An Oversight That Needs Correcting

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On Monday, Robin Miller wrote a very interesting article on Racer.com about an oversight that I didn’t even know existed. He was speaking of the IMS Hall of Fame and how a select few have been consistently been omitted over the years. I recommend that you read his article, because he makes some very good points.

The IMS Hall of Fame, founded in 1952, is permanently enshrined at the IMS Museum to honor and celebrate individuals for their contributions to motorsports, with emphasis on achievement at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway

I’ll admit, I don’t pay a whole lot of attention to the IMS Hall of Fame and who is in it. There are so many racing and motorsports themed Halls of Fame out there, it’s hard to keep track of who is in which one. Sometimes, I’ll see that a certain person will be inducted into the IMS Hall of Fame and I’ll be surprised that they weren’t already in. For example, I would have thought that Donald Davidson would have been inducted long before 2010. I was also surprised to learn that Wilbur Shaw was not inducted until 1963 – eleven years after the Hall was founded and nine years after his death.

If you scroll through the list of the 156 inductees, you’ll not see many, if any, names that do not belong. You may see some names that you don’t recognize, but once you read the details of their accomplishments you’ll most likely agree that they belong.

This year’s nominees for induction are Janet Guthrie, the first woman to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 in 1977; veteran radio and television broadcaster Paul Page; and 2003 Indianapolis 500 winner Gil de Ferran. Without question, I think that Guthrie and Page both belong in the IMS Hall of Fame – but I’m not so sure about de Ferran.

Don’t get me wrong – I’ve always been a big fan of de Ferran. When he was driving, he was one of my favorite drivers. I liked his understated demeanor out of the car and his fierce determination behind the wheel. But does his record warrant Hall of Fame status? He had two CART championships and one Indianapolis 500 win. Due to The Split, he drove in only four Indianapolis 500s. Excluding his rookie year in 1995, when he finished twenty-ninth after getting caught up in the Stan Fox crash on the start – de Ferran’s other three finishes were second, tenth and first. That sounds fairly impressive, but he was with Marlboro Team Penske going up against teams like Cahill Racing, TeamXtreme and Indy Regency Racing. Not to take away from de Ferran’s accomplishments, but that was at a time when the field was just not very deep.

But this isn’t about who is in or might get in. Getting back to Robin Miller’s article, this is about who has been curiously omitted. Miller’s article focused on four: driver Jim Hurtubise, car co-owners Paul Newman and Carl Haas and car-builder Bill Finley. At the risk of sounding like I’m trying to glom onto Miller’s topic, I want to focus on just one of those – Jim Hurtubise.

Robin Miller and I share an admiration for Hurtubise, whom I have always found fascinating.

Hurtubise was an Indianapolis 500 rookie in 1960. He was also the fastest qualifier and just barely missed the 150 mph-barrier with an average qualifying speed of 149.056 mph, but was not a first day qualifier and started twenty-third. To put that speed in perspective, Pole-sitter Eddie Sachs had the second-fastest average qualifying speed at 146.592 mph. Hurtubise fell out of that race on Lap 185 with engine problems and finished eighteenth – but he immediately established himself as a fan favorite.

In 1963, he teamed up with another fan favorite – the Novi engine. His good friend, Parnelli Jones, started on the pole and Hurtubise was right next to him in the middle of the front row. After lagging behind when the green flag flew, Hurtubise caught Jones on the backstretch and the powerful Novi pulled him into the lead. Jones passed him on Lap Two, but Hurtubise took the lead going into Turn One at the start of Lap Three, but Parnelli got by him again just before Bobby Unser crashed and brought out the caution. When the race resumed, Hurtubise was never able to mount a charge. Hurtubise fell out of the race on Lap 102 with an oil leak, while Parnelli Jones went on to win the race (also experiencing an oil leak during the race, but that’s another story).

