get going, opened the engine compartment and pulled out a case of cold beer.

The fans loved it. The officials did not.

In 1977, Janet Guthrie, who could not get garage space, complained that Hurtubise had three garages for his "ghost cars."

Then in 1978 he made his biggest scene of all when, in the last hour of qualifying, a United States Auto Club official told him that any car that had not practiced at 180 m.p.h. would not be allowed to attempt to qualify. It was nowhere in the rules, but the official told him that there had been a bulletin.

Hurtubise was having none of it. He had paid his entry fee and wanted his three attempts. When they wouldn't allow his car on the track, he went out and stood on the track himself, arms folded, waiting for them to remove him so that qualifying could continue.

He ended up leading a chase up and down the track that might have looked like the Keystone cops if all the runners had not been over 50.

The fans loved that, too.

Another time, Salt Walther tried to buy one of his spots in the qualifying rotation. Hurtubise would not be bought.

He was there to run the car, and he would run the car--never mind that it had no chance.

Hurtubise finally stopped entering his cars when the Speedway almost tripled the entry fee.

"They only did that to get rid of me," Hurtubise said. "It's like so many other rules designed to keep the individual out of racing. I don't think they're helping racing.

"The way it is now, it's not racing. It's not slipping and sliding through the corners, driver against driver. It's just a big TV show to see how fast they can get the entire field going--and who can tell, on TV, whether they're going 180 or 210?"

It's just not as much fun for him as it was in the good old days.

But, come May, Hurtubise can always be found somewhere in the vicinity of the Speedway, smiling, watching the people, drinking a beer, talking shop and just having a good time in general.

"I wouldn't be anywhere else," he said. "I love Indy. I see old friends, I have a good time."

And, believe it or not, he'd still like to go racing. Not in Indy cars, mind you. In stock cars, where there is still some driving to be done.

He'd like to find a sponsor to back him but--and this is an absolute prerequisite--he wants to manage the team. It would be his show, in the garage and on the track.

"I know I can still drive, and I know I can still get the kind of attention sponsors like to have," he said.

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