HE Won The Indianapolis 500?!

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By Paul Dalbey

Note from George: Though he still hasn’t decided when to jump back into the IndyCar blogosphere, my good friend Paul Dalbey from More Front Wing still has things he wants to say regarding IndyCar and the Indianapolis 500 in particular. That’s a good thing because it gives me a break throughout the busy month of May. It’s a win-win for both of us. Paul and I see eye-to-eye on most things, but we had a major disagreement on one segment of his post that you will see below. But neither of us are thin-skinned, so we can handle disagreements and still remain friends. It’s a shame that everyone can’t handle differences in opinions without ruining a friendship. – GP

Over the course of 101 runnings of the Indianapolis 500, 767 drivers have qualified to start the great race (which doesn’t include another 50 or so who drove as relief drivers yet never qualified), but only 71 men have made the final left turn into victory lane (69 if you really want to be technical about it). Of those 71 drivers who have reached the pinnacle of motorsports, I’m willing to bet more than a solid handful are names that are not commonly known, let alone revered, by race fans today.

If I asked 100 people who consider themselves fans of IndyCar racing to name 10 Indianapolis 500 winners, I would venture to say the list of names would probably get to about 50 drivers and that even within those 50, we would see a very steep drop-off after about 30 well-known winners. Obviously everyone would put in names like AJ Foyt, Mario Andretti, and Rick Mears. All three of the winning Unsers would make the list, and recent victors such as Helio Castroneves, Dario Franchitti, and Dan Wheldon would no doubt find their way on. Even some of the older guys who were truly historic – names like Wilbur Shaw, Mauri Rose, and Bill Vukovich – would dot the names of a few ballots here and there.

But what about “the rest of the winners”? I realize not everyone can recite the winners all the way back to 1911, and the names of many drivers before World War II probably don’t resonate much with today’s casual IndyCar fan. But I want to introduce you to a few guys who, for at least one day, were on top of the racing world and whose face will forever adorn the Borg-Warner Trophy.

Dario Resta
You mean there was another Dario that won the Indianapolis 500? Well, actually… no. That’s right, Dario Resta never won the Indianapolis 500. Confused yet? By 1916, Carl Fisher and his Indianapolis Motor Speedway management cohort were having second thoughts and beginning to wonder if a 500-mile race might actually be too long to hold the public’s attention and whether a shorter race, starting a bit later in the afternoon, was a better option. In response, the “International 500-Mile Sweepstakes Race” (as it was officially known) was scheduled to run as only 300 miles in 1916, making Resta the only champion of the “Indianapolis Non-500.”

Dario Resta was born in Italy in 1882, but was actually raised in England from age 2. In 1915, he came to the United States and immediately won the 1915 United States Grand Prix in San Francisco and the Vanderbilt Cup in Santa Monica. After nearly winning but finishing runner-up in the 1915 Indianapolis 500 to Ralph dePalma, Resta claimed his career-defining victory one year later in the Memorial Day classic at Indianapolis.

After a brief period of semi-retirement after the 1919 season, Resta returned to racing in 1923. Unfortunately, like so many others of his generation, Resta lost his life in a racing accident. During an attempt for the land speed record at the Brooklands in 1924, Resta lost control when a security belt broke and punctured his tire. His car caught fire, and while his riding mechanic escaped less severe injuries, Resta succumbed to his injuries at age 42.

Fred Frame
The life of the 1932 Indianapolis 500 winner seems to be shrouded in mystery. He claimed to have been born in Exeter, New Hampshire, in 1894 though no such record of birth there exists for a Fred or Fredrick Frame. Research by a location journalist, however, suggests he was actually born Fredrick Colbath, the surname of his biological father and mother’s first husband. Frank Colbath passed away in 1904, and Fred’s mother, Isabella, soon married C. James Frame, who shortly thereafter moved the family to Pasadena, California. In a somewhat unusual occurrence, Fred actually took the surname of his step-father and forever became known as Fred Frame of Pasadena.

After being uninterested in formal schooling and spending time as a chauffeur in Southern California, Frame began racing on the local short tracks in 1922. Five year later, he made his debut on the big oval at Indianapolis, finishing 11th for George Fernic in 1927. A year later, he drove the 1927 Duesenberg that George Souders had taken to victory lane the year prior.

