We speak today of the youth movement in Indycar. The podium at last Sunday’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama had an average age of 22.6 years. 70 years ago, there was no youth movement, but a driver who was 22 years, 80 days old won the race. Troy Ruttman is still the youngest driver to win the Indianapolis 500.
Despite his age, 1952 was Ruttman’s fourth 500 mile race. Rules were different then. He finished 12th in 1949 and 15th in 1950, A bad bearing caused him to drop out of the 1951 race after 78 laps. He had started sixth.
In 1952 Ruttman qualified the number 98 Agajanian Special seventh. .J. C. Agajanian, the car owner, was a pig farmer from southern California who would become one of the most colorful owners in Speedway history.
Bill Vukovich was heavily favored to win the race. Vuky seemed in control after the final pit stops, but Ruttman, who had led 36 laps, kept gaining. With 10 laps to go Ruttman had cut Vukovich’s lead to just 19 seconds. On lap 192, the steering shaft broke on Vukovich’s car. He crashed into the turn 3 outside wall as Ruttman sped past and took the checkered flag.
The day was not easy for Ruttman. On his first pit stop on lap 85, a flash fire erupted and was quickly extinguished. On his second stop on lap 1467, the crew was out of fresh tires and had to use the rubber that the the car used for qualifying. Ruttman said that he lost a balance weight on the right front wheel and had to wrestle the car for the last half of the race.
As happened to many 500 winners in that era and previous years, misfortune struck that summer. At a race in Cedar Rapids, Iowa in July, Ruttman suffered injuries, including a broken right arm, which kept him out of action for 18 months. In spite of missing nearly half the season, he still finished second in the national championship just 33 points behind Chuck Stevenson. Ruttman did not get a chance to defend his 500 title in 1953.
He returned to the 500 in 1954. Ruttman qualified 11th and finished fourth. In 1955, he failed to qualify for the race. Ruttman ran the 500 again in 1956 and 1957. He returned in 1960 and drove in every race through 1964, when he retired. He qualified third in 1957 and and sixth in 1960. His best finish in his last eight 500s was 12th in 1963.
Rutrtman retired to Michigan. He started a mini bike, go kart/motorcycle business in in Dearborn Heights. In 1974 Ruttman began a Yamaha motorcycle enterprise in Canton, Michigan, which became the largest Yamaha dealership in the United Sates.
Ruttman did not start a youth movement. The next two drivers who were younger than 30 to win the 500 were Bob Sweikert at age 29 in 1955 and A.J. Foyt, age 26, in 1961.
I met Ruttman when I was 17 years old at an event at a car dealership. he was friendly and took some time to talk to me and my brother. The following weekend we ran into him at the track. We said hello and he remembered our names. I am still impressed by that.
Thanks to Toddy Ruttman for her help with this story.