not forgotten . . .

Billy Vukovich III

Fresno, CA
31.Aug.1963 - 25.Nov.1990

Quote from Billy Vukovich III:

"I know I'm alot luckier than most kids my age, because I've never wondered or worried about what I'd do with my life. I already know exactly what I want to do for the rest of my life. From as far back as I can remember, I've always wanted to drive race cars. It's in my blood - it's what I love to do."

Billy will always remain one of my very favorite racing personalities!

As an avid Indy car and automobile racing enthusiast (SCCA licensed) I expressed my passion for the sport as a professional photographer operating under the business name of “FAST (Fresno Auto Sports Track) Publications”. I was official track photographer of Madera and Hanford speedways including freelance for Mesa Marin. It was at Madera speedway were I met Billy III and his father Bill II. This was back in the day when Everett Edlund, Johnny Brazil, Al Pombo, Anthony Simone, Wally Pankrast, Davey Hamilton, The Carrot King, Paul Durant, etc. were racing. Prior to Madera Speedway I had photographed Indy cars, Sport Cars, Formula One, Trans Am, and IMSA primarily at Laguna Seca and Long beach.

Ironically, my father Don Thurber (Korean War Vet) went to Roosevelt High and grew up around the corner from Bill Vukovich Senior in Fresno. My dad told me stories of Bill Senior taking hot laps around the block in his midget to shake it out for the infamous Kearney Bowl. He too was a avid Vukovich fan with many fond memories of growing up with the Vukovich’s.

Billy III was a kind and very driven young man. He was always polite and respectful to others. I did a lot of photography work for Billy (and sponsors) during his Super Modified era. Bill and his girlfriend would occasionally come to my house in Fresno and sort through my photographs to find the perfect shot. I have hundreds of archived pictures of him.

When I heard the news I was in disbelief. My first response, literally, was “there must be a mix up, this can’t be true”. I was in shock. I saw this tribute to Billy and wanted to express my feelings. I publically express my sorrow to family and friends. He was everything a Mother & Father could be proud of. I started thinking about him like I always do during the Indy 500 and wanted to express to the entire Vukovich family my love and respect. God bless you.
  . . . written by

A very popular race driver. In 1988, he became the first and only third generation driver to earn a start in the Indianapolis 500. He also earned Rookie-of-the-Year honors that same year.
Bill Vukovich III was killed at Mesa Marin Raceway 1/2-mile banked oval in Bakersfield, CA. Vukovich was driving a California Racing Association (now SCRA) sprint car during one of the association's rare asphalt programs. He crashed hard into the turn 3 wall during practice and the car came to a stop in turn 4. Vukovich died of massive head injuries at Kern Medical Center in Bakersfield, CA (depending on accounts he was pronounced dead either on arrival or a few hours later). The CRA main event that night was won by a young driver named Jeff Gordon, who went on to NASCAR fame.
The driver's grandfather, Bill Vukovich, won the Indy 500 in 1953 and 1954 and was killed while leading The 1955 race. At the time of his death Bill Vukovich III was living in Bakersfield.
  . . . from

(August, 1989)
This is your first trip to Oswego. Do you know much about it?
I've heard about it alot, but I've never been there. Linda Holdeman decided to do it and wanted to have an East Coast-West Coast match race. She got me a ride in the Ed Bellinger second car for the regular main event.

How are you approaching the East vs. West confrontation?
Well, everyone back there says they're faster and it's the same way out here. I really don't think it will prove anything. Our cars are so much lighter than the East Coast supers. We run small blocks and there is a major difference. If I don't win then the people out there are going to say the East Coast cars are faster, but the same thing might happen if they come out West. I know the Prickett car which I'm driving is a fast machine.

With USAC dropping the super-modified division does it affect you?
I quit racing supers regularly in 1988.

What are you doing this year?
I wanted to run Indy cars, but I haven't' picked up a sponsor. It's hard to get the dollars. This is the mid-year time for racing and you just have to find a ride race-to-race for $30,000 to $40,000 per show.

You have the talent, ability, experience and were named Rookie of the Year at Indy. However, that doesn't get you a ride does it?
No, money is the key.

You were named Rookie of the Year in the '88 race. What did that mean to you?
Well, my father did it in '68 and I did it 20 years later. It was a neat thing. It was a goal. I had hoped it might open some doors, but I realize it takes money.