After missing the race in 1930 and a runner-up finish in 1931, Frame captured the big prize in 1932. Driving a Wetteroth/Miller for Harry Hartz, Frame led twice for 58 laps, include the final 48 circuits after taking the lead from then-winless Wilbur Shaw in a race that saw only 14 of 40 cars finish. That race became well known as the setting for the James Cagney film, The Crowd Roars, which was released later that year. Fred himself had a handful of spoken lines in the movie.

Three more races at Indianapolis yielded only one top-20 result, and Frame called it quits by 1939. A son, Bob, drove for some time but was fatally injured in a race in Owatonna, Minnesota in 1947.

While little is known about Fred Frame’s life prior to his racing career, just as little is known about his life after his career ended. When he passed away from a heart attack in 1962, the news did not even warrant an obituary in his hometown Exeter newspaper.

Kelly Petillo
I’ll be completely honest. Kelly Petillo was the last Indianapolis 500 champion I ever knew about. In fact, for many years, I had easily memorized all the winners back to about 1958, but even then I had at least known the names of all the pre-1958 winners, even if I couldn’t assign them to the correct years. All the winner’s names, that is, except Kelly Petillo. I don’t know when I first learned of Petillo, but it was a significant amount of time after I became somewhat of an Indianapolis 500 history buff. The more I learned about Kelly Petillo, the more I understood why Donald Davidson shies away from telling too many stories about him.

Kelly Petillo, born Cavino Michele Petillo, was actually an American born in Philadelphia, though his name would suggest he was Italian. A 2009 inductee of the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame, Petillo had unquestionable and undeniable skills behind the wheel, but living his life on his own terms led to a reputation for more incidents off the track than for winning the 1935 Indianapolis 500.

Though Petillo won the pole position in 1934 and finished 11th, he found himself on the outside looking in without a ride for 1935. Lucky for Petillo, his father was able to loan him enough money to purchase his own car and a new Offenhauser engine. Starting 22nd on race day, Petillo was able to find his way to the front of the field and take the checkered flag first, the inaugural win in what would become decades of dominance by the famed Offenhauser engine.

If only the story ended there, Petillo would probably have fallen even more into obscurity. Unfortunately, his story was really just beginning, and it wasn’t one to be proud of.

In 1941, Petillo was charged with assaulting a police officer at a night club he owned in Hollywood. Charges were eventually dropped, but it was only the beginning of his troubles. A year later, a well-intoxicated Petillo crashed into a train while driving. Another year later, his wife of 19 years divorced him on grounds of mental and physical abuse.

In 1945, Petillo was again arrested multiple times for charges of assault. The first offense was against a dancer at his night club who had different intentions than Kelly. The second arrest led to an indictment on charges of assault and intent to commit murder when he fired his rifle at a pair of US Marines who refused to leave his club. Still later in 1945, Petillo and a business associate were charged with attempted rape. Those charges, too, were eventually dropped when the alleged victim did not show up for court.

By 1948, Petillo had still not learned his lesson and attacked a female friend inside a room at the Hotel Roosevelt in Indianapolis. An arrest warrant was issued for Petillo, and after a 7-day manhunt, he was arrested in victory lane at Owosso Speedway in Michigan, having just won a 100-lap midget race.

Sentenced to 10 years in the Indiana State Prison, Petillo was paroled after 7 years a guest of the government. He immediately broke parole and was arrested again, this time at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1957, where upon he was immediately returned to the slammer to complete his prison term until 1959.

Upon his release from prison, Petillo attempted to enter the Indianapolis 500 in both 1959 and 1960. His entry, however, was denied by USAC on grounds of being too old. Petillo filed a lawsuit, but the suit was thrown out in court. He would pass away in 1970 from emphysema.

In 2011, while doing the Centennial Interview Series for More Front Wing, we had the opportunity to speak with Donald Davidson about some obscure winners that people might want to know more about. When I asked Mr. Davidson about Kelly Petillo, he politely declined and said he’d prefer to talk about people who had more positive contributions to Indianapolis 500 history. In the years since, I have heard Donald speak of Kelly Petillo, but such questioning usually draws the same ire as asking about Jim Hurtubise’s beer car and Bobby Unser’s controversial victory in 1981.

