Bill Vukovich III, grandson of a two-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 and himself the only third-generation Indy 500 driver, was killed Sunday while practicing for a California Racing Assn. sprint car race at Mesa Marin Raceway in Bakersfield.
Vukovich, 27, was warming up the car before time trials when he crashed in the third turn of the high-banked half-mile oval.
"It appeared that when he hit the brakes, the car went straight into the wall," said Frank Lewis, CRA president. "He hit the wall head on. The car was damaged so badly we may never know what happened."
Vukovich, who lived in Coarsegold, Calif., near Fresno, was not a regular CRA driver, but he had entered the Mesa Marin race because it was a track on which he had won several races.
He drove in the last three Indy 500s. In 1988, he finished 14th and was named rookie of the year, an honor his father, Bill Jr., won in 1968. Bill Vukovich III finished 12th in 1989 and 24th last May.
His grandfather, Bill, won the 1953 and 1954 Indy 500s and was leading in 1955 when he was killed in a multi-car accident. Last Thursday night at Ascot Park, Bill Vukovich III accepted a plaque honoring his grandfather as a new inductee in the Midget Racing Hall of Fame.
"I never knew my grandfather. I was born eight years after he was killed, but I am proud to be mentioned with him," he said at the ceremony.
Bill Vukovich Jr. drove in 12 Indianapolis 500s before retiring in 1980. He finished second in 1973.
In 1987 Vukovich III won the United States Auto Club supermodified championship when he won 12 of 17 races. He had one string of seven consecutive victories to equal a longtime USAC record held by A. J. Foyt.
Vukovich began his racing career in 1982 when he was 18, after graduating from Yosemite High in Oakhurst. He drove midgets and sprint cars and was named rookie of the year in the Valley Midget Racing Assn.
"My dad never wanted me to race. Neither did my mom," he said in a 1984 interview. "My dad told me my chances of going to Indy were a million to one."
Winning the USAC supermodified championship caught the eye of the Gohr racing team of Indianapolis, and Vukovich was offered a ride in the 1988 Indy 500 and three other Indy car races.
"I would rather have seen Billy get into some other line of work, but as long as he's here, I'll do whatever I can to help him," his father said in 1988. "But every time I see him on the track it gives me goose bumps."
Bill Vukovich Jr. and his wife, Joyce, live in Indianapolis.
Jeff Gordon, who won the USAC midget racing championship with a fourth-place finish Saturday night at Imperial Raceway in El Centro, won the CRA race at Mesa Marin. Jimmy Sills was second, followed by Rip Williams and Ron Shuman.
This was the first fatality involving a driver at Mesa Marin since the track opened in 1977, according to Marion Collins, the track owner. A crewman was killed in a pit accident in 1978.