Famous For The Wrong Reasons

geothumbnail
Many times, whether it’s in sports or any other way of life, people get an unintentional label that overshadows their actual accomplishments in their chosen profession. OJ Simpson was one of the best running backs I ever saw. But lately, he’s been known much more for things he did off of the field. OK, that may be an extreme example.

Here’s one that is a little more what I’m talking about. Joe Walsh is an outstanding guitarist for The Eagles. But people may know him more for his reputation for trashing hotel rooms than his unique ability to play a guitar.

Racing is no different – especially under the public microscope at the Indianapolis 500. Great drivers with a long list of accomplishments finally arrived at Indianapolis; only to be remembered much more for one or more regrettable incidents than for the driving resume that got them there in the first place. It’s unfortunate that their infamy is much more memorable than their fame. That’s how fate is sometimes.

Here are just a few examples that I came up with, where a driver is known for something he or she would rather forget – than for something they could brag about:

Jim Hurtubise: If you ever want to get under Donald Davidson’s skin, call in and ask him about some story you had heard of that involved Jim Hurtubise (Herk) waiting in the qualifying line. It was 1972. When he reached the head of the line, they removed the car’s engine cover. In the area where an engine would normally be, were several iced-down cases of Miller High Life beer. While one version of that story actually happened, it has grown to have so many variations, it is hard to know fact from fiction.

Another story involving Hurtubise that has more truth behind it, took place in 1978 – also during qualifying. It was the fourth and last day of qualifying and it had been raining. As the track was drying, Herk tried to put his front-engine Mallard in line, but the officials turned him away. Apparently, Hurtubise did not get the memo regarding a minimum speed in practice to be eligible for qualifying. In a mock protest, he got into Bob Harkey’s car at the front of the line and refused to get out – much to the delight of the crowd who was looking for anything to cheer for.

But when the track dried and Harkey went out on his qualifying run – Hurtubise ran out onto the track to interrupt qualifying. Suddenly, the fans turned on Herk and started booing him. He was tackled by security, escorted from the premises and banned from the track for the remainder of the month.

By then, no one was taking Jim Hurtubise serious as a racer. To them and the generation that has followed, Hurtubise was nothing more than a clown that trotted out his old front-engine roadster once a year to make a half-hearted attempt each year; or had beer under the hood of his car or ran around making a fool of himself while trying to disrupt qualifying. This was the only Jim Hurtubise that many people knew.

It’s a shame, because in the early sixties – Jim Hurtubise was the man. As a rookie in 1960, Hurtubise was the fastest qualifier but started twenty-third because he was not a first-day qualifier. Not only was he the fastest, he broke the track record and bested the pole speed by three and a half miles an hour. Herk flirted with the 150 mph mark with a four-lap qualifying average of 149.05.

While Hurtubise never finished higher than thirteenth in his ten Indianapolis 500 starts, he was a very talented and gutsy driver who kept his foot into it and always put on a show.

He was also tough. Hurtubise was badly burned in a fiery crash at Milwaukee in 1964. The doctors could set his hands in one position, but there would not be much movement beyond that original position. He asked that his hands be set in a position to grip the steering wheel. His first race back from his recovery was a 1965 stock car race at Atlanta. He won.

It’s a shame that such a fast and fierce driver that was such a fan favorite in the early sixties, would eventually be known as the clown that no one took seriously. Nowadays, people know Jim Hurtubise as a novelty act. They are forgetting that at one time, he was one of the most respected drivers in the Indianapolis 500. Jim Hurtubise died of a heart attack in 1989 at the age of 56 – his car number.

Jack Turner: The first person to become a two-time National Midget champion was Jack Turner, when he won the championship in 1954 and 1955. He also drove AAA and USAC Champ Cars from 1955 through 1962 with thirty-one total starts. In those thirty-one starts, he had two Top-Fives and seven more Top-Tens. His best finish came at Darlington in 1956, when he finished second.

While his Champ Car career was not spectacular, his midget career was. He was inducted into the National Midget Racing Hall of Fame inaugural class in 1984

Yet, he is not known for his solid finishes in the big cars or for his two midget championships. Instead, if you’ve ever heard of Jack Turner, it was because he managed to flip his car upside down in three consecutive years on the main straightaway of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In 1961, Turner got caught up in the Don Davis accident, did a spectacular barrel roll a couple of times and landed right-side up.

