Every year about this time most Americans find themselves drawn, in one way or another, to Speedway, Indiana. Many of those have more than just a passing interest.
Even those who have little interest in the sport of automobile racing can’t escape the hoopla, the pageantry and excitement that one single event brings to the country – the Indianapolis 500. Last weekend, the field was set for this year’s race, which will be run Sunday on the old triangle-shaped asphalt and concrete ribbon with a foot-wide strip of bricks at the start-finish line.
I’m one of those who thinks of Indy. Admittedly, it’s about the only time I really have many thoughts about those sleek, open-wheeled, rear-engine pieces of aluminum, titanium and fiber glass that break through the air at an average speed of 230 miles per hour on a 2.5-mile track designed for speeds of about 150 mph.
But, I do. I think of men like A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears and Al Unser, each of whom has won the Indianapolis 500 four different times – most in history.
This year marks the 100th running of the race, which began in 1911 when Ray Harroun was the winner. The race has been held every year since, with the exception of 1942-1945 when all racing was banned during World War II. The speedway, then owned by none other than Eddie Rickenbacker, was turned into a war training facility during those years.
Most of all, though, I think that in this 100th year of Indianapolis, it’s a crying shame that Hercules won’t be there.
Hercules was none other than James "Jim" Hurtubise, who earned that nickname because of his super human efforts on racing surfaces too tough for many other competitors. The name came during a 100-mile race at Sacramento, Calif., in 1959. As the heavy track surface broke up and other drivers slowed, Hurtubise got faster. A story in Mac’s Motor City Garage noted that "the more dangerous the track, the better he liked it. (A.J.) Foyt and (Parnelli) Jones were ‘braver than Dick Tracy,’ wrote the sports journalists of the era, but Hurtubise was ‘tougher than dirt’."
Those same sports writers tagged him ‘Hercules’ and that was soon shortened simply to "Herk."
Hurtubise raced in 10 Indianapolis 500-mile races in his career. In 1961, he started second, but finished 22nd. His best finish came a year later when he finished 13th. He failed to qualify 12 times, including his final seven times from 1975 through 1980.
Hurtubise was critically injured in 1964 in a race at Milwaukee, burned terribly when an inferno erupted when he crashed hard into a concrete barrier.
He wasn’t given much chance to live. Again, he lived up to the Hercules name, surprising doctors but not friends and family. His hands were so badly burned, however, he would have little use of them in the future. Asked how he wanted those hands formed, Hurtubise told doctors to form them in a fashion that would allow him to hold a steering wheel. Against all odds, Hurtubise somehow knew he would return to the sport that nearly cost him his life.
Astonishingly, he did return to racing in 1965, just a year after his horrible crash.
I am fortunate enough to have worked in Hurtibise’s pit crew one hot June day in 1974 or 1975. He was racing in the NASCAR Winston Cup (now Sprint Cup) Series. I was honored to not only meet the man, but to help on his tire crew.
But, it was his career at Indy for which Hurtubise is remembered. Long after the cars became sleeker, rear-engine, lower to the track, Hurtubise continued to attempt to qualify one of the old upright roadsters that had dominated the speedway a decade earlier.
His final attempt in a roadster came in 1972. Not fast enough, Hurtubise pushed his car to the starting line as time neared its expiration. One after another, he let other cars go onto the track. He waited there, at the head of the line, until the 6 o’clock bell sounded, ending qualifying for the year.
Smiling, Hurtubise walked to the front of his car and lifted the hood. There, rather than an engine, were five cases of beer on ice. He had been known to use his garage space as an impromptu "bar" during speed weeks. Now, he had moved the bar out to pit road at Indy.
He came back to drive some of the newer cars, but raced only once more at Indy in 1974.
He’ll be remembered, though, for his 1972 qualifying "attempt" in a roadster. It was, perhaps, the fitting end to an Indy dream for the man they simply called "Herk."
Hurtubise died in 1989, but I still think of him every year about this time. After all, it was men like Hercules who made the sport of automobile racing so entertaining. Herk won’t be forgotten.