INDIANAPOLIS – Mike Hiss, the 1972 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year, died Dec. 19 in Evansville, Ind., following a near-30-year battle with cancer-related issues.
He was 77.
The 6-foot, 2-inch Hiss drove in the Indianapolis 500 four times, his highest finish being the seventh he scored in his rookie year in 1972.
Born in Norwalk, Conn., and schooled in Sarasota, Fla., Hiss was bitten by the racing bug as a boy when his father took him to witness the 12 Hours of Sebring endurance race. He attended college in Deland, Fla., and began his racing career shortly thereafter, driving a Triumph TR3 in Sports Car Club of America competition at Marlboro, Md. During the next half-a-dozen seasons, he competed in Formula A and B, plus Formula 5000 before moving into United States Auto Club National Championship racing in 1972.
Driving an Eagle/Offy for a little, independent team operated by Tom and Mary Page, Hiss placed 10th in his debut in the Phoenix 150 and was seventh in the Trenton 200 before heading to Indianapolis. At the last minute, Andy Granatelli stepped in to sponsor the car, changing its number from 72 to 60 and declaring the car the STP Pylon Windshield Wiper Blade Special.
It was back to the Page Racing No. 72 after that, and after placing sixth in the Pocono 500, Hiss got the break of a lifetime at the expense of another driver.
With Indianapolis 500 winner Mark Donohue sidelined by injuries sustained in a Can-Am accident, team principal Roger Penske needed a driver for the upcoming Ontario 500.
Hiss got the call, and he went on to finish a most impressive second behind Roger McCluskey, thus scoring his best National Championship race finish. From there, he wound up sixth in the final standings and added the USAC National Championship Rookie of the Year honors to his resume.
Just to underline his versatility, he finished the 1972 season in the final Can-Am race of the year at Riverside and finished seventh.
Hiss placed in the top 10 a half-a-dozen times for Fred Gerhardt’s team in 1973, topped by a pair of third-place finishes, but then found himself “looking for a ride” for 1974.
Donohue had recently retired as a driver (this would last about six months), and Team Penske was about to announce Donohue’s successor as Peter Revson after four seasons with Team McLaren. By this time, Penske was in the developing stages of entering the Formula One arena and since this would not come until near the end of the season, Revson was cleared to drive in F-1 in the meantime for the Don Nichols UOP Shadow team.
But tragedy was right around the corner. Revson never had a single start for Shadow, crashing fatally during a private test session in South Africa.
The Penske press announcements concerning the hiring of Revson were already to go when the accident occurred.
Penske needed a driver, and once again, Hiss got the call.