Seeing as you're coming to Oswego for the first time how are you approaching it as a driver?
It will be difficult as I won't be there until Saturday. There will be no practice for me. I'll be at Michigan trying to get a ride for the Indy show there on Sunday.

Do you know much about the drivers at Oswego?
Well, I know Bentley Warren as I raced against him at Phoenix in the Copper World.

What has been your background in racing?
I ran the midgets when I first started, but went to the supermodifieds as they run pavement. You don't run Indy by running the dirt sprints anymore. I ran supermodifieds and won the '86-87 championship. In '88 I was not running in all the shows.

Have you owned your own cars?
No, I've always driven for somebody else because I can't afford to own one.

You're going to Michigan without a regular ride in an Indy car. How do you go about finding one?
You call people before hand and see if they need a driver. You have to know what's going on in racing, make some calls and see what happens. I have a couple of things possibily going for Michigan.

Why did you elect to run the Indy car circuit and not the Winston Cup?
I've probably been around this type of racing since I was four and five years old and I wanted to race at Indy. I guess it was just something in the family.

What has been the biggest thrill of your career?
Winning the Rookie of the Year at Indy last season was my greatest thrill, but the USAC supermodified championship where we won 12 of 17 races is also a major accomplishment.

Last year what else did you do in the Indy ranks?
I ran at Pocono, Phoenix, and Michigan. The best finish I had was ninth at Pocono.

Does the fact that your name is Vukovich put any pressure on you?
It's helped me more than its hurt, but I don't feel any pressure whatsoever. I do the best I can and it wouldn't matter if my name was Smith or Jones.

You live in Fresno, California and that isn't exactly in the middle of all the Indy car racing is it?
There's not much here and I commute regularly to Indianapolis. I'm a race driver for a living, for now. This year all I've done is Indy and a few super races, but not really all that much.

You've raced at Indy and what does it feel like to drive there?
It's the goal of any driver to run at Indy and it's awesome. It's a biggest race in the world and the grandstands are packed. It's a tremendous thrill. I dreamed of doing it. It was a big dream of mine as my grandfather and father raced there. It was a dream come true.

When I've watched the Indy cars from the in-car camera I've gotten the feeling you're sitting right out there with no protection around you. Do you ever feel vulnerable?
You don't think about it. When you're out there running you don't really think of the danger.

Do you feel the speed?
You know you're going fast. When you're in control you actually think the car is going slower, but when there is a problem the car feels like it's going a million miles an hour. But, you definitely know you're going fast.

Turning back to Oswego, you don't do many of these special shows. What sort of adjustment will it be to run without a wing (in the regular show)?
This is the first time I've done one of these appearances. There will be a little bit of adjustment, but I ran without the wing at Phoenix once. I also ran a spring race without it. It will be a little bit slower and you have to get off the throttle a little bit sooner. It will be an adjustment for me.

What about some sort of national series for the supers?
A national series would be a neat deal, but with the cars in the East and West so far apart travel would be a problem. You would have to get the cars fairly even, but it would be good nationally. Our cars out West are lighter than yours. You run steel engines in the East and we run aluminum. Also East cars run big nerfbars and we use the smaller ones that do the job. The big deal would be the big block vs. small blocks. I like the small blocks because they have so much less weight.
On Aug. 6, 1989, a special winged East-West supermodified match was held. The Clyde Pricket crew hauled in from the west coast with Billy Vukovich 111 as the driver.

wish I knew what they were saying...

L to R, Vukovich, Bellinger, Gioia, and Warren pose before a special four car match race.

This was the first time a wing appeared on an Oswego super since 1962.
finish - Ben, Vukie, Eddie and Steve
. . . images from "The First 50 years" book by George Caruso, Jr.

  Billy Vukovich III links
  • Yosemite High School dedication
  • please links, stories or images so we can all remember Billy Vukovich III.

  • 3 starts in the Indy 500 (1988,89,90) best finish, 12th in 1989
  • Rookie of the Year for the 1988 Indy 500 (finished 14th)
  • West Coast (WSSRL) Supermodified Champion in 1986 and 1987
  • 1986 West Coast Harvest Classic winner
  • 1987 West Coast (re-named?) Vukovich Classic winner

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