Lee Wallard
Lee Wallard was born in Schenectady, NY, in 1910. He began racing on the dirt tracks of the northeast, starting with the half-mile track at Altamont. He made his first championship start in nearby Syracuse in 1941.

A veteran of four Indianapolis 500-mile races, Wallard first qualified for the 1948 race, starting 28th (though having the fifth fastest qualifying effort) and finishing a very-respectable seventh. Better days were to come when Wallard led 19 laps in 1949 before mechanical difficulties relegated him to a disappointing 23rd place finish. Another fifth place start in 1950 yielded a sixth place finish.

Wallard’s greatest triumph came in 1951 when he started second and led 159 laps on his way to victory. Heavy attrition throughout the race led to only eight cars finishing. Wallard’s car, the #99 Belanger Special Kurtis-Kraft Offy, suffered a multitude of issues as well, including a broken exhaust pipe, a broken shock mount, and nearly complete brake failure, leading car builder Frank Kurtis to famously quip ,”I only build them to go 500 miles.”

Wallard himself wore what was believed to be one of the first fire-retardant driver’s suits. However, with no undergarments beneath his suit, Wallard suffered from severe chaffing during the race and had to be treated at the track hospital afterwards. He was also said to have lost 15 pounds during the running of the race.

In earning victory, Lee became the first driver to complete the 500 miles in under four hours, averaging 126.244 mph.

Unfortunately, Wallard’s Indianapolis 500 victory was the last taste of racing success he would enjoy. Just four days following his biggest win, Wallard suffered severe burns in a sprint car race in Reading, PA, requiring 27 skin grafts. He would attempt to race again but quickly realized he could not do so competitively and gave up the sport. After hanging up his helmet, Lee operated a restaurant in Guilderland, NY, for 11 years before passing away from a heart attack at his home in Tampa in 1963.

Postscript:
In the name of transparency, I must admit to some "behind the scenes" discussions that George and I had regarding this article. I had really hoped to include at least one driver from the last 50 years because it was simply too easy to pick four drivers from the early years of the race that people didn’t know well. For instance, I could have just as easily picked George Souders, Joe Boyer, Frank Lockhart, or pretty much any other driver from the 1920s or first half of the 1930s (perhaps excluding Louis Meyer). When I think over the past 50 years though, the name I probably consider the most obscure is Mark Donohue. George said I would get skewered for including him on the list.

It is not that I actually believe Donohue is an "obscure" driver or that he wasn’t an immense talent. I think, at least in my mind, he has the unfortunate distinction of having his win surrounded by extremely notable and legendary drivers. In fact, Donohue’s 1972 Indianapolis 500 was the only victory for a driver who would win only one 500 between 1966 and 1983, with the exception of Mario Andretti, who is, well… Mario Andretti.

Being the first Indianapolis 500 win for Roger Penske should be enough to make a name well known, but unfortunately, Mark came from a road racing background at a time when most of the legends of the sport were still coming from the American dirt tracks, so I don’t feel he got a lot of the recognition he probably deserved, even having been the 1969 Rookie of the Year. Again, I’m not in any way suggesting Mark’s accomplishments don’t warrant great accolades. I just feel he is overshadowed by other legendary names of that era and that many current, casual fans without a great knowledge and appreciation of Indianapolis 500 history are unlikely to know much about him beyond his name, if even that.

 

15 Responses to “HE Won The Indianapolis 500?!”

  1. BrandonWright77 Says:

    To point, just this week I read about Donahue being an Indy 500 winner and I don’t believe I was aware of that fact. I know who Donahue is, of course, and I knew he’d run in the 500 but didn’t know he won it. I see both sides of the argument though, and I enjoyed the list you did provide. Thanks for the article Paul, always good stuff.

    I just added “The Crowd Roars” to my Amazon cart too, love seeing old footage of The Speedway.