By 1967, everyone had made the switch to rear-engine cars – everyone except Hurtubise, that is. He had actually driven a rear-engine car in 1966 and finished seventeenth, but he still fully believed in the front-engine car. He built his "Mallard" for the 1967 race, but failed to qualify. He returned in 1968 with a refined version. It was a much more streamlined version of the traditional roadster and also much lighter. Hurtubise truly believed he could put the Mallard on the front row. We now know that the front row of 1968 featured two Lotus 56 turbines and eventual winner Bobby Unser. Joe Leonard’s pole speed in the turbine was 171.559 mph. Hurtubise qualified his Mallard on the last row with an average speed of 162.191 mph and lasted only eight laps before burning a piston. It was the last time a front-engine car would ever appear in the Indianapolis 500.

It’s not certain when Hurtubise went from fully believing in the capabilities of the roadster to campaigning it as a novelty act. He continued to try and qualify in the Mallard through 1971, but failed to qualify. In 1972, Hurtubise qualified a rear-engine Coyote, failed to qualify in a rear-engine Lola in 1973, qualified a rear-engine McLaren in 1974 and failed to make the race in a rear-engine Eagle in 1975.

As it turns out, 1974 would be the last time Hurtubise would drive in the Indianapolis 500. By 1976, he was making half-hearted attempts to put the Mallard into the field. Longtime fans still loved to see the Mallard try to get up to speed, but some fans were growing tired of the act.

In 1978, things came to a head as USAC passed a rule aimed at Hurtubise to have cars practice at a "reasonable" speed before being allowed to make a qualifying attempt. To shorten the story up, Hurtubise protested this rule by running onto the track while Bob Harkey was making a qualifying run. He was tackled and escorted off the track by police and was banned from the track for the remainder of the month. He made a few more attempts in later years, but was never taken seriously again. He was last entered in the 1981 race and died of a heart attack in 1989.

Unless they know their history, younger fans of today have either never heard of Jim Hurtubise or they remember him as the clown of the seventies that always brought out the roadster for a laugh, held up qualifying and had to be hauled out of the place. They do not know him as the gritty and determined racer from the sixties that suffered near fatal burns in a crash in Milwaukee and came back to win a stock car race at Atlanta just few months later.

Miller explains that his antics that day in 1978 will prevent him from ever getting into the IMS Hall of Fame. Seriously?

I think his driving accomplishments and comeback from injury is enough to warrant enshrinement, but I also think he should be recognized as a car builder and designer for squeezing over 162 mph out of an antiquated roadster in 1968. People always talk of innovation – that’s innovative.

In my opinion, Jim Hurtubise did a lot for racing, and not because of his half-hearted attempts to run the Mallard. He had tremendous success in sprint cars and stock cars and was always fast at Indianapolis. Did he win? No. Did he have a Top-Ten finish? No. But if that’s your criteria, then bad-guy Kelly Pitillo or Eddie Cheever should be in and former groundskeepers and timing & scoring experts should be excluded. I don’t condone what Hurtubise did that day in 1978, but should that cost him a spot in the Hall of Fame?

Halls of Fame in various sports have long been known for hypocrisy and politics. Just this week with the Houston Astros baseball scandal, many have questioned if Pete Rose has been punished enough. I think Pete Rose is a slime ball of a human being, but he was a heck of a baseball player and I think he deserves to be in the baseball Hall of Fame. By all accounts, Jim Hurtubise was a nice fun-loving guy. In a ten-minute fit of rage that I’m sure he wanted back immediately, he rubbed the powers-that-be the wrong way and has paid the price ever since, even more than thirty years after his death. Some year, I would like to see this intentional oversight corrected.

George Phillips

4 Responses to “An Oversight That Needs Correcting”

  1. Mike Thomsen Says:

    Just to clarfiy, Gil de Ferran, Janet Guthrie and Paul Page are this year’s NEW nominees, they are not the ONLY nominees.

    There are 14 nominees in total to choose from.

  2. Bruce Waine Says:

    John Cooper Fitch.

    Recognize the name?

    John is perhaps one of the more notable racing figures of the 1950’s

    But there is ,more, he was not only an American racing driver but also an inventor whose work we see almost daily when traveling the interstates.

    It almost was fitting that John was born in Indianapolis, Indiana August 4, 1917 – just a few years following the first Indy 500. John passed away in 2012 with his memorial service held in the Church on the knoll across from the Lime Rock Park race course that he designed and helped to build.

