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FLAMBOYANT FIGURE : Auto Racing World Will Miss Fun-Loving Driver Jim Hurtubise

January 10, 1989|MIKE KUPPER | Times Assistant Sports Editor

No one ever called Jim Hurtubise stubborn, simply because that normally adequate word did not begin to describe the extent of his obstinacy.

Give up driving, just because a fiery crash had left him with a nose like a falcon's beak, hands like talons and a body so covered with skin grafts that ordinary sweating was impossible?

Don't be silly.

Switch to a rear-engine car, just because the rest of the racing world had shown it to be superior?

Ridiculous.

Give up battling the Establishment, even after faded stardom had reduced a roar to a whine?

Absurd.

You get in the car and you go as fast as you can. And you say what's on your mind. And you do things the way you do things, because that's the right way. And when the racing and the hollering and arguing are over, you go out and have a beer.

That was Jim Hurtubise, and it probably will be some time before the world sees one like him again.

Hurtubise died over the weekend in Port Arthur, Tex., his hometown for the last several years, after suffering a heart attack. He was 56. That also was the number he put on his race cars.

"He was a tremendous talent," said Parnelli Jones, winner of the 1963 Indianapolis 500. "He was in the same category as A.J. (Foyt, a 4-time Indy winner)."

Rodger Ward, a 2-time Indy winner, remembered his talent, too.

"He could be awfully good," Ward said. "Sometimes he got to going a little faster than he knew what to do with, but he had his moments of glory."

Indeed, when Hurtubise hit the Indianapolis Speedway as a rookie in 1960--a sprint car hotshot who had driven all of 2 Indy car races--he stood the old track on its ear, setting a qualifying record and nearly breaking the then-magic 150-m.p.h. barrier. His 4-lap qualifying speed of 149.056 and his single-lap mark of 149.601 stamped him as a star in the making.

But Hurtubise never won the 500. And he never reached the stardom that had been so widely predicted.

On a hot June day in 1964 in Milwaukee, barely a week after Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald had been burned to death in a flaming crash at Indianapolis, Hurtubise, too, was burned. He didn't die in that crash, but his career did.

It was the 52nd lap of a 100-lap race on the Milwaukee mile. Ward, Foyt and Hurtubise, running 1-2-3, so close together that they might have been in a single car, came roaring out of the northwest turn, heading for the main straightaway.

Suddenly, Ward's lead car experienced a transmission problem and he raised his hand to warn the others that he had lost power. Foyt braked hard and squeezed around him, and Hurtubise nearly got clear, too.

But not quite.

The left front wheel on his car rode up on the right rear of Foyt's and Hurtubise suddenly was airborne.

"I just looked up and there he was, going over the top of me," said Foyt, who later won the race.

Hurtubise's car hit the outside retaining wall, burst into a ball of fire, then rolled down to the top of the main straightaway, where track firefighters quickly put out the fire.

Even so, Hurtubise was injured badly, suffering second- and third-degree burns on his face, neck, hands, arms, legs and back, as well as a punctured lung and three broken ribs. Almost 50% of his body had been seared by the flames.

"I had the fuel tank in the wrong place," Hurtubise said, years later. "The fuel tank was in the front, so when I hit the wall, it broke and fuel went all over me. In those days, nobody wore the (fire retardant) underwear or gloves. If I had had gloves on, I could have saved my hands."

After initial treatment in Milwaukee, Hurtubise was flown to the burn center at the Brooke Army Hospital at San Antonio, Tex., where he underwent nearly 3 months of rehabilitation and massive skin grafts. Before the grafts could begin, though, the dead skin had to be dealt with. Sitting in a special whirlpool that loosened it and pulled it away from his body, Hurtubise sang "You Are My Sunshine" as loud as he could, to keep from screaming in pain.

There never was any question in his mind about the future, though. He was a racer and racers race.

His badly burned hands had to be fixed in a permanently curved position, the better to fit a steering wheel, the story went.

Not so, Hurtubise later said.

"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 could hold a beer can, I could hold a steering wheel."

In any event, Hurtubise was back at the race track, watching a stock car race from the pits in Milwaukee, before the season was over. And by the next March, he was driving again, finishing fourth in the 1965 season Indy car opener at Phoenix.

He drove in 14 Indy car races that year, including the 500, won a race on the United States Auto Club's stock car circuit and finished fourth in the standings. Often, however, he tired in the late stages of a race because he couldn't perspire properly.

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