Depending on one’s perspective, car builder, owner and mechanic Wally Meskowski was either a cantankerous individual — much like a bear fresh out of hibernation — or a dedicated and focused professional unwilling to settle for second best with his creations.
A glimpse at his record and the caliber of drivers who handled his beautifully crafted sprint and championship cars discloses it’s the latter.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian Donald Davidson once compiled a list of Meskowski’s accomplishments. Of the 172 USAC national championship races run between 1959 and 1969, his cars won 32 of them.
Twenty-six of A.J. Foyt’s record 59 championship victories came in Meskowski-built cars, including six Hoosier Hundreds and five wins each at the Illinois State Fairgrounds and the DuQuoin State Fairgrounds. It was in a Meskowski car that Foyt produced one of his most extraordinary performances.
When his Lotus didn’t make it from Indianapolis to Milwaukee for the 1965 championship 200-miler, Foyt unloaded his champ dirt car and hosed off the Springfield dirt from his win the previous day. Before an ecstatic crowd, he put it on the pole against a host of rear-engine cars, including those of Mario Andretti and Dan Gurney. Only a late pit stop for fuel prevented him from winning. He finished second.
Meskowski’s sprint cars were no less fabled than his championship cars, as his quest for perfection was just as demanding with both.
If a driver didn’t perform, he’d be out. The best survived, won many races and graduated to better things. Nine of the drivers who passed through Meskowski’s short-track “finishing school” went on to become Indianapolis 500 winners.
Andretti was one. Andretti remembers him as tough but fair. Meskowski wanted to win and so did Mario. In 1966, between running Indy cars and sports cars, Andretti squeezed in 18 USAC sprint car races in Meskowski’s car. He won five of them and nearly claimed the national championship.
“When I was driving for Wally,” recalled Andretti, “Bobby Unser drove for Don Shepherd. We were always having problems on the track and Wally and Don would take it up in the pits. Wally always stuck up for me. Both were stubborn, hot-headed, but they never actually came to blows. Once at Eldora, Don charged into our pit to bawl Wally out about me. Wally stood there, listening calmly, but behind his back he was holding a wheel hammer.”
Those were rough and often dark days in racing. Andretti’s teammate with Meskowski in 1966 was Johnny Rutherford. Rutherford had won the ’65 championship in the Meskowski sprinter. But during in an early ’66 race at Eldora, a rock, dug up by Andretti’s car, pounded Rutherford in the forehead. Rutherford’s car bounded over the fence and shattered both his arms.
Andretti took over Rutherford’s car. Subbing in the other car were Bobby Unser and Gordon Johncock. Primarily, though, it was the up-and-coming driver Dick Atkins. He performed well, but died at Ascot with Don Branson in a gruesome double fatality.
Meskowski never ran a full sprint car season after that.
That didn’t slow his racing activities, however. Meskowski’s work as an Indianapolis 500 crew chief stretched back to 1953, when he arrived at the speedway with Ernie Ruiz’s Travelon Trailer Special.
In 1957, Meskowski switched to Eph Hoover’s team. At Springfield he decided to give a 22-year-old rookie a chance and Foyt responded with a ninth-place finish.
That was the beginning of a love/hate relationship between the two. They had fiery confrontations. But their respect for each other was boundless because they shared a burning passion — winning.
In 1970 Foyt, needing someone to help get NASCAR star Donnie Allison into the 500, hired Meskowski.
Allison finished fourth and was named rookie of the year.
In 1979, Meskowski joined Sherman Armstrong’s Indy car team. Driving home from Texas World Speedway, a semi T-boned his truck.
Paralyzed from the neck down, Meskowski survived until Jan. 3, 1980. He was 64.