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Youngest Indy 500 Winner Ruttman Dies at 67

Auto racing: Champion of 1952 race was 22 years 2 months old when he won it.

May 20, 1997|SHAV GLICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Troy Ruttman, the youngest driver to win the Indianapolis 500, died Monday nearly 45 years to the day after he came out of Ontario to drive J.C. Agajanian's No. 98 Jr. roadster to victory.

Ruttman, 67, died of lung cancer in the Good Samaritan Hospital in Lake Havasu City, Ariz. He had recently moved to Lake Havasu from his longtime home in Venice, Fla.

After first racing at Indianapolis in 1949 at 19, using his cousin's birth certificate, Ruttman was 22 years 2 months old when he won the 1952 race with an average speed of 128.933 mph, at the time the fastest 500 in history.

Ruttman, who got his first speeding ticket at 9, his first race victory at 15 in the Ash Can Derby at Gate City Speedway in San Bernardino and the California Roadster Assn. championship at 17, was also one of the largest Indy car drivers. At 6 feet 3, he weighed 250 pounds when he won the 500 and was often heavier than that when he drove.

Newspaper accounts of the day called him "the Pride of the Bobby Soxers."

"I loved to eat, drink, gamble and drive race cars, and I don't know in which order," he said with a hearty laugh during an interview several years ago. "I'm proud that I gave them all up before they killed me."

Ruttman revealed a bit of chicanery in getting the wheel of Agajanian's car in 1952. Agajanian had assigned him to his second car as a running mate of Walt Faulkner.

"Before we even went back to the Speedway in May, I wanted to drive [Faulkner's] car so bad," he said. "It was a new Kuzma-built dirt car. Mine was the car Faulkner had won the pole with in 1951. I just knew I could win the race if only I could somehow get Faulkner's ride."

The opportunity came when Agajanian gave his two drivers new Chrysler sedans, with the proviso that they not sell or give them away for six months.

"He said he'd fire us if we sold the car before six months," Ruttman said. "I figured if I could get Walt to sell his, I would get his [race] car. I stashed mine in a garage in Indy and made sure Walt saw a lot of me without the Chrysler. I hinted around that I'd sold it. Sure enough, Walt sold his.

"The next time I saw Aggie, I said, 'How come you let Walt sell his car and you told me not to?' He fired Walt on the spot. It was pretty callous, but that's how bad I wanted that [race] car."

In the race, Bill Vukovich led 150 laps and was leading only eight laps from the finish when he spun out because of a broken steering arm. Ruttman had led 40 laps in mid-race and was gaining a second a lap on Vukovich at the time.

"I'm sure I would have caught him," Ruttman said. Vukovich wasn't so sure. "That Ruttman never won an easier one," he said.

The finish was a parade of Southern California hot rodders, graduates of midget racing at Gilmore Stadium. Jim Rathmman of Glendale was second, Sam Hanks of Glendale third, Duane Carter of Culver City fourth, George Connor of Glendale eighth, Johnnie Parsons of Van Nuys 10th and Jack McGrath of Glendale 11th.

It was the last of the old Offenhauser-powered dirt-track cars to win the 500.

Only a few months after winning, Ruttman crashed in a sprint car race in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and suffered such a serious arm injury that he did not return to racing until 1954, and never again won an Indy car race.

"I drove for 12 more years after that, but realistically that accident ended my career," he recalled. "There were no rehabilitation centers then. Instead of keeping myself in shape, I ballooned up to about 300 pounds, maybe more. My idea of a perfect day was to wake up with a hangover, drive to the garage in Long Beach and play cards and drink all day, then chase around with women and drink some more at night."

In his later years, he said he was more proud of his accomplishment in giving up "gin, gluttony and women" and trimming down to about 225 pounds than he was of winning the 500.

When he retired in 1964 he was only 34.

Race historian Terry Reed, in reviewing his career, wrote, "After Rex Mays and before A.J. Foyt came Troy Ruttman, a precocious, self-destructing genius among the giants of American auto racing."

Ruttman is survived by his wife, Clara, daughters Toddy and Roxanne and two grandchildren, Dina and Joshua Troy. Funeral arrangements are pending, but are tentatively expected to be held in Moore land, Okla., where he was born March 11, 1930.

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