He broke his pelvis in another inverted crash in the 1962 race and then in practice for the 1963 race, Turner suffered a crushed vertebra in another horrifying crash. At that point, he decided he had had enough.

Years later, Turner would express frustration that no one remembered his Champ Car career or his midget championships. All he was to most people was a punch-line about flipping three consecutive years down the front stretch. Turner passed away in 2004.

Joe Leonard: When you mention Joe Leonard’s name, most people know him for one thing – putting the wedge-shaped turbine-powered Lotus 56 on the pole for the 1968 Indianapolis 500. They also remember him “flaming-out” the turbine on a restart while leading on Lap 191, which is not something anyone would be particularly happy to have on their resume – even though Leonard did nothing to cause the flame-out.

What most people don’t know is that Joe Leonard won the USAC National Championship in 1971 and 1972, while driving for Parnelli Jones. The 1972 season was particularly impressive due to the fact that he was on what was considered to be one of the first super teams. He was teamed with Al Unser and Mario Andretti, who combined to win the three previous Indianapolis 500s. But Leonard beat both of the more proven stars on the team for his second consecutive championship.

But Joe Leonard was a champion motorcycle rider also. He won the AMA Grand National Championship series three times in 1954, 1956 and 1957. Leonard and John Surtees are the only people I know of to win major championships on two wheels and four.

So the next time you see the No.60 wedge turbine at a vintage race; remember that Joe Leonard was much more than someone who came close to winning the Indianapolis 500 in 1968.

Joe Leonard passed away last year on April 27, 2017 at the age of 84.

Kevin Cogan:  Thirty-six years later, it’s still funny – hearing AJ Foyt blaming the aborted start to the 1982 Indianapolis 500 on Kevin Coo-gan. To be fair to AJ and everyone else that watched the disastrous start that saw Kevin Cogan start from the middle of the front row, alongside pole-sitter and teammate Rick Mears and AJ Foyt on the outside; thought that Cogan was at fault as well. Just before crossing the yard of bricks on the start; Cogan suddenly darted to the right, bounced off Foyt and went directly into Mario Andretti who had moved up from inside Row Two. Cogan, Andreti, Roger Mears and Dale Whittington were eliminated in the crash.

While Foyt’s comments on network television were funny, Mario Andretti and others had much more pointed comments towards Cogan’s driving abilities that had little humor attached to them. To rub salt in the wounds, Cogan’s team (Team Penske) did nothing to defend Cogan. According to Donald Davidson, the team sort of left him to twist in the wind. It was later determined that most likely, Cogan broke a half-shaft and the same thing would have happened to anyone. In fact, later on – the exact same thing happened to Rick Mears leaving the pits in a test at Michigan later that year.

In a very odd move for Roger Penske, Cogan was released at the end of the season after only one season with The Captain. The way that they failed to come to Cogan’s defense and let him go at the end of the season, you can’t help but wonder if there were major personality issues at play.

Cogan’s career did not fully recover. He drove for six teams over the next four seasons. He did have one good year in 1986 with Patrick Racing. He won the season-opener at Phoenix and arguably should have won the Indianapolis 500, had it not been for a slightly questionable yellow on Lap 195 while Cogan was leading. That set up the famous restart that saw Bobby Rahal pass him and go on to the victory, while Cogan finished second.

After 1987, Cogan changed teams again. In 1988 and 1989, he drove for the Machinists Union with very pedestrian results but a frightening crash during the 1988 Indianapolis 500. 1989 was his last year to drive fulltime. Cogan had another bad crash in the 1991 Indianapolis 500 that left him hospitalized for an extended amount of time. His last ride was in a part-time third car with Rick Galles.

Early on, Cogan was labeled as the next great driver. Why else would Roger Penske hire him after only one year in CART? But the 1982 Indianapolis 500 had lasting results on his career, and not in a good way. If it was a half-shaft that sent Kevin Cogan veering into Foyt, it’s very unfortunate that his career was tainted forever for something not of his own making. Kevin Cogan currently lives in California and is now 62 years-old.

