Winning the Indianapolis 500 should be the pinnacle of every race driver’s career.
For Troy Ruttman, though, it might have been the worst thing that could have happened to him. He was barely 22, a brash, cocky kid from Southern California’s hot rod circuit when he took the checkered flag in 1952--the youngest winner in the history of the 500, which goes back to 1911.
Friday night, along with the late Bill Holland, Ruttman was inducted into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame on the 40th anniversary of his stunning victory.
He is 62 now, but acquaintances say he looks better today--a trim 230 pounds distributed over his 6-foot-3 frame--than he did in 1952 when he weighed “about 265" the day he drove the Agajanian Special to victory at a then-record average speed of 128.922 m.p.h.
It’s the years in between, most of them at least, that he would like to forget. Race historian Terry Reed calls Ruttman “arguably the most gifted motor racing talent that the country has seen.” The word unfulfilled would seem to fit in there somewhere.
A month after winning at Indy, Ruttman won a 200-mile race at Raleigh, N.C. He never won another Indy car race.
“Too much, too soon,” Ruttman said matter-of-factly. “That, and breaking my arm in that sprint car race, did me in.”
Shortly after the Raleigh 200, Ruttman was driving a sprint car at Cedar Rapids, Iowa, for the late J.C. Agajanian, who gave him his winning ride at Indianapolis. The steering gear broke, and in the crash that followed, Ruttman severely injured his right arm.
“I didn’t drive again for a year and a half, and to tell the truth, I was never the same after the layoff,” Ruttman said.
Today, in another era, crippled drivers go through strenuous rehabilitation and return to their race cars as strong as ever.
But Ruttman says he spent his recuperation time drinking, gambling, womanizing and gaining weight.
“I’ll bet I got up close to 300 pounds,” he said. “I was all blubbery, and all I did was goof around. I didn’t do what the docs said to do to take care of my arm, and after four or five months, it began to atrophy. From July ’52 to May ’54 I did everything I shouldn’t have done.”
When he tried to come back in 1954 at Indy, he was so out of shape that he needed relief from Duane Carter, who finished fourth.
“My idea of a big day was to get up with a hangover, drive to the garage in Long Beach and play cards and drink. Then I’d chase around with women and drink some more at night.
“I had too much money for my own good. It was not a whole lot by today’s standards, but it was a lot to me because our family had moved to California from Oklahoma with all the other Okies during the Depression. It was kind of like ‘The Grapes of Wrath.’
“I had to work two jobs before I was 14 to help support the family. I had known what it was to be poor, so I was making up for it when I became a celebrity. The way things happened, my problems magnified rapidly.”
Ruttman, tanned and youthful appearing, discusses his past with a dignified detachment that makes him sound as if he is talking about someone else.
Then he sits up, looks an interviewer straight in the eye and says: “I gave up gin, the drink and the game both. I haven’t had a drink in close to 15 years now.”
He lives with his wife, Clara, in Venice, Fla., where he runs an aircraft brokerage business and flies his own plane from job to job. His mother, Mary, 85, lives a mile away.
“I’d known a few drivers who learned to fly, guys like Rex Mays, Chuck Stevenson and Ray Crawford,” he said. “So when I retired from the motorcycle and snowmobile business in 1980, I decided to learn to fly and move to Florida. I’d driven at Daytona Beach and I liked the weather and the people down there.”
When Troy was only 9, the family was living in Lynwood, where his father, Ralph, or Butch as he was known, taught him how to handle the family car.
One day, when Butch was at work, Troy’s mother wanted to visit a friend in Bell. Troy volunteered to drive.
“I was doing fine, I thought, driving along Alameda Street, when I saw an officer in the mirror,” he said. “I was so scared that I slid down in my seat so it looked like there wasn’t any driver in the car. Of course, we got pulled over and that guy really chewed me out.
“That was my first traffic citation. Not the last, I’ll tell you.”
A couple of years later, with defense jobs plentiful after the start of World War II, Butch Ruttman moved his family to Ontario when he got a job in the Kaiser steel mill.
“Dad got hurt real bad in a cave-in in Fontana in 1946 and couldn’t work anymore, so it was pretty much up to me,” Ruttman said. “I had two jobs. I delivered telegrams for Western Union on my bike in the afternoon, and nights I’d work at Currie’s ice cream parlor, which was sort of like Baskin-Robbins is today.
“I did that seven days a week, and what little money I could save I used to buy an old Model A hot rod. My dad had taken me to old Southern Ascot in South Gate before we moved from Lynwood, and I thought racing looked like great fun, but I didn’t know any place to do it.
