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A LEGENDARY REUNION : If It's May at Indy, Then Jim Hurtubise Can't Be Too Far Away

May 26, 1985|TRACY DODDS | Times Staff Writer

INDIANAPOLIS — Jim Hurtubise is a living legend at the old Brickyard, a race track that is itself a living legend.

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway has its own museum, for heaven's sake. Year round, race fans wearing vulgar T-shirts and black-and-white-checked caps pay to walk through and stand next to the old-time race cars and watch films about the old-time riding mechanics.

Race fans, who on weekdays wear pinstriped suits, also pay to spend the Memorial Day weekend at the Indianapolis 500 with Hurtubise.

Really. That's one of the ways he pays his bills, now that he's not racing anymore--or even entering cars in the Indy 500.

He fishes in his shirt pocket and comes up with a business card. It says: MONKEY BUSINESS A Division of Jim Hurtubise Enterprises.

"I'm the head monkey," he says with an impish grin.

Hurtubise holds the card in one of the hands that plays a major role in his legend.

Racing has taken its toll on his hands. Sure, he has other scars that make him recognizable as a driver. There are burn scars on his face--the end of his nose has been burned away, leaving nothing but skimpy skin grafts.

But on the racing circuit, they tell tales about his hands.

Fire in the cockpit has left him with hands that are most often described as claws.

Actually, his hands are still hands, but the fingers seem to be melted together at odd angles. One finger is gone and some of the others have been joined together by skin grafts. The multicolored skin is smooth and shiny, and because there is no way to tell where some parts of fingers started out to be, it seems that fingernails grow where they will. And they grow hard and gnarled like claws.

It is true, as they say, that the fingers are permanently set in a gripping pose. They say he told the doctors to mold them so that they could hold a steering wheel, a beer can and a screw driver, in that order.

Grinning that devilish grin, Hurtubise shoots down that popular tale.

"No, no," he says. "The doctors told me that they were going to have to pin them in place, and they asked me how I wanted them pinned. I told them to make them so that I could hold a beer can, that's all. But I knew that if I could hold a beer can, I could hold a steering wheel."

The lively, light blue eyes watch for the response. He's good at this storytelling. It's his business, remember? But he's usually holding a can of beer when he tells the story.

Ask around Gasoline Alley for Hurtubise, and everyone has seen him recently--at least in the last day or so at some little bar or other. Nobody knows for sure where he's staying, but a couple of guys left him late last night in the lounge at the Speedway Motor Inn.

No doubt he's at the track on this last day of practice, but he kind of floats around now that he has no garage to call his own. An old-timer in the Bettenhausen garage says he passed through less than an hour ago and will probably be back before the day is out. He suggests looking in the Miller beer hospitality room.

A page gets no response, but the man at the microphone is sure he saw him just a few minutes ago.

Hurtubise is found, finally, having a late breakfast in the greasy spoon restaurant under the grandstand, between Gasoline Alley and the pits. Nothing posh about it, but it's the place to be because it's for drivers and officials only.

He's wearing a light blue cap with a Speedway insignia, and he is, of course, visiting with friends.

Always room for one more, especially if it's a reporter willing to listen to how the tire companies are ruining the sport of Indy car racing.

Twenty-five years ago, Jim Hurtubise was a rookie at Indy, a young hotshot who had been tearing up the dirt tracks in California.

He had broken into racing in stock cars around his home town of North Tonawanda, N.Y. But he headed west to run sprint cars in the California Racing Assn., and was having a big season in the International Motor Contest Assn., a Midwestern circuit, when he got his first chance in a championship car.

Johnny Thomson was injured just before the 1959 Hoosier Hundred at the Indiana state fairgrounds here, and Hurtubise was called upon to drive. He spun out in that race, but he won his second, at Sacramento, in October.

Still, his name meant very little at Indianapolis when he showed up here the next May. He was to drive a Watson, the same car in which Ed Elisian had been killed the year before in Milwaukee. But when Elisian was killed the car had been green, a color that every race driver knows is unlucky. Hurtubise painted the car purple and took off.

The brash young rookie with the crew cut went out on the second weekend of qualifying and set single- and four-lap records for the track, qualifying nearly three miles an hour faster than pole sitter Eddie Sachs.

Hurtubise was the first ever to reach 149 m.p.h. here, setting the four-lap record in qualifying at 149.056 and the single-lap record at 149.601.

Those qualifying records made him Rookie of the Year in 1960, a year of note for legends of the Indy 500.

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