Roberto Guerrero: It’s hard to think of the 1992 Indianapolis 500 without remembering that the pole-sitter crashed on the Parade Lap. It was Roberto Guerrero. It’s also hard to think of the 1987 Indianapolis 500 without remembering that the driver that was leading the race in the late stages, stalled in the pits on Lap 182 – giving the lead to eventual winner Al Unser. It was Roberto Guerrero.

While the crash in 1992 was an unforced error, the 1987 late race mishap was not really Guerrero’s fault. On Lap 130 of the 1987 race, Tony Bettenhausen lost a wheel in Turn Three. As the wheel rolled through the short-chute, Guerrero came upon it suddenly and struck it with the nose of his car. The errant wheel flew over the catch-fence and struck and fatally injured a spectator sitting in the top row of the north stands. Striking the tire obviously damaged the nose of Guerrero’s car. What was not obvious at the time was that the clutch slave cylinder that was located inside the nose of the car, also sustained damage. The damage became apparent late in the race when Guerrero made his pit stop. It was the damaged clutch that caused the car to stall, not a mistake by Guerrero.

The 1992 issue cannot be explained away. It was simply a driver error that we would see all day. I was there that cold blustery day. The temperature was 50°, but with the stiff wind and cloudy day – it felt much colder than that. The tires didn’t like the cold temperatures either. Guerrero was just the first of many to suffer the effects of cold tires.

As the field was on the Parade Lap on the backstretch; Guerrero punched the throttle slightly, which was common practice to warm up the rear tires. Unfortunately, there was nothing common about the ambient temperatures. Without notice the car veered suddenly to the left and into the inside retaining wall, bending the rear suspension. Guerrero’s day was over before it had even started.

People in the stands were laughing that the pole-sitter and current track-record holder could allow such a thing to happen. Twenty-six years later, it is still a curious footnote to the 1992 Indianapolis 500 and to Guerrero’s legacy.

Spinning out on the Parade Lap and stalling in the pits while leading are the two things that define Roberto Guerrero’s career to most people. But there is so much more to the mild-mannered Colombian.

Roberto Guerrero came to Indianapolis by way of Formula One. He had twenty-nine F1 starts before coming over to CART in 1984, where he won Co-Rookie of the Year (Michael Andretti) at the Indianapolis 500 and was the sole ROY recipient for the entire CART season. He also finished second in his first Indianapolis 500. In fact, from 1984 through 1987 – Guerrero’s finishes in his first four “500s” were second, third, fourth and second.

1987 was a pivotal year for Guerrero. He won at Phoenix, finished second at Indianapolis after his clutch issues, then won again at Mid-Ohio. Just a few days after his win at Mid-Ohio, Guerrero had a serious crash while testing at IMS. He was in a coma for seventeen days and missed the rest of the season.

Guerrero returned for the season-opener at Phoenix in 1988 and finished second. But that was the only bright spot in an otherwise dismal season. Guerrero’s fortunes took a turn for the worse as he went through several dismal seasons and partial seasons. His pole position at Indianapolis for Kenny Bernstein’s King Racing in 1992 led to his first fulltime ride in three seasons for 1993, but Guerrero was released before season’s end.

Guerrero extended his career in the early days of the IRL, but success was hard to come by. He had a handful of Top-Five finishes from 1996 through 2000. He attempted to qualify for the 2001 Indianapolis 500, but did not make the field.

Looking back, you can pretty well pinpoint where Roberto Guerrero’s career turned – the testing crash in 1987. Whether or not there were lingering effects from that crash, we’ll never know. But you can look at the results before and after his injury and you can see a distinct difference.

I met Roberto Guerrero one time – the morning of Pole Day in 1993. My first wife and I were in the garage area and she tackled him for a photo as he entered the gates. He was very nice and accommodating. From what I’ve heard from others, I would expect nothing less. People say you would not meet a nicer driver in the paddock than Roberto Guerrero. In the competitive world of racing, he is a genuinely good guy. It’s a shame that his star-crossed career is mostly remembered for the race he was to start on pole, but never made it to the starting line. Roberto Guerrero is now 59 years-old. Last year, he drove in the Vintage race at IMS in June. He and his wife Katie currently live in California.

