Each day this week, Robin Miller is highlighting the stars of the Indianapolis 500 who never made it to racing's most famous Victory Lane. In this second part, he focuses on three drivers in the 1960-'90 period who were highly rated by their rivals and who always went fast at the Speedway, but whose days in the sun never coincided with Memorial Day weekend.
It's doubtful that anybody ever made a faster and more spectacular impression at Indy than Jim Hurtubise did in 1960. Using his considerable skill and bravado, “Herk” – short for Hercules – had unnerved the IMS establishment during the month by “dirt-tracking” his roadster through the corners. It was quick but it was also unorthodox and some veteran drivers predicted an early funeral for this kid.
Instead, he shattered the track record by almost 3mph and nearly broke the 150mph lap-average barrier in the process. Then his car broke down in the race, a harbinger of things to come for the next decade. Herk qualified third the following May and led 35 laps before burning a piston and in 1963 his popularity soared even higher when he stuck the Novi – Indy's sentimental favorite – in the middle of Row 1 only to have it drop out in the race. That would be the last time he ever led at IMS.
He ran as high as third in 1964 before an oil leak ended his day and then he was terribly burned at Milwaukee that summer. With his charred hands sporting steel rods to shape them so he could grip a steering wheel, Hurtubise made a courageous comeback in the Novi in 1965 and passed 13 cars on the first lap, but the transmission failed.
Jim made Indy four more times, including 1968 when he got a front-engined car on the grid for the final time. But he refused to embrace the rear-engine revolution and hated that his beloved sport was becoming more and more corporate.
“Herk was as good as anybody and the bravest guy I ever raced against,” says Parnelli Jones, one of his best friends and rivals. “He never seemed to get a break at Indy…but nobody ever drove harder.”
Other than his first two Indys, Hurtubise never had a top-line ride and that mirrors Mike Mosley's story. Only 20 when he first showed at the Speedway, the baby-faced son of a racing mechanic lied about his age to get on the track but after two crashes decided he needed more experience.
Driving for A.J. Watson, the man whose roadsters dominated in the 1950s and '60s, Mosley qualified from 1968-'70 but his races were pretty nondescript. But in 1971, when McLaren arrived on the scene with its sleek new designs, Mike – despite still being in an older-style car – was charging to the front when a wheel came off exiting Turn 4, he slammed into a couple of stopped cars and was seriously injured.
By '72, Dan Gurney's new Eagle with Bobby Unser had smashed the track record by 17mph (yes, you read that right…) and McLaren was back again, stronger than ever. “Mose” qualified his four-year-old Eagle 7mph slower than Unser but stormed to the front and had just taken the lead when a hub failed coming off Turn 4. He slammed the wall, caught fire and jumped out of his car trying to beat out the flames as the fire crew ran past him to extinguish the car…
Those two accidents took a toll on Mike and, after coming from last to first at Milwaukee in 1974, he announced his retirement in Victory Lane. But he realized he couldn't do anything else to make a comfortable living so he was back in the cockpit by May of '75! His best finish at Indy came in 1979 when he was third and his top qualifying effort was in 1981 when he stuck Gurney's beautiful Pepsi Challenger in the middle of the front row.
“Mosley was a little short on the dirt but he stood on the gas on asphalt and drove very, very hard at Indianapolis,” says Bill Vukovich Jr, who finished second in 1973. “He just never seemed to have much luck.” But Gary Bettenhausen summed it up best back in 1972: “If Mosley ever gets in a McLaren, we'll all be running for second.”
Of course, Bettenhausen knew whereof he spoke, because he was driving a McLaren for Roger Penske in 1972. He dominated Indy that May, leading 138 laps and breezing towards his famous family's first checkered flag (RIGHT) when his ignition failed with 18 laps remaining. It was therefore his teammate, Mark Donohue, who scored The Captain's first Indy 500 win that day.
Bettenhausen, a USAC sprint-car stud, had been hired by Penske because of his relentlessness, and his best shots at Indy's Victory Lane were from 1972 to '74, but he was foiled by the rain in '73 (he finished fifth) and mechanical ills in '74. The team fired him while he was in hospital after a violent dirt car accident in the summer of '74 and the rest of his Indy car career was as a popular underdog.
“The Schmuck” – his nickname came compliments of pal Vukovich Jr. – never led another lap after '72, despite 20 more starts at Indy. But Bettenhausen charged from 32nd to third in 1980 and even turned in the fastest qualifying run in 1991. However, he didn't win pole because he set his lap day 2 of time trials.
“There's no doubt in my mind that Gary was one of the best never to win Indianapolis,” says Vuky. “He was a hell of a racer.” Then he chuckles at the thought of Bettenhausen losing his ride with Penske because he refused to quit running the dirt. “But he was also a cement head, because if he hadn't been so stubborn and had quit the dirt like Penske asked, he'd have kept that ride and been Indy's first five-time winner…”