The Day The Pole Was Stolen

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On Wednesday, I referenced a good way to get under Donald Davidson’s skin. Here’s another – call in and ask if Jigger Sirois would have been on the pole in 1969, had his crew not waved off his qualifying attempt before completing the fourth lap. Since it started raining moments after the aborted attempt, some speculate that Sirois would have remained on the pole. Donald Davidson disputes that, thinking that his time would have eventually been bumped.

As it turned out, Jigger Sirois never qualified for the 1969 Indianapolis 500 or any other Indianapolis 500. He was destined to become a trivial footnote in Indianapolis 500 history and a cringe-worthy question for Donald Davidson each May.

1969 was not the only time something like that came close to happening. In fact, a very similar situation actually played out in 1955 – yet no one talks about it. Is it because it is so long ago that few remember it? As old as I am, the 1955 pole story took place three years before even I was born.

Pole Day 1955 was a windy blustery day and under the constant threat of rain. Conditions were terrible. The forecast for Sunday was much better. Although the track was open for qualifications all day, there was an unofficial agreement amongst the drivers that they would all sit out Saturday without making an attempt, then they would all go for the pole together the next day under much more favorable conditions.

The problem with unofficial agreements is that not everyone is privy to the agreement. Such was the case with Jerry Hoyt, a twenty-six year old driver from Chicago who had three previous Indianapolis 500 starts to his credit. His best finish came in his rookie year of 1951, when he finished twenty-first. He had missed the race in 1952, but returned in 1953 and 1954 to finish twenty-third and twenty-sixth respectively. It was probably safe to say that Jerry Hoyt was not one of the early favorites entering the Month of May in 1955.

As most of the drivers were content to sit in their respective garages on Pole Day and wait until 6:00 officially came and went – Jerry Hoyt spent the afternoon with his crew getting his car ready to qualify. At around 5:40, Hoyt presented his Stevens chassis for qualifications. When the other drivers heard Hoyt’s car on track, they rushed out to see who had breached the gentleman’s agreement to not make any attempts that day.

Hoyt’s four-lap average was a very unremarkable 140.05 mph.

One of the shrewdest moves of the day came from Tony Bettenhausen. Although he was very aware of the unofficial agreement, Bettenhausen left his car positioned in the pits instead of back in the garages – just in case someone broke the agreement. When Bettenhausen heard Hoyt’s car take to the track, he wisely climbed into his car and got ready to run.

Bettenhausen had two quick laps that would have easily put him on the pole. But on his third lap, he was slowed by a huge gust of wind that made him barely able to keep the car on-track. The result was a four-lap average speed of 139.98 mph, just a tick slower than Hoyt.

In the waning moments, other drivers scrambled to get their cars out to the line. Pat O’Connor and Sam Hanks made last-minute attempts, but their speeds were not good and they waved off their attempts.

When the gun sounded at 6:00, there were only two qualified cars – Tony Bettenhausen on the middle of the front row, and Jerry Hoyt on the pole. While there were two cars in the field, there were a lot of disgruntled drivers in the garages. But Hoyt did not try to pull a fast one. He was simply unaware of the plan. When qualifying was over, the pole-winning car of Jerry Hoyt was only the tenth-fastest overall, but still the pole-sitter. The fastest car in the field on Race Day belonged to Jack McGrath, who qualified at 142.58 mph but started on the outside of the front row as a second-day qualifier.

Hoyt’s success did not carry over to Race Day. An oil leak put Hoyt out of the race on Lap 40, leaving him with a thirty-first place finish.

Unfortunately, it did not end well for Hoyt after the 1955 Indianapolis 500. He was fatally injured in a sprint car race in Oklahoma City, just six weeks after starting on the pole at Indianapolis and only two weeks after marrying his young bride. He is buried in Crown Hill Cemetary in Indianapolis.

The Talk of Gasoline Alley starts this Monday May 7. If you want to please Donald Davidson, instead of asking the same old Jigger Sirois questions he gets every year – ask him about Jerry Hoyt winning the pole in 1955.

George Phillips

11 Responses to “The Day The Pole Was Stolen”

  1. BrandonWright77 Says:

    Great story, I’d love to know where you find this stuff!

  2. So you’re writing about the pole and I’m writing about the last row. Love the complementary juxtaposition

  3. James T Suel Says:

    I was only 5 years old, but my father followed racing. I used to set and listen to him about Indy and dream of going to see the big cars! Got to to the 500 in 1960 and have not missed once yet! Great story.

    • Ron Ford Says:

      Dick Trickle and Richie Bickle were popular short track drivers here in Wisconsin back in the day. Dick’s name was the subject of much amusement amongst the prostate affected crowd.

      • Ron Ford Says:

        Oops. This was supposed to go with Billy’s post. Regarding your post, I always like to see someone mention the “big cars”. My dad starting taking me to races in the 40’s and 50’s at the Milwaukee Mile. At that time there was a midget track in the infield. But I always liked to hear my dad say: “We’re going to see the “big cars”. (That was right after Indy)

  4. billytheskink Says:

    As a kid reading about the 500, I always noted that Hoyt’s last name rhymed with Foyt. That isn’t really relevant to anything here and they are not especially relevant to each other, but the two are still linked in my mind because of that.

    Kinda like Dick Trickle and Rich Bickle, or Gordon Johncock and Ronnie Johncox, or even Dennis Firestone and Scott Goodyear.

    • Back when I was in college (which was when he was consistently running a NASCAR Truck for Darrell Waltrip, I used to amuse myself by taking Rich Bickle’s name and swapping the “B” and “R” sounds when I said it out loud.

      Oh, who am I kidding? I still do that now.

  5. Gurney Eagle Says:

    My father told me this story when I was a boy during a rain delay on a qualifying day many years ago. Something like this won’t happen again in my lifetime.

  6. Mark J Wick Says:

    My first time at qualifications was the day of that aborted run by Jigger. We were seated in the front row early in turn one with a view right down the front stretch and all the way into the South short chute.

  7. Yannick Says:

    You don’t need to look as far back for qualifying controversies at the front end of the grid: when the new qualifying format was introduced in 2015, 3 cars qualified on Saturday, only to have their times disallowed: Ryan Hunter-Reay on provisional Pole, Carlos Huertas on provisional P2 ans Scott Dixon on provisional P3.

  8. I do wait to see what stories you present in May. I am always learning new things and hearing more about drivers who are just names to me. Thanks George.

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