Famed IndyCar racer Bill Vukovich II, whose father and son both died while racing, dead at age 79

 August 22, 2023

Bill Vukovich II, a 12-time Indy 500 starter and the middle of three generations of Indy car racing legends, passed away on Sunday at the age of 79, according to Speed Sport.

His father, Bill Vukovich, died in 1955 during a fiery crash while leading the Indy 500, and his son, Billy Vukovich III, perished in an accident in 1990 while racing in California.

Famed racer dead

The Indianapolis Star reported that Bill Vukovich II raced for 18 years in the USAC Championship and IndyCar series between 1965-1983, during which he started 12 Indy 500s, was named Rookie of the Year in 1968, and had his best finish in second place in 1973.

He earned nearly two dozen victories on the USAC Midget circuit and was honored in 1998 by being enshrined in the National Midget Auto Racing Hall of Fame -- an honor his father had also received.

Unfortunately, the fame of the legendary racing family -- the Vukovich's are one of just five families in which three generations have raced in the Indy 500 -- is marred with tragedy.

Father killed while leading 1955 Indy 500

The Star noted that Vukovich II was just 11 when his father died in a terrible crash while seeking his third victory at the prestigious Indy 500 in 1955 but became ensnared in a four-car accident and ended up in a fiery wreck outside of the actual track.

According to a Sports Illustrated report at that time, the crash was due largely to drivers pushing their vehicles to perform beyond the limits of their equipment and the track, which led to driver Roger Ward flipping his car twice while coming out of a turn, and though he landed upright, he caused two other drivers, John Boyd and Al Keller, to swerve and collide in their efforts to avoid Ward's dramatically slower car.

Vukovich also swerved toward the outside of the track to avoid Boyd and Keller, but "His car bumped Boyd's, struck the heavy wooden beams of the outside guard rail, straddled the rail, then went end over end, striking a passenger car, a truck and a jeep. Instantly the wreckage burst into flames, trapping the luckless Vukovich before anyone could get to him."

Son killed in 1990 racing accident

As for Vukovich III, a 1990 report from The Washington Post shared how he had died at age 27 after slamming into a retaining wall while finishing up his practice laps ahead of a sprint-car race at the Mesa Marin Speedway in California.

"Basically he went into the turn, took his foot off the gas and went to hit the brakes to slow the car down," Frank Lewis, president of the California Racing Association, said at that time. "The car locked up and he went straight into the wall. He hit his head against the wall and that's what killed him."

Vukovich III had raced in a handful of IndyCar series races, including three Indy 500s, and had been honored as Rookie of the Year in 1988.

No question about the dangers of the sport

According to the Indy Star, Vukovich II was under no illusions about how dangerous the sport of auto racing is, and spoke of how "intimidating" it is in a 1991 interview following his retirement, when he said, "We can hurt ourselves and we know we can hurt ourselves. I have heard some (drivers) say, 'I am not afraid,' but those people are liars. The fear is there."

With regard to his son dying while following in his footsteps as an IndyCar racer, the father revealed that he was never able to watch his son race, and explained, "When (the race) was over I had to ask someone: 'How did my son do?' I did not like watching him race. I have seen a lot of people in his sport hurt and killed. Jesus, I prayed for that boy every time he raced."

Had his son not perished in that 1990 sprint-car race, he likely would have had an even better career than his predecessors, as Vukovich II added in that interview, "He would have surpassed me, oh absolutely. He was better, smarter, and what I was truly proud of was this: He loved life. My son liked people."

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