“Then one day a buddy came up to me during home room at Chaffey High School and told me he’d seen some races at San Bernardino where hod rods ran in something called the Ash Can Derby. He said he’d seen a guy collect $25 for winning, and that anybody could race, that they didn’t ask any questions.
“Ash Can was a quarter-mile oval, flat in the turns, with no crash walls. The spectators sat in their cars, parked in the turns, and the pits were in the infield. An insurance man today would have heart failure at the sight.
“I went over there, but I didn’t want anyone to know I was only 15 so I used my cousin’s birth certificate. He was three years older than I was. When I won $24 for my first race I thought I was a millionaire. There were some pretty good drivers at Ash Can. Walt James ran there. So did Manny Ayulo and Jack McGrath and Jimmy Davies. I ran about 20 races there.”
About that time, Ruttman read an article in The Times about Carrell Speedway reopening with J.C. Agajanian as the promoter.
“I decided to look up this Mr. Agajanian. I ditched school and drove to San Pedro in my hot rod. I found his office down in the dumps where he collected garbage, but when I asked for him, some old guy came out. He didn’t look anything like the picture in the paper of the guy in the big hat. I told him what I wanted, and he said, ‘Oh, you must want my son, Joshua. He’s down the hall.’
“Well, Joshua, that was J.C., said, ‘It’s about lunch time. Come on to lunch with me.’ I was flabbergasted. I’d never had anyone ask me to lunch in my life. Aggie and his partner, Emmett Malloy, helped me immensely. They were the two key guys in my getting started in serious racing. I drove for Malloy until I was old enough to drive for Aggie.”
Ruttman was only 16 but he immediately began winning races, as well as a reputation for rough driving. To his fans he was “the Pride of the Bobby Soxers.” To his detractors he was the enfant terrible of Southern California racing.
At 17, still lying about his age, Ruttman won the California Roadster Assn. championship. The next year, he began racing midgets and stock cars. He won the United Racing Assn. midget championship after a season-long battle with Bill Taylor.
“He was a hell of a driver,” said Taylor, now a NASCAR official. “We all knew he was only 18, but he was so good it didn’t seem to matter. He could race anywhere, dirt or pavement, long races or short ones, and win.”
In 1949, Ray W. Carter of Atlanta, bought the car that was driven to victory by Floyd Davis and Mauri Rose in the 1941 Indy 500. An article on Ruttman in Speed Age magazine prompted Carter to ask Ruttman to drive for him at Indianapolis.
“I wanted to drive at Indy for Aggie, but he knew my real age and he wouldn’t let me drive for him until I was 21, so I decided to go with Carter,” Ruttman said. “For a car that was eight years old, it wasn’t all that bad. We had a 30-minute pit stop to change a magneto and still finished 12th.”
Before signing Ruttman, Carter wrote J. Gordon Betz, then West Coast supervisor for the sanctioning American Automobile Assn., for a character reference.
Betz replied, in part: “Ruttman has a great deal of driving ability, as is proven by success in all types of racing cars. However, it will be necessary for you to stay right on top of him at all times, as he is a very spectacular driver, which at times gets him in embarrassing positions. Due to his age, he will be 23 (actually 19) this March, his meteoric rise in all types of racing has caused a certain amount of professional jealousy throughout the racing fraternity.”
In 1951, truly 21, he drove the Agajanian Special for the first time at Indianapolis but finished only 78 laps before a broken crankshaft sidelined him. He won both the Midwest and Pacific Coast sprint car championships that year, though, in Agajanian’s 98 Jr.
WINNING AT INDY
As Troy later proved when his World of Ruttman motorcycle and snowmobile dealership in Plymouth, Mich., became the No. 1 agency in the country, he was a master salesman. He was also something of a con man.
“Aggie had two cars in ’51, one I drove and one that Walt Faulkner set the track record in,” he recalled. “I thought if I could just get the car Faulkner had, I could win the race the next year.
“The pace car at Indy in 1951 was a Chrysler sedan, and both Walt and I wanted one just like it. Aggie said he’d get us a couple from the factory, but we had to promise we’d keep them at least six months. He didn’t want us to get it just to sell for some quick money.
“He said he’d fire us if we sold the car before six months was up. I figured if I could get Walt to sell his, I would get his (race) car. I stashed mine in a garage in Indy and made sure Walt saw a lot of me without the Chrysler. I hinted around that I’d sold it. Sure enough, Walt sold his to a buddy.
“The next time I saw Aggie, I said, ‘How come you let Walt sell his car and you told me not to? That’s not fair.’ Aggie was just as mad as I figured he’d be. He fired Walt on the spot. It sounds pretty callous, but that’s how bad I wanted that (race) car.”
Faulkner was killed in 1956, but it was years before Ruttman revealed the story, for fear it would upset Faulkner’s widow, Mary.
The car, built by Eddie Kuzma in Los Angeles, carried Agajanian’s trademark No. 98 and was powered by the traditional Offenhauser engine. It was the last of the old dirt-track cars to win the 500.
Cary Agajanian, eldest son of the late J.C., was 11 at the time, but he remembers the send-off when the team left Los Angeles.
“I was too young to go, but I remember when Troy and (chief mechanic) Clay Smith pulled up in front of our house, honking the horn for my dad,” Cary recalled. “They were in a van, pulling a trailer with the car on it, heading for Indianapolis. That’s the way they traveled in those days.”
Ruttman qualified seventh at 135.364 m.p.h.
As the race got under way, Bill Vukovich jumped into the lead in Howard Keck’s fuel-injected Offy, with Ruttman and Jim Rathmann in hot pursuit. Ruttman was leading after 85 laps, but a pit accident during refueling cost him so much time that he dropped to third place.
Butch Ruttman, Troy’s father, was refueling the car through a funnel from a milk can when the fuel backed up and gushed up into his eyes, burning them. He was taken to the track hospital.
“That’s how refueling was done back then, with milk cans,” Troy said. “Later, when Dad heard that Vuky had stopped on the track and I was ahead, he got out of bed and came back to the pits in time to see me take the checkered flag. I think it was probably the high point of his life.”
During the race, Vukovich and Ruttman broke track records at every interval. Jack Curnow, writing in The Times, said: “It looked like a couple of midget kids going around Gilmore Stadium.”
After Ruttman’s final pit stop on Lap 147, Vukovich had a 55-second lead. By Lap 177, Ruttman had cut the margin to 30 seconds and was picking up about a second a lap.
The anticipation of a tense finish ended when Vukovich spun out on Lap 191 with a broken steering system, nine laps from the finish. Ruttman cruised home, followed by Rathmann and Sam Hanks.
“I wish Vuky had finished,” Ruttman said at the time. “I really think I could have caught him. Anyhow, it would have been quite a photo finish.”
Vukovich said, “That Ruttman never won an easier one.”
Even though he slowed noticeably from a 134-m.p.h. pace after Vukovich went out, Ruttman averaged a then-record 128.922 m.p.h. for the 500 miles and received a big kiss from actress Arlene Dahl in victory circle.
“It was all too easy,” he said in retrospect. “I got more money than I ever thought existed. I loved to party, and everybody loves to party with a winner. So I partied.”
After the victory a month later at Raleigh, though, Ruttman learned how hard it could be to win. Although he toiled on and off for 12 years, he never won again. He lost two years when the American Automobile Assn. suspended him for “conduct detrimental to racing.”
In 1964, shortly after the Indianapolis 500, in which he drove through the smoky carnage of the tragic Eddie Sachs-Dave MacDonald fire, Ruttman surprised racing fans by abruptly retiring.
“I just lost the urge,” he says. “I realized I wasn’t being fair to myself, the fans and the car owners who believed in me by running for easy money without a chance to win. All the year before, that’s what I had done. I had been satisfied to run for third or so, just to make money. I didn’t have what it took to go for the win.”
Ruttman settled near Detroit and started his motorcycle-snowmobile business, becoming almost reclusive as far as old racing friends were concerned. He was embarrassed, he says, because of the way he acted when he was a heavy drinker.
In 1969, his oldest son, Troy Jr., was killed at Pocono, Pa., in his first race after graduating from go-karts.
He was driving the same Jim Robbins Special that Troy drove in his last Indy race. Junior had converted it into a super-modified and had his dad’s old number, 14, on it.
“It was just a couple of weeks before his high school graduation,” Ruttman recalled painfully. “He had won a national karting championship and everyone said he was a natural. He was only 18. The accident occurred in the second of two twin 50s on a three-quarter-mile oval. It was before they built the big track at Pocono.”
Although Troy Jr. had been living with Joe Ruttman, Troy’s younger brother, and Toddy, his sister, at the time of the accident, it turned Troy further inward and away from racing.
Only recently, since leaving Michigan and starting a new life in Florida, has Ruttman regained his zest for racing and the comradeship of old racing friends.
As he strolled through the garages at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway the last couple of days, he was continually hailed by old acquaintances.
“God, what a driver he was,” one United States Auto Club old-timer said. “He was just a kid when he won this thing. He should of won a bunch of them. Good to see him back.”