1955: The Year Racing Almost Ended

Before the year began there was an omen. On October 30, 1954, Speedway president Wilbur Shaw was killed in a plane crash while returning from a meeting and a day at a test track in Detroit. Shaw had single handedly saved the Indianapolis Motor Speedway from demolition in 1946 when he persuaded Tony Hulman to purchase it and revive the Memorial Day race.

This program is another memorabilia show find. It was a bargain price. Tjis is the first program I have purchased at one of these shows that didn’t have a race day scorecrard in it. Given the events of the day, I’m not surprised.

The 1955 program dedicated full page to Shaw:


Tony Hulman assumed the president’s role, which he held until his death in 1977.

The race started at 10 am Central Standard Time.  The forty minute pre-race lists Dinah Shore singing “Back Home Again in Indiana.”  The Purdue Band played the National Anthem.  There was no invocation. To the best of my memory, there was no invocation until the race started running on Sundays rather than May 30. I know a couple of people who may know if that’s correct.

The program has a full page ad for Eastern Airlines with a message. from former track owner Eddie Rickenbacker.  Rickenbacker sold the speedway to Hulman.

Another phot I found interesting was in Champion Spark Plug ad:


The speedway record page shows that all track records except one, for the first lap were set in 1954. All but six milestones belonged to either Vukovich or Jack McGrath. I don’t think McGrath gets enough credit for his performances in the 500. The lone record not set in 1954 was set in 1953.

The month of May began with high anticipation. Bill Vukovich, winner of the 1953 and 1954 races, was favored to become the first driver to win three 500s in a row.  Shaw and Mauri Rose both had a chance to do this but could not. But Vuky was probably given better odds than either of them were at the hat trick. Vukovich came to Indianapolis with the same crew headed by Jim Travers and Frank Coon. Howard Keck, who owned the winning car from 1953-54, decided not to enter the 1955 race. Vukovich signed to drive for Lindsey Hopkins.

The race began with a furious duel between McGrath and Vukovich which lasted 50 laps. McGrath pulled into the pits with mechanical problems. As he was working on his car, one of the worst accidents in the history of the 500 occurred on the backstretch. Vukovich tried to avoid the car of Rodger Ward and collided with Al Keller, who had gone into the grass and returned to the track. Vukovich’s car launched over the wall, flipped several times, and caught fire. He was killed instantly.

The race went on and Bob Sweikert won.

The 39th Indianapolis 500 was just the beginning of a tragic year in auto racing. Four of the first seven starters in the race would die in racing accidents before the 1956 race- Vukovich, McGrath, Jerry Hoyt, and Walt Faulkner. Bettenhausen was killed in practice in 1961 the day before qualifying began.  I June, 83 spectators were killed during the LeMans 24 hour race when a fatigued driver crashed into the crowd. \

There were calls for a total ban on racing. The American Automobile Association decided they would no longer sanction racing. Tony Hulman formed the United States Auto Club to sanction the 500 and other races. The organization was the sanctioning body of the 500 through 1997.










2 thoughts on “1955: The Year Racing Almost Ended

  1. A truly dark time for the sport. These were my dad’s closing thoughts from his 1955 Indianapolis 500 Journal…

    “Aunt Bobby said I never looked sadder than when I got out of the car right then. I was sad because of the death of Bill Vukovich. It had thrown a damper on the whole crowd. The following day, Tuesday, at school was a sad one for me. Vukovich’s death brought about a great deal of criticism of auto racing. Many people wanted to outlaw it because there were many drivers killed in 1955. The AAA withdrew its sanction at the end of the season. Auto racing was going through some of its darkest times.”


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