FLAMBOYANT FIGURE : Auto Racing World Will Miss Fun-Loving Driver Jim Hurtubise
No one ever called Jim Hurtubise stubborn, simply because that normally adequate word did not begin to describe the extent of his obstinacy.
Give up driving, just because a fiery crash had left him with a nose like a falcon’s beak, hands like talons and a body so covered with skin grafts that ordinary sweating was impossible?
Don’t be silly.
Switch to a rear-engine car, just because the rest of the racing world had shown it to be superior?
Give up battling the Establishment, even after faded stardom had reduced a roar to a whine?
You get in the car and you go as fast as you can. And you say what’s on your mind. And you do things the way you do things, because that’s the right way. And when the racing and the hollering and arguing are over, you go out and have a beer.
That was Jim Hurtubise, and it probably will be some time before the world sees one like him again.
Hurtubise died over the weekend in Port Arthur, Tex., his hometown for the last several years, after suffering a heart attack. He was 56. That also was the number he put on his race cars.
“He was a tremendous talent,” said Parnelli Jones, winner of the 1963 Indianapolis 500. “He was in the same category as A.J. (Foyt, a 4-time Indy winner).”
Rodger Ward, a 2-time Indy winner, remembered his talent, too.
“He could be awfully good,” Ward said. “Sometimes he got to going a little faster than he knew what to do with, but he had his moments of glory.”
Indeed, when Hurtubise hit the Indianapolis Speedway as a rookie in 1960--a sprint car hotshot who had driven all of 2 Indy car races--he stood the old track on its ear, setting a qualifying record and nearly breaking the then-magic 150-m.p.h. barrier. His 4-lap qualifying speed of 149.056 and his single-lap mark of 149.601 stamped him as a star in the making.
But Hurtubise never won the 500. And he never reached the stardom that had been so widely predicted.
On a hot June day in 1964 in Milwaukee, barely a week after Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald had been burned to death in a flaming crash at Indianapolis, Hurtubise, too, was burned. He didn’t die in that crash, but his career did.
It was the 52nd lap of a 100-lap race on the Milwaukee mile. Ward, Foyt and Hurtubise, running 1-2-3, so close together that they might have been in a single car, came roaring out of the northwest turn, heading for the main straightaway.
Suddenly, Ward’s lead car experienced a transmission problem and he raised his hand to warn the others that he had lost power. Foyt braked hard and squeezed around him, and Hurtubise nearly got clear, too.
But not quite.
The left front wheel on his car rode up on the right rear of Foyt’s and Hurtubise suddenly was airborne.
“I just looked up and there he was, going over the top of me,” said Foyt, who later won the race.
Hurtubise’s car hit the outside retaining wall, burst into a ball of fire, then rolled down to the top of the main straightaway, where track firefighters quickly put out the fire.
Even so, Hurtubise was injured badly, suffering second- and third-degree burns on his face, neck, hands, arms, legs and back, as well as a punctured lung and three broken ribs. Almost 50% of his body had been seared by the flames.
“I had the fuel tank in the wrong place,” Hurtubise said, years later. “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 (fire retardant) underwear or gloves. If I had had gloves on, I could have saved my hands.”
After initial treatment in Milwaukee, Hurtubise was flown to the burn center at the Brooke Army Hospital at San Antonio, Tex., where he underwent nearly 3 months of rehabilitation and massive skin grafts. Before the grafts could begin, though, the dead skin had to be dealt with. Sitting in a special whirlpool that loosened it and pulled it away from his body, Hurtubise sang “You Are My Sunshine” as loud as he could, to keep from screaming in pain.
There never was any question in his mind about the future, though. He was a racer and racers race.
His badly burned hands had to be fixed in a permanently curved position, the better to fit a steering wheel, the story went.
Not so, Hurtubise later said.
“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 could hold a beer can, I could hold a steering wheel.”
In any event, Hurtubise was back at the race track, watching a stock car race from the pits in Milwaukee, before the season was over. And by the next March, he was driving again, finishing fourth in the 1965 season Indy car opener at Phoenix.
He drove in 14 Indy car races that year, including the 500, won a race on the United States Auto Club’s stock car circuit and finished fourth in the standings. Often, however, he tired in the late stages of a race because he couldn’t perspire properly.
In 1966, he accepted a ride in a rear-engine car for the 500 but that car lasted only 29 laps and the experience apparently soured Hurtubise on that style car. The next year, long after the rear-engine revolution was accepted, he showed up at the speedway with two front-engine roadsters, cars of his own design that he called Mallards. And from then on, he was a man with a mission. He wanted to prove that not only could he still win races, but that he could win them in what the rest of the world regarded as obsolete equipment.
“The accident seemed to have changed his personality,” Jones said. “He just didn’t come on the same. He wasn’t as easy to get along with. He got argumentative and he wasn’t so easy to be around.
“He’d always had his own way of doing things and he always was tough to beat, but after the race he’d sit around for hours until there was nobody left to talk to, nobody left to party with. Before the accident, he was always leaving something behind. We’d get to the next race and he’d be saying, ‘Where’s my helmet? I can’t find my helmet.’ Then some fan would walk up and say, ‘Here’s your helmet, Jim. You left it behind at the last race.’
“But the accident changed him. It was kind of like having a good friend and then you go away for a few years and when you come back, it’s a different person.
“I remember in 1969, the year Al Unser and I were riding (motorcycles) in the infield (at Indianapolis). Al broke his ankle and I asked Herk to drive that car in the race. It was a good rear-engine car, a much better car than the front-engine car he was trying to qualify. I really wanted him to drive it.
“He just looked at me as if he thought I was out of my mind, even to offer him such a ride. And it was a great car.”
In his early days, after he had been fined for jumping a start, Hurtubise suggested that incompetent racing officials be fined.
“We’ve been getting a lot of bad officiating lately and I don’t see why officials can’t be fined, just like drivers are,” he said. " . . . They give some clerk an armband so that makes him an official with the right to pull an $80,000 machine out of the race.”
Later, when confronted by USAC officials, he backed down, saying that he had been misquoted and that his comments had been misconstrued.
But when he challenged the racing Establishment after his accident, he backed down for no one. He took on USAC, the speedway, the tire companies, other drivers. At first, fans and reporters found him refreshing. Later, they began looking upon him as a caricature of himself, someone who was rather given to ranting.
And Indianapolis remained his obsession. One year, Salt Walther wanted to buy Hurtubise’s spot in the qualifying line, figuring that Hurtubise’s obsolete car couldn’t possibly qualify anyway.
No sale. It was Herk’s car and Herk’s place in line. He was going to make the most of it, even if the most wasn’t much.
Sometimes, though, even he could see that he was taking himself much more seriously than was the rest of the racing world. And sometimes he was once again the fun-loving Herk.
In 1972, for instance, he rolled one of his old roadsters to the starting line at Indianapolis, acted puzzled when he couldn’t get the car started, then opened the engine compartment and pulled out a case of beer.
And when he finally stepped away from racing in the early ‘80s he relaxed once again. He’d show up each spring at Indianapolis to entertain anyone who wanted to hear his stories.
His business card said: MONKEY BUSINESS, A Division of Jim Hurtubise Enterprises.
“I’m the head monkey,” he said, grinning, as he passed them around.
Said Ward: “I don’t know what it’s going to be like, not seeing his smiling face around the race track anymore.”