    • Frank Roales Says:

      The car that Fred Frame drove to victory in 32 is now in the speedway museum, but back in the very early 50’s it was stored in Vincennes Indiana where I lived. My father Ralph Roales was a long time friend and employee of Tony Hulman and he stored that car in one of our garages when it was a promotional car for Cooks Beer 500 Ale. Years before it went on to end up at the museum. As a kid I played in it and later I took a picture of me in the car to the museum and showed it to Donald Davidson and he let me recreate that picture by allowing me to again sit in it and get a new picture some 60 years later.

  2. Yannick Says:

    Thank you for putting some light n the lives and times of a few of the Indy 500 winners that are somewhatmore obscure than most today.
    From my distinctly European perspective on the sport, I must say that I agree with George that Mark Donohue is not obscure at all because his name and achievements are known here at least amongst F1 fans who have kind of inherited their fandom through their parents who have watched races trackside in the 70s.
    This way, I have been familiar with his name since childhood. He certainly belongs amongst the great winners of the 70s even though his life was tragically cut short.

  3. johnoreovicz Says:

    Mark Donohue as “obscure” is patently ridiculous, even when viewed with Indianapolis 500 tunnel vision. He was Rookie of the year, never qualified lower than 5th for five starts at IMS, on the front row for three of them, second place in ’70, dominated the first third of ’71, then won in ’72. Not to mention all of the road racing accomplishments in Trans-Am, Can-Am and even IROC.

    • Points all taken, but Paul makes it pretty clear that his argument is that Donohue is “obscure”, only when taken in reference to the drivers of his era who also won Indy 500s. Looking at the drivers who won 500s in the 10 years leading up to and 10 years after Donohue’s win (not that I have to tell you any of this, John, because I know you can recite this stuff chapter and verse waywayway better than I can, but it’s May, and I feel like indulging my own 500 nerd-dom for a few minutes over my coffee):

      1962 – Roger Ward (two time winner, two other top-3 finishes, two time USAC champ)

      1963 – Parnelli Jones (icon of the sport, owner of one of the best racing names of all time that cops are liable to still ask you if you think you are him when they catch you speeding)

      1964 – A.J. Foyt (’nuff said)

      1965 – Jim Clark (see Foyt)

      1966 – Graham Hill (see Foyt/Clark)

      1967 – Foyt again

      1968 – Bobby Unser (three time winner, etc.)

      1969 – Mario Andretti (Mario Freaking Andretti)

      1970 – Al Unser (four time winner, etc.)

      1971 – Big Al again

      1972 – Donohue

      1973 – Gordon Johncock (two time winner, four other top-5 finishes, 10 top-5 USAC championship finishes, including 1976 championship)

      1974 – Johnny Rutherford (three time winner, etc.)

      1975 – Uncle Bobby again

      1976 – JR again

      1977 – Foyt again

      1978 – Big Al again

      1979 – Rick Mears (needs no intro)

      1980 – JR again

      1981 – Uncle Bobby again

      1982 – Gordy again

      So, to Paul’s point, in that two decade span, the only three guys other than Donohue who only won the 500 one time also had World Driving Championships to their name. If you have to pick an “obscure” name that, say, my in-laws wouldn’t recognize (I’d say my own parents here, but they had to listen to me yammer about 500 history for four likely interminable years while I was in high school, so they’ve definitely heard all of these names) from the list of winners from 1962-1982, the only real one that you could pick as not being a “household name” would be Mark Donohue. So, while I agree with you that Donohue’s accomplishments rank him in the top-50 or so all time greats of the sport (easily, and I think you could argue even higher than that), I’d also say that he’s got less “general public name recognition” than the other guys listed up there.

      • billytheskink Says:

        Donohue is probably obscured (relatively, of course) a bit further by his tragic passing limiting the total number of starts that he made and also because he was never a full-time Championship Trail driver. Even the one-time winners after 1982 like Tom Sneva, Danny Sullivan, and Buddy Lazier seem notably more prominent than Donohue because all of them were in the 500 for a decade plus and all were championship-winning long-time series full timers with many other victories.

        While many of those who are dedicated fans of the 500 and the whole series do avidly follow the other forms of racing Donohue succeeded spectacularly in, they also tend to glom onto drivers who have had or intend to have long careers racing Indycars. Donohue, fairly or not, is obscured because his career was short and not focused entirely on Indycars.

