Vukovich: The Man Who Wouldn’t Lift

  • Indianapolis 500
  • Angelo Angelopolous' manuscript on the hard life and tragic death of race driver Bill Vukovich will finally reach book form. And it only took 65 years to get it done.
    Angelopolous, who would get my vote for the best sportswriter ever to work in Indianapolis, wrote what he intended to become a book on Vukovich in the late 1950s. He had a contract with an Indianapolis firm, Bobbs Merrill, but for unknown reasons it was never published.
    After Angelopolous died in 1962 from leukemia (a story in itself), his nephew, Pete Kirles, kept the typewritten manuscript in a closet for decades. It was incomplete, with handwritten edits, some of them illegible. It passed through several sets of hands over the years, but nobody wanted to take on the challenge of converting it to an actual book.
    Until now.
    I got hold of the manuscript last spring and thought it was worth publishing - for Angelo's sake and Vukovich's as well. It took longer than I anticipated, as I rearranged some chapters, considered Angelo's edits (rejecting some of them) and brought it up to date.
    I preserved Angelo's writing style as best I could, however, and believe he would be pleased with the final product. He and Vukovich were close friends and readers will be privy to their conversations in the Speedway garages and in restaurants. Angelo clearly worked with Vukovich's wife, Esther, on the project as it contains information only she could have given him.
    (If I had to guess why the manuscript was not published as planned, it would be a conflict between Angelopolous and Esther over content. But that's just a guess.)
    I wrote a 21-page prologue to tell Angelo's story and a 27-page epilogue to bring the Vukovich family story up to date. Both are compelling. The epilogue includes an account of the radio broadcast of the 1955 race leading up to the fatal accident.
    Angelo was a Navy pilot in WWII and flew over the bombing sites in Japan near the end of the war. He contracted leukemia in 1955 from the radiation he absorbed and died at age 43 in 1962 after an award-winning writing career in which he contributed frequently to national publications. He was incredibly popular beyond his professional talent, a humble, handsome and classy man who was married to a local model.
    As one of his colleagues, Indianapolis News photographer Bob Doeppers, once said, "He never met anybody who forgot about meeting him."
    Vukovich was quite the opposite, a rough-around-the-edges sort who grew up poor, but he was popular for his honest and aggressive nature. The book's subtitle, "The Man Who Wouldn't Lift," refers to his ability to stay on the throttle longer in the turns than the other drivers. His son and grandson also raced in the "500." Vukovich Jr. suffered from dementia late in life and died last summer. Vukovich III was killed in a sprint car practice lap accident in 1990.
    Two lives filled with triumph and tragedy.
    A few other details:
    * Vukovich had the "500" won in 1952 but a steering wheel cotter pin broke with eight laps remaining, costing him the victory
    * He won the race easily in 1953 and '54.
    * He was leading the race in '55 but was swept up in a backstretch accident and killed. Without any good luck, just the absence of terrible or tragic luck, he would have won four in a row (at least).
    * Angelo also covered the local professional basketball teams and was among the media supporters of the Attucks state championship teams.
    * Angelo accepted his fate gracefully, continuing to write as a freelancer and for the News until six weeks before he passed.
    * Arlington High School once had a sportsmanship award in his name, although he had attended Manual (and Butler). That's how popular he was.
    The hardcover book is listed on Amazon and is available in the Indianapolis area at Kirles Jewelers at 86th and Ditch Road; all Barnes and Noble outlets; and Three Sisters and a Trunk on Main St. in Speedway. My publishing arm, Halfcourt Press, also can fill orders for $26, including shipping, at PO Box 346, Fishers, 46038. 
    The hardcover book is about 230 pages with several photographs that I purchased or were loaned to me. The first edition is nearly sold out. If you are unable to purchase one, please be patient. More are on the way.
    The book has received a tremendous amount of favorable publicity. It has been reviewed in racing newsletters. I have participated in four or five radio interviews and two Indianapolis television stations have aired feature stories on it and the house where Vukovich and his wife, Esther, stayed while in Indianapolis. It also was featured in a Page One article in the Indianapolis Star, which also was published in newspapers in South Bend and Bloomington.
    Here is the feature that aired on WRTV-Channel 6, courtesy of Brad Brown:
    Here is the Indianapolis Star's story:

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