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Revisit the First Time a Small-Block Chevy Paced the Race in a Bel Air

From the Archives: Bittersweet

Drew Hardin Jan 30, 2017 0 Comment(s)
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For many fans of Indy 500 history, the 1955 running of the International 500-Mile Sweepstakes will be remembered for the accident that took the life of Bill Vukovich. “Vukie” was an Indy phenom. He won the 1953 and 1954 races and appeared to be on his way to a third consecutive victory when an accident in the 57th lap vaulted his Offenhauser-powered roadster over the backstretch wall, killing him upon impact.

That grim milestone was in the future, though, when this publicity photo was taken of that race’s pace car, a red and white Bel Air convertible. Behind the wheel is Chevrolet’s General Manager Thomas Keating, who would drive the pace car for the race. The checkered flag is in the hands of Speedway owner Tony Hulman.

1955 Chevy Bel Air 2/5
1955 Chevy Bel Air 3/5

Chevrolet’s participation in the 1955 race marked a milestone of its own: the first Indy 500 appearance of not only the totally redesigned Bel Air but its all-new engine: the first of the overhead valve V-8s we now call the small-block. The early SBC displaced 265 ci; with a single two-barrel carburetor and single exhaust it produced 162 hp, 180 with a four-barrel and dual exhausts.

Some Internet digging turned up info that the pace car may have been stronger still. It’s likely it was fitted with the dual four-barrel carb setup that was on the way for 1956 models. That upgrade, with a corresponding bump in compression from 8:1 to 9.25:1, brought the V-8’s output to 225 hp. Considering the power coming from the Offys behind it, we can’t imagine Chevrolet sending a pace car out with anything less.

The Aftermath

One of Wally Parks’ main agendas as Editor of Hot Rod magazine was to put motorsports in as positive a light as possible, doing all he could to reverse conventional wisdom (in the 1940s and 1950s) that fast cars were dangerous machines piloted by hoodlums. So few, if any, photos of racing accidents ever made it into the magazine, even when Petersen Publishing photographers were on hand to document the damage.

Parks himself was at Indianapolis in 1955, and he shot a few frames of film in the aftermath of Bill Vukovich’s accident. Hot Rod’s coverage of the race in its Aug. 1955 issue told no details of the event, but other accounts from the period indicate Vukovich, with a commanding lead at the time, crashed into two rookies at the back of the pack, Johnny Boyd and Al Keller, who themselves had run into each other trying to avoid Rodger Ward’s spinning car. Vukovich’s car tumbled end over end and landed upside down on the other side of the wall.

1955 Chevy Bel Air Race 4/5
1955 Chevy Bel Air Front 5/5

The first in the photo sequence shows a course worker holding a caution flag near Ward’s crippled car. The next one shows Boyd’s wrecked No. 39 roadster, while emergency crews work to extinguish Vukovich’s burning car down the track. The No. 68 car in the infield was driven by Ed Elisian, a friend of Vukovich’s, who stopped to try and help. The third frame shows firemen still fighting the fire.

The shaky image of Dinah Shore riding in the ’55 Chevy pace car was the first photo on another roll of film. We don’t know for sure if Parks shot it after the accident, but if so, that would explain the tremble in his hands, as he tried to process what had just happened.

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