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Glory Came Fast, Didn't Last : Troy Ruttman Won the Indy 500 in 1952, but a Broken Arm Then Broke His Spirit

May 17, 1992|SHAV GLICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Winning the Indianapolis 500 should be the pinnacle of every race driver's career.

For Troy Ruttman, though, it might have been the worst thing that could have happened to him. He was barely 22, a brash, cocky kid from Southern California's hot rod circuit when he took the checkered flag in 1952--the youngest winner in the history of the 500, which goes back to 1911.

Friday night, along with the late Bill Holland, Ruttman was inducted into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame on the 40th anniversary of his stunning victory.

He is 62 now, but acquaintances say he looks better today--a trim 230 pounds distributed over his 6-foot-3 frame--than he did in 1952 when he weighed "about 265" the day he drove the Agajanian Special to victory at a then-record average speed of 128.922 m.p.h.

It's the years in between, most of them at least, that he would like to forget. Race historian Terry Reed calls Ruttman "arguably the most gifted motor racing talent that the country has seen." The word unfulfilled would seem to fit in there somewhere.

A month after winning at Indy, Ruttman won a 200-mile race at Raleigh, N.C. He never won another Indy car race.

What happened?

"Too much, too soon," Ruttman said matter-of-factly. "That, and breaking my arm in that sprint car race, did me in."

Shortly after the Raleigh 200, Ruttman was driving a sprint car at Cedar Rapids, Iowa, for the late J.C. Agajanian, who gave him his winning ride at Indianapolis. The steering gear broke, and in the crash that followed, Ruttman severely injured his right arm.

"I didn't drive again for a year and a half, and to tell the truth, I was never the same after the layoff," Ruttman said.

Today, in another era, crippled drivers go through strenuous rehabilitation and return to their race cars as strong as ever.

But Ruttman says he spent his recuperation time drinking, gambling, womanizing and gaining weight.

"I'll bet I got up close to 300 pounds," he said. "I was all blubbery, and all I did was goof around. I didn't do what the docs said to do to take care of my arm, and after four or five months, it began to atrophy. From July '52 to May '54 I did everything I shouldn't have done."

When he tried to come back in 1954 at Indy, he was so out of shape that he needed relief from Duane Carter, who finished fourth.

"My idea of a big day was to get up with a hangover, drive to the garage in Long Beach and play cards and drink. Then I'd chase around with women and drink some more at night.

"I had too much money for my own good. It was not a whole lot by today's standards, but it was a lot to me because our family had moved to California from Oklahoma with all the other Okies during the Depression. It was kind of like 'The Grapes of Wrath.'

"I had to work two jobs before I was 14 to help support the family. I had known what it was to be poor, so I was making up for it when I became a celebrity. The way things happened, my problems magnified rapidly."

Ruttman, tanned and youthful appearing, discusses his past with a dignified detachment that makes him sound as if he is talking about someone else.

Then he sits up, looks an interviewer straight in the eye and says: "I gave up gin, the drink and the game both. I haven't had a drink in close to 15 years now."

He lives with his wife, Clara, in Venice, Fla., where he runs an aircraft brokerage business and flies his own plane from job to job. His mother, Mary, 85, lives a mile away.

"I'd known a few drivers who learned to fly, guys like Rex Mays, Chuck Stevenson and Ray Crawford," he said. "So when I retired from the motorcycle and snowmobile business in 1980, I decided to learn to fly and move to Florida. I'd driven at Daytona Beach and I liked the weather and the people down there."

THE BEGINNINGS

When Troy was only 9, the family was living in Lynwood, where his father, Ralph, or Butch as he was known, taught him how to handle the family car.

One day, when Butch was at work, Troy's mother wanted to visit a friend in Bell. Troy volunteered to drive.

"I was doing fine, I thought, driving along Alameda Street, when I saw an officer in the mirror," he said. "I was so scared that I slid down in my seat so it looked like there wasn't any driver in the car. Of course, we got pulled over and that guy really chewed me out.

"That was my first traffic citation. Not the last, I'll tell you."

A couple of years later, with defense jobs plentiful after the start of World War II, Butch Ruttman moved his family to Ontario when he got a job in the Kaiser steel mill.

"Dad got hurt real bad in a cave-in in Fontana in 1946 and couldn't work anymore, so it was pretty much up to me," Ruttman said. "I had two jobs. I delivered telegrams for Western Union on my bike in the afternoon, and nights I'd work at Currie's ice cream parlor, which was sort of like Baskin-Robbins is today.

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