VALLEY STREAM, N.Y. — I get a kick the big deal made on TV when a couple of NASCAR drivers have a “dust up” such as the one between Ryan Newman and Juan Pablo Montoya at Richmond Int’l Raceway last week.
Full-fendered cars with all the safety items are hardly anything to get excited over. NASCAR is so hungry for ratings, they try to create “bad boys,” which are always interesting.
This week I’ll tell you a tale about a real bad boy. He raced during a brutal period in our sport — the ’50s. In those days, midgets, sprint cars and Indy/Champ Trail cars were lethal. All you had to do was get a wheel under a guy, having him turn over. With no protection, he’d probably be dead.
Therefore drivers had to truly respect each other in those days. One who never got the message was Ed Elisian. Born Edward Gulbeng Elisian Dec. 9, 1926 in Oakland, Calif., he was one of many who started racing after WWII ended, running mainly roadsters in northern California.
He soon became friends with Bill Vukovich who was from Fresno. Vuky had great success in midgets before earning fame as a two-time winner of the Indy 500. Elisian was to many a hanger-on to Vukovich.
But it worked, in 1954, he got a ride in the 500 in the Chapman Special., a fairly decent one. He qualified in the last row and was the next to the last car running, finishing 18th and going 193 laps, his longest ride at Indy. In those days only star drivers had regular rides. Vagabonds like Elisian drove a different car almost every race. He mainly drove the Championship Trail and the Midwest sprint-car circuits.
For 1955, he drove for Winchester promoter Pete Wales. He found himself in a controversy but he wasn’t to blame this time. Right before the final gun was fired to end qualifications, Elisian seemed to have the speed to make the show, but one lap was ruled 10 miles per hour slower. Elisian stormed to officials saying he was cheated. After much deliberation, it was ruled he was right and was allowed to try again an hour after the track closed. His speed bumped Len Duncan out of the race.
On the 57th lap, Elisian already four laps down, came upon a mess on the second turn. Rodger Ward’s car was sitting wrecked on the track. Further up, Johnny Boyd’s car was upside down and to the right of the track was Vukovich’s car upside down and burning. Elisian stopped to save his friend but was restrained by officials. Nothing could have been done.
Upset, he didn’t restart, which his car owner didn’t appreciate.
In 1956, he was back at the speedway and finally got a roadster to drive but it was a second-hand car and it stalled after 160 laps. That summer came his crowning moment. AAA/USAC used to run some non-point races and in August, a 50-lap race was run at Dayton, Ohio. John Zink entered Jud Larson’s dirt car but Jud didn’t like pavement. Elisian got the ride and won the race, his biggest of his career. He drove four more times for Zink that year, but had his typical mediocre results.
In 1957, he was back at Indy, this time driving for Lee Elkins. The pairing should have worked as Elkins lived hard and fast as Elisian did. Elisian’s penchant for gambling and losing became a problem for him as he owed lots of money to unsavory characters.
Elkins had two cars, a three year old and a new one. Naturally, Elisian got the old car in which he started seventh but lasted only 53 laps. Andy Linden drove the new car to fifth.
1958 could have been the watershed year for Ed Elisian. Fate seemed to hand him a break. John Zink had owned the 1955-56 Indy 500 winning cars. He had a terrible 1957. For 1958, he had three entries. Larson was in the 1956 Pat Flaherty winning car. Jimmy Reece, another hard luck leadfoot was in A.J. Watson’s newest car. Flaherty was supposed to drive the third but doctors wouldn’t clear him to race as his arm, broken in six places in 1956 still wasn’t right. Zink hired Elisian, who realized he finally had a good ride.
USAC had sleeved down the Offy engines to 256 from 270 cubic inches the year before because speeds went up five miles per hour in 1956. They went down that amount in 1957, but mechanics figured a way to get it back in 1958.
Zink and his mechanic A.J. Watson were in disagreement. Watson wanted to build cars for anyone who wanted one. Zink said no. This ultimately led to their split later in the year.
Hank Blum, who worked for Watson, took A.J.’s blueprints and built a car and entered it to sell. It was Lee Elkins who saw it and bought it on the spot.
It was revealed years later that Elkins never paid beyond his deposit for that car. Elkins wanted a heavy shoe for his new car. He went to Dick Rathmann who drove for him in 1956. Rathmann, entered in Chapman’s car took the deal. It was obvious in practice, who were the pole favorites. Rathmann in a consistent run, nabbed the pole. Elisian did break the one-lap record but, wound up second. Reece was third.
Zink was annoyed that a new “Watson” beat his team for the pole. He reportedly (and this rumor wavers back and forth) offered Elisian “a thousand bucks a lap” to lead. Even if not true, the speedway paid $150 per lap. Elisian had a chance to get out of debt.
Rathmann and Elisian needled each other all month on who would lead the first lap.
After “gentleman start your engines,” the three front-row drivers hardly acted as such. They took off and the pace car had to run them down.
The rushed start saw Rathmann take the lead. Going into turn three, Elisian tried to go underneath Rathmann who was low on the groove. He punted him. Rathmann made a hard right into the wall. Cars piled up all over the place. Pat O’Connor rode over Bob Veith’s hood and rolled over and burst into flames. Jerry Unser flipped over the wall and out of the arena.
O’Connor, handsome, popular and respected by his peers died instantly. Unser was far luckier. Many cars were wrecked and damaged. Elisian disappeared and many were looking for him.
USAC suspended him, but lifted it in a few days. Then that summer at New Bremen, Ohio, a fatal sprint car crash to driver Jimmy Davis had many point the finger at Elisian again. This time he was suspended indefinetly.
The 1959 Indy 500 ran without Ed Elisian. Most were glad. That summer, it was lifted and Elisian got a ride for the Milwaukee 250 in Ernie Ruiz’s Travelon Trailer car. Ruiz was another mid-pack owner but this car ran well at Indianapolis before dropping out.
A.J. Foyt blew his engine and the oil spilled on the first turn. Elisian lost control, hit the wall and turned over. Rescuers ran to his car. He could be heard yelling for his life, but the car exploded. Ed Elisian’s sorry career was over and few tears were shed for him.
In 43 champ races, a third at Langhorne had been his best.