There are many more drivers I could come up with – some going back to the early days of the Indianapolis 500 – that are known for one or two bad moments, usually not of their own doing; when they otherwise had a very good career. I started to put Emerson Fittipaldi on this list because he infuriated everyone when he refused to drink the milk after his second Indianapolis 500 win in 1993; so much so that in many eyes – he is remembered more for that than he is his Indianapolis 500 wins and his CART and Formula One championships. Years later, the hatred still lingers. When he was introduced as the Pace Car driver on the morning of the 2008 race, he was ceremoniously booed.

Why was Fittipaldi not on this list? Because he planned ahead of time that he would drink orange juice if he won. It was his choice, and one planned in advance. Those on this list didn’t plan what happened to them. They just happened spontaneously. That wasn’t the case with Fittipaldi. He deserves any backlash he gets. Fans don’t forget when you stomp on traditions.

George Phillips

8 Responses to “Famous For The Wrong Reasons”

  1. Hi George. Herk wasn’t tackled by “security,” he was tackled by John Martin, a driver in line behind him. Martin was a guest in March at our Race Chasers of Indiana Luncheon #61. He told us that after he cussed out Herk a police officer asked Martin if “this guy’s making trouble,” and when Martin said yes the officer calmly walked over to Herk and MACED him! THAT is why Herk went flailing around out on the track and had to be tackled by Martin.

    As for Cogan, in AJ Foyt’s “autobiography” AJ calls BS on the half shaft story. “Half shaft my ass,” is what Foyt says, and he explains Mears brought the field to the green too slowly, and when Coogan’s turbocharger kicked in it got away from him. Foyt said if he had had older compound tires on his car we would’ve seen the smoke from his tires lighting up and spinning. A broken half shaft doesn’t make the rear wheels spin like that.

    By the way, our next Race Chasers of Indiana Luncheon is May 15 at the MCL Cafeteria on Crawfordsville Rd and our guest speaker will be Johnny Rutherford! If you’d like to attend, you can RSVP to me at pkaiser14@hotmail.com.

  2. BrandonWright77 Says:

    Great stuff! And great follow up by Phil. Can’t wait for more articles like this, love learning the little-known history tidbits from The Speedway.

  3. billytheskink Says:

    This is an interesting topic, George. I was especially intrigued by Turner, whose career outside of Indianapolis I was not very familiar with. One might add Jigger Sirois and Stan Fox to this list, a couple of other midget car hall of famers who are better known for their unfortunate moments at IMS. I am sure there are others.

    • Personally, I intend to get famous for all the wrong reasons someday by calling into Donald Davidson’s show and asking if there’s any truth to the rumor that Andy Granatelli was originally planning on hiring Jim Hurtubise and Jigger Sirois to drive the turbines in 1968, but that the deal fell apart when Herk realized that he’d never be able to keep beers cold inside the car (what with all of the heat from the engine), and Jigger only wanted to drive the car on days when there was rain forecasted in the afternoon hours.

      Thanks, Donald. I’ll hang up and take my answer off the air.

  4. ed emmitt Says:

    i was at that Milwaukee race in 64, lap after lap Foyt, Ward, and Herk were running nose to tail. We all were on the edge of our seats knowing something was going to happen.

  5. Bob Butler Says:

    I’d have to list Little Al for dropping his girlfriend on the shoulder of 465 in the middle of the night.

  6. Mark J Wick Says:

    I remember Jim Hurtubise most for the interview he granted to me as a rookie sports reporter in 1972. We spoke a bit just outside the door of his garage in Gasoline Alley before I was comfortable enough to ask him why he continued to race after suffering his burns. I will never forget the lessen he taught me with his answer. He said, “I could get hurt or killed doing lots of things I don’t like, like working in a factory. I enjoy racing.”
    Since that day, I have not done anything I didn’t like doing for very long. Life is to be enjoyed, even if it sometimes hurts.

  7. Thanks for sharing, Mark. A good life lesson for all of us.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: