Home » Admittedly Fiction » The day Vukovich died

The day Vukovich died

I wrote this as a memoir in a fit of nostalgia after watching the Indy 500 on Memorial Day. Then I decided to check names and dates, and discovered that, as often happens with memories, I had conflated several events, and the story was incompatible with reality. I tried changing it to reflect that, but couldn’t satisfy myself with the result. The original story, though inaccurate, was simply better. I see now how easy it is for memoirists to get caught up in these traps you read about, when someone exposes their work as false. I decided to leave it as it was, along with this caveat: make of it what you will. Call it memoir, call it fiction, but enjoy it if you can.

Memorial Day, 1955, Indianapolis. Me and Hughie on the railroad tracks with a portable radio, listening to the 500. Just that; there was no Indy then, the only nickname we knew for our city was Naptown, and it seemed appropriate. The race itself in those days was as pure and innocent as we were. It was before the big global car companies got involved, before Ford brought the refined, expensive high-pitched whine of its V-8s to the track, when the deep, throaty roar of the big 4-cylinder Offenhauser engines ruled the pack, when a boy could walk the alleys of Indianapolis, and catch a glimpse of an open wheeled racing car in someone’s garage, when a neighborhood grease monkey could still dream of building and driving a car in the big race without being laughed off the street.

The race took all day back then, when people in the know would say that for a car to circle the track at more than 150 mph was against the laws of physics. And so we climbed to the tracks to listen, and spend the day talking and dreaming. It was a tradition, or such tradition as not-quite-10-year old boys can have; we had resolved to do it some months before, after I had found a semi-functional radio in someone’s trash. The knobs were long gone, as was the antenna, but we put new tubes and a battery in it and tuned to WIBC as best we could. I will never forget the crackling, distant roar of the Offenhauser engines, the changing pitch of the announcers’ voices, fading in and out to the accompaniment of various screeches and howls. The few passing freight trains only added to the romantic lure for a couple of  boys.

We sat at our favorite spot, above the ruins of a factory, whose broken windows and random indecipherable gears and brackets were sheer heaven for the imagination. To us it was as mysterious as Pompeii or Stonehenge, and we spent long hours devising theories about what had been made there, and why it had been abandoned, and whether there were ghosts. All the while, the sun shone brightly, the breezes came always just in time, and the radio droned a hypnotic backdrop, as close to paradise as anything on this earth.

Then, through the crackle, came the voice of Jim Frosch, the backstretch announcer: a horrendous crash involving at least three cars. The car driven by Roger Ward had broken an axle, causing the cars behind to swerve to avoid him. The race leader and favorite, Bill Vukovich, was hit with such force that his car sailed of the track, striking an abutment upside down and landing in a parking lot. Vukovich – for us Mickey Mantle, Johnny Unitas, and John Wayne all rolled into one – was dead. We came down from the tracks, stunned, and walked slowly home through the neighborhood, which suddenly seemed stiflingly hot.

Stories and rumors swirled. Boyd, whose car had sent him flying, had hit him on purpose. Roger Ward’s car had been sabotaged. As days passed, the stories grew less accusatory but more grisly. Someone had a cousin who knew a guy who had seen the crash at the race and swore he saw Vukovich’s head roll down the track a few dozen feet before coming to rest on the inner verge. None of it was true. None of it mattered.

That was the end of the “tradition.” It marked the first real disillusionment of our short lives. From that point, Hughie and I gradually lost interest in hanging out, although we were glad enough when our paths crossed, and exchanged stories, and asked after each other’s recent adventures. But we went separate ways, each choosing, or thrust into, our separate tunnels.  I longed to escape everything familiar, parents, neighbors, greasy streets with permanent potholes; Hughie seemed evermore welded to the neighborhood. After high school, I went off to college, a relatively rare thing in that neighborhood. He joined the Navy, then was back out almost immediately, on a medical discharge.

Years later, home on a visit, I gave in to a nostalgic urge and looked him up; he still lived in the same neighborhood. I knocked on his door. A woman I didn’t know opened the door.

It was a small rundown apartment with a musty odor. Hughie sat on the arm of a couch, eyes glazed with surrender. There were two other guys, a couple of girls, a half empty whiskey bottle. We said hello, and I said so long.

Nowadays. I sometimes find myself grieving for those old times when our lives seemed pure and holy, and I still think of that day so long ago, the day Vukovich died, and how the world seemed irreparably changed. How were we to know that it was only the beginning?

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