        In fact, I would say that Donohue is one of the few 500 winners whose win seems to be celebrated as A great career accomplishment along with his others rather than THE greatest accomplishment of his career. A look at his Wikipedia page gives some insight into how he is viewed: “Donohue is probably best known as the driver of the 1500+ bhp “Can-Am Killer” Porsche 917-30 and as the winner of the Indianapolis 500 in 1972.”

        • These things are all quite true, Billy. I mean, anybody who’s even heard of “The Unfair Advantage”, let alone read it, probably understands that Donohue is an all-time great. But to the folks in the SE Vista who come out on Race Morning and pull names for their pool (and then don’t think about racing for the bulk of the next 364 days), he’d have had less name recognition than the others, simply because he started but three 500s before his win, and then just one more after. He’s gained in esteem among us nerds as time has gone on (being able to ask “what if he’d have lived longer?” and “what if he’d been able to concentrate on just one series for like three straight years?” will do that for a guy), but he never had the time to put up the gaudy stats that your average non-avid fan would be able to see and instantly understand “this guy is an all timer”.

    • I really don’t disagree with you at all, John, that Mark’s accomplishments stand on their own just fine and don’t need defended. My point was simply that if you recite the names of the last 50 Indianapolis 500 winners to Joey Six Pack this month at IMS, I think the name they are least likely to know would be Mark Donohue. He was undoubtedly an enormous talent, both at IMS and beyond. But for whatever reason – whether because he came from a road racing background or because he only raced once more in the 500 before he lost his life in 1975 – he just doesn’t have the name recognition that others have. Or perhaps put another way, if you listed 10 names – Mark Donohue and 9 other drivers who never won the race – how many people out of 100 do you think would select Donohue as the former winner?

      Like I said, I think this is a different conversation 25 years from now when some of the more recent names have fallen from the front of many people’s minds. But as of today, I think Donohue’s name, not his career but his name, is probably the least known of any winner in the past 50 years.

      • Your prime candidate here (and the poll results at the moment back this up) would be Buddy Rice: only won two more races in his career after his Indy win, finished 3rd in the championship in the year of his Indy win but then only every had one season better than 15th in points after that (which itself was only a 9th in points). As time goes on, it’s a “what the heck happened in 2004?!?!?” situation, but folks still probably know who he is, because it’s only been 7 years since he started a 500. In 30-40 years, most of this will be forgotten.

        • billytheskink Says:

          Buddy Rice is definitely a clear and obvious choice in today’s poll, he ‘s absolutely going to be a “HIM?” in the near future (especially since his win was rain-shortened), but I do feel for the guy a bit. I think he was, while not an all time great, a fair bit better than his results showed. He had the misfortune of coming into his prime just as a multi-year run of utter dominance by Penske-Ganassi-Andretti occurred and he never got to drive any of those cars.

          Rice contested 66 races against the Penske-Ganassi-Andretti juggernauts after that great 2004 season, and drivers not employed by those teams won only 7 of them (10.6%). Add Rice’s 2004 season into that and you get 82 races and 13 non-Penske-Ganassi-Andretti wins (15.8%), 3 of which belong to Rice.

        • And Buddy dominated the 500 in 2004. He won the pole and led by far the most laps. That was no fluke. He crashed in practice in 2005, sustained a concussion, missed that year’s race, and was never the same again.

  4. Paul Fitzgerald Says:

    Mark Donohue was never obscure and never will be. He should have won in 1971…he had the best car by far. George was correct. 🙂

  5. Ron Ford Says:

    No racing fan here in Wisconsin would ever consider Mark Donohue “obscure” in the context of a 500 winner or any other context. Lee Wallard lucked into driving the famous #99 Belanger Special that he won the 500 in. Tony Bettenhausen Sr. was supposed to drive it, but being his usual stubborn self, Tony got hung up on some issue, so the ride was assigned to Wallard.

  6. Recently I view Buddy Rice as an obscure winner as he really hasn’t ever been promoted as anything, even in the year or so after winning. Rice’s career was short. Yeah, I would take it in a heartbeat myself, but I have always felt for the guy, he won THE race.

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