Too Much, Too Soon

We’ve all seen countless examples of a young athlete scoring a huge payday; yet not being prepared to handle that wealth, as well as the fame that goes with it. The one and done concept in college basketball has seen multiple teenage athletes from deprived backgrounds, handed millions of dollars. More times than not, the money is squandered away about as fast as it hits their account.

Normally, the money doesn’t go toward investing for an early retirement or purchasing a sensible home for themselves or their parents. Instead, the newfound riches are spent on women, parties, expensive clothes, fine jewelry, high-end sports cars and multiple way over-the-top palaces in exotic locations.

AJ Foyt did not yield to temptation when he won his first Indianapolis 500 at the age of twenty-six. His most extravagant expense was to call the mortgage company that held the deed to his parent’s home and find out how much was owed. He used his earnings to pay off the loan on his parent’s house. I would like to think that if I had such a big payday when I was twenty-six, that I would do something as sensible and honorable. Chances are, however, I would have been a little more selfish and foolish.

Unfortunately, long before massive contracts were commonplace in pro-sports – the Indianapolis 500 had its own example of too much, too soon.

Troy Ruttman has been described as the most naturally talented race driver that ever lived. That doesn’t come from the motorsports journalists of the day; that comes from accomplished drivers like Parnelli Jones, Dan Gurney and Bobby Unser. Those three drivers and many more list Troy Ruttman as one of their racing idols, if not their only racing idol.

At the age of fifteen in 1945, he was winning jalopy races. At seventeen, he won the California Roadster Association (CRA) roadster championship, by winning nineteen of twenty-one races. At the age of nineteen, he was winning sprint car championships. He entered fifty-one AAA midget races, won sixteen of them and place second or third twenty-eight times.

Ruttman was very tall, good looing and looked much older than nineteen. With the help of his mother, Ruttman altered his birth certificate and claimed to be twenty-three, when he qualified for his first Indianapolis 500 in 1949, at the real age of nineteen. He started eighteenth and finished twelfth. He claimed to be twenty-three again in 1950, and finished fifteenth. He started sixth in 1951, but dropped out on Lap 78 with a bad bearing, relegating him to a twenty-third place finish. It was Ruttman’s first 500 to not finish.

It all came together in 1952 for the then-legitimate twenty-two year old. Ruttman qualified on the inside of the third row. He ran in the Top-Five for most of the day, and was running to second to Bill Vukovich in the Fuel Injection Special, late in the race. Vukovich had led 150 laps by Lap 191, but he would lead no more that day. His steering broke and he grazed up against the wall. Ruttman passed by the disabled car of Vukovich to take the checkered flag. Between Ruttman and Vukovich; they led 194 of the two hundred laps that day.

In winning in 1952, Troy Ruttman became the youngest winner of the Indianapolis 500, at the age of twenty-two years and eighty days – a record that still stands today, seventy years later this month. Marco Andretti came within two-hundred yards of beating that record in 2006. No one has threatened it since.

Ruttman was on top of the racing world. His age, talent, good looks and charm served him well as he was suddenly in-demand and on everyone’s guest list. During this time, Ruttman discovered how his newfound fame would lead to women throwing themselves at him. He also found delight in turning up a bottle and enjoyed all that life had to offer a twenty-two year old that had struck it rich. It was good to be Troy Ruttman, and he enjoyed every minute of it.

Fate can be cruel, however. Less than three months after winning the Indianapolis 500 at such a young age, Ruttman was involved in a serious sprint car accident, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa while driving the same car that Cecil Green had lost his life in at Winchester just a year earlier. His arm was horribly mangled and his shoulder suffered severe damage.

Ruttman would be out of racing for the remainder of the 1952 season and all of the 1953 season. He came back in 1954, but on a part-time basis. Ruttman was never the same. During his recuperation, he had begun to drink more and more to ease his physical pain, as well as his mental anguish while he could not drive. Soon, his money that he had foolishly wasted in the summer of ’52 had dried up and vanished. Predictably, the women and so-called friends vanished shortly thereafter.

Ruttman returned to Indianapolis in 1954. and had a good showing – a fourth, behind Vukovich, Jimmy Bryan and Jack McGrath. But that was as good as it would ever get again for Ruttman. He ran some USAC stock car races in the late fifties. He ran in the Race of Two Worlds at Monza in 1957 and 1958, and even ran in the 1958 French Grand Prix.

Ruttman’s last Indianapolis 500 was in 1964 – fifteen years after qualifying as a nineteen year-old. But he only had two starts between his fourth-place finish in 1954 and 1960. He ran at Trenton following Indianapolis. He was entered in the August race at Milwaukee, but withdrew – effectively bringing the Champ Car career of Troy Ruttman to a very quiet and uneventful close, at the age of thirty-four.

Parnelli Jones tells of when he won the Indianapolis 500, eleven years after Ruttman’s win, how Ruttman advised Jones to find someone to help him manage his money, because he had no one to advise him. By this time, most of Ruttman’s money was gone and his career was almost over. Jones was twenty-nine at the time. He apparently listened to Ruttman’s advice, because Jones has done very well in the business world.

In the old video series The Indy 500: A race for Heroes that are all over You Tube these days, there is one on Troy Ruttman. In the video, it features Ruttman himself saying that he was not mature enough to handle everything that comes with being an Indianapolis 500 champion. He, himself, said it was too much, too soon. The fame and the money were way more than he could handle at the young age of twenty-two. At that time, there were few cautionary tales in sports about athletes who had squandered a big payday. At twenty-two, he was simply not equipped to handle what all came his way.

From what I can tell, Troy Ruttman was able to salvage what he could financially and lead a fairly productive business life after racing. But he also suffered from the aftermath of his injury, which led to other personal problems later in life.

It’s a shame, because from all accounts – Troy Ruttman was a great guy. To this day, those that knew him speak highly of Troy Ruttman, the driver; as well as Troy Ruttman, the man. Many of you know his daughter, Toddy Ruttman. I had the pleasure of meeting her on a practice day at IMS several years ago through a mutual friend; which I’m sure was much more memorable for me, than it was for her. If she and her father have the same personality, than those that speak so highly of Troy Ruttman are probably correct.

Troy Ruttman passed away on May 19, 1997 at the age of sixty-seven; just a month before his hometown of Mooreland, Oklahoma was to celebrate Troy Ruttman Day. His record of being the youngest to ever win the Indianapolis 500 still stands, seventy years after his win. Personally, I hope it is never broken.

George Phillips

4 Responses to “Too Much, Too Soon”

  1. I met Troy at a meet and greet when i was in high school. It must have been around 1963 or 64. He was great to me and my brother and remembered our names when we saw him at the track the next weekend.

  2. Great post, thanks George.

  3. so far this year, this post is in pole position.
    it will take a supreme effort to surpass it.

  4. Rick Johnson Says:

    You’ve inspired me to pull “California Gold,” Bob Gates’ book on Troy Ruttman off my shelf and give it a read. Good blog, George.

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