Indy Racing History: Shaking Hands with the Miraculous Jim Hurtubise

Mike RoozenContributor IIApril 23, 2011

INDIANAPOLIS - OCTOBER 12:  33 of the greatest race cars that won the Indianapolis 500 lineup during a photo shoot at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on October 12, 2010 in Indianapolis, Indiana. Amongst the display are, Ray Harroun (Front Row-R) driving the Marmon 'Wasp', 2010 winner Dario Franchitti's (Front Row-C) Target Chip Ganassi Racing Dallara Honda, and A. J. Foyts (Front Row-L) 1961 Offenhauser 'roadster'.  The Indianapolis 500 is preparing for its 100th anniversary that is to take place on May 29, 2011.  (Photo by Ron Hoskins/Getty Images)
Ron Hoskins/Getty Images

I was 12 years old when I shook hands with the little-known '60s racing legend Jim Hurtubise.

I encountered him following the Rex May's Indy Car Classic, in the pits at the Milwaukee Mile, and for reasons both physical and profoundly motivational, it was a handshake I never forgot.

I had seen him almost die in a crash just two years earlier from a vantage point so close to the action that I wound up with a face-full of rubber dust.

A spectator, just a couple rows up and to my right, got gashed in the face and was streaming blood from between his fingers, due to being struck with a chunk of fiberglass Herk's air-born vehicle had peeled off the back of AJ Foyt's open wheeler.

Prior to the actual crash the best racing dual I'd ever seen or would see had unfolded before the unwavering awe struck gaze of myself and the two other guys I was with.

We had arrived early on race day and ran to get the seats we loved in the rickety wooden bleachers just above—and slightly past turn four—as it angled against the white concrete wall and bent into the main straight.

Back then everyone ran Miller-Offenhauser 4-bangers which hammered and echoed off the old concrete grandstands with deafening, chest thumping waves of sound that reverberated up the spine of anyone who was alive, for miles around the track, in the otherwise quiet little West Allis clapboard neighborhoods.

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We liked our seats in the fourth turn because you could look right down into the driver's cockpits and watch them wrestling with the big steering wheels as they came out of the turn with their right front tire lifting up off the pavement, and then dropping back down to the track, just in time to take the rocketing cigar-shaped cars out to the wall for the straight shot down to turn one.

In the early '60s, the vehicles being raced around the Milwaukee Mile were more like bucking broncos that had to be tamed in a wild west show, than the sleek high tech hummingbirds that whip past at today's events.

On that day, which proved to be so fateful for Jim Hurtubise, a young racer in a bright red Offy, three cars and three drivers began hanging together in the lead with just a foot or two separating their cars.

Roger Ward from Milwaukee was in the lead in the only rear engine car on the track.

Foyt held behind him, and in a close third, Hurtubise wrestled his racer's big steering wheel and blasted around again, and again, just a split second behind the other two.

I had been right down track-side a couple of times in fake trips to go to the restroom, so I could walk along the outside wall and feel those three go hammering by in the whipping, dusty hot summer wind and the earsplitting racket that enveloped their three cars and seemed to almost bind them into one.

For me, it was fortunate I returned to my seat before the gravitational bond holding the three of them broke, and hot flaming chaos erupted. 

I had a camera around my neck that day, but never even thought about raising it to my face during the critical moments, because that would have interrupted what I chose instead to record with my eyes and brain.

Coming out of turn four in the hot sun that sent visible heat waves rippling off the track below, the shimmering cars, two white and one red, suddenly ended their 140 mile-an-hour thunder-clapping ballet when Roger Ward in the lead car shot his hand straight up to indicate he had dropped his transmission and was violently slowing down.

Foyt jammed on his brakes hard and in time, but Hurtubise in the red tubular rocket with gold numbers went up the right back side of Foyt's car like it was a launching platform.

In an odd, airborne way, where we could see the underside of his car, Hurtubise 's vehicle launched up and then came back to earth just in time to slam full-on sideways into the concrete retaining wall below us.

With a concussive impact the race car rocked the stands and sent shrapnel flying into the face of the guy next to us.

The car ignited in a billowing, sickening, yellow and bright blue ball of exploding fuel that engulfed the driver who flopped around in the flaming cockpit like a rag-doll.

Jim spun and impacted the wall a couple of more times, writhing in the flames, until he came to rest at the start-finish line where pit crews inundated his car with mounds of white-yellow foam.

Jim's brother, working on his pit crew, ran in to it all and dragged Hurtubise out.

Cut to the pits, now two years later. 

Three twelve-year-old boys are making their way through the post race dust, haze and setting orange sunlight, to a small white mobile home trailer they know to be the whereabouts of Jim Hurtubise. 

We are going to see if we can get his autograph.

We are in disbelief that the man we saw crash and burn so horribly, is not only alive, but back in racing, and had just finished another Rex Mays Classic.

We he comes out of the trailer door, still dressed in his racing suit, you can see where the flames took all the flesh off his face, and left him with mostly scar tissue there, and only nostrils, no nose. 

I stick out my hand to shake his, and he extends an arm, again, mostly robbed of all except stretched, scarred skin and bone.

The hand he offers to shake is permanently fixed in a curved position and a normal shake isn't quite doable.  But I will never forget the vibrant energy that came out of his hand. 

It matched the gritty twinkle in his eyes, when he said simply, "Excuse the hand, I had the doctors set it that way so I could keep racing."

I reached out, and shook hands with a miracle...and a perfect role model for bringing the right attitude to any adversity.

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