    According to research, John’s first passion was for airplanes. Following the break out of WWII, John volunteered as a pilot in the United States Army Air Corp flying in North Africa and then England. Captain John Fitch was a P-51 Mustang pilot and was shot down “while making an ill-advised third strafing pass on an axis train and spent the rest of the war as a prisoner of war.

    Following his release as a POW and returning home, he opened an MG car dealership and began racing. His talent was spotted by Briggs Cunningham. Encouraged by Cunningham, John began the 1951 race season in Argentina in his Allard-Cadillac winning the Gran Premio de Eva Duarte Peron.

    With Cunningham’s financial backing , John drove numerous Cunningham racers and other cars at numerous venues such as 1951 Le Mans, Sebring, Bridgehampton, Watkins Glen, Nürburgring Monza , Mille Miglia and Bonneville Salt Flats to name a few.

    John went on to become a very successful Mercedes factory driver under Mercedes Team manager Alfred Neubauer.

    In 1953 John’s teammates on the Daimler-Benz AG sports car team were Juan Fangio, Karl Kling, and Stirling Moss….

    Later in the 1950’s John Fitch designed a race course in an area that was used as a gravel borrow area and became known as Lime Rock Park allowing spectators to sit of various hillside areas to view the racing. To this day there are no bleacher seats which still allow for great family race spectating. John continued to be involved in the Lime Rock track.

    John could always be relied upon to be present at most race events held at Lime Rock since he live just a few miles from his beloved track. You knew John was there if you first spotted his Fitch Phoenix car that he designed and had built.

    A side of John, as with many drivers was safety. John designed many safety features that we all have benefitted from. Most notably the Fitch (usually yellow) barriers that dot the highways to name one safety feature of his design.

    John returned to competition at 87 years old in 2003 and 2005 when he teamed up with a fifty years old Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR, owned by Bob Sima, at the Bonneville Salt flats “in an attempt to break the land speed record for the class, a novel venue for both car and the driver. The attempt failed due to the fuel injection pump which limited John’s the top speed to only 150 mph.”

    However, it was noted that John did set a speed record – for driving backwards, reaching 60 mph, set at Lime Rock Park.

    John passed away on October 31, 2012 at his home in Salisbury, Connecticut a few miles distance from his beloved Lime Rock Park.

    Over fifteen years ago, I made a suggestion to Lime Rock Park that a race corner might be named for John Fitch.

    To date no corner has been named memorializing John Fitch’s legacy be in racing or highway safety, or as a POW.

    The spark still is glowing within me for this cause which I hope to someday see implemented.

    Such a hero should not continue to be forgotten.

    Robin Miller’s mention of Jim Hurtubise and Jim’s not already being in the IMS Hall of Fame rekindled my crusade for John Fitch and Lime Rock Park.

    Thank you Jim and John.

  3. Maybe some high ranking official confirmed to Robin Miller that Hurtubise is blackballed from the hall of fame. But I got the impression that is only Robin’s opinion. If that’s the case I’m not sure I agree. How many on the current committee were even around in 1978? Hurtubise certainly provided a few thrilling moments, but he never won or even finished in the top ten. I would like to see him in the hall of fame but his merit is a matter of opinion.I was lucky enough to get a couple opportunities to have a beer with Herk. The fans loved him and he loved us in return.

  4. George, I agree with you abut Herk and Pete Rose. I had the opportunity to spend a bit of time with, and interview both, as well as see them in action.
    Jim holds a special place in my life as I learned a very valuable lesson from him that has influence me greatly from that day forward.
    My rookie year at IMS, covering the race, was 1972. I was still a student at Indiana University, majoring in journalism, and working as a sports writer for the Indiana Daily Student.
    I photo I took of him getting out of his roadster was the first of thousands of photos I have had published, but it was an interview with him, standing in the door of his Gasoline Alley garage, that has stayed with me.
    I asked him about several aspects of racing, and about the 500, before I felt I could asking him about his burns. Specifically, I asked him why, after the suffering as he healed, and the scars and difficulties using what was left of his fingers, he still raced.
    He looked me right in the eyes and said, “I could get hurt or killed working in a factory, or at any other job I don’t like, but I love racing.”
    I was in college being trained to be an employee. None of my jobs lasted long, but I had a long, successful career as a self-employed photographer. Jim Hurtubise changed my life with that interview.

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