Three months after Troy Ruttman took the 1952 Indianapolis 500 as the youngest winner in the iconic track’s history, he severely injured his right arm in a freak sprint-car accident at Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
The arm failed to heal properly, and Ruttman missed 18 months of racing — a lifetime in racing terms, especially for a brash, 22 year old just coming into his racing prime.
By May 1954, Ruttman was ready to mount a comeback at Indianapolis. But concerned car owners had heard rumors about his long layoff. Ruttman once admitted that he had spent his recuperation mostly drinking, gambling and gaining weight. The top rides went to other drivers.
However, sportsman car owner Gene Casaroll gave Ruttman a chance in his bright orange Auto Shippers Special. A good car but not a great one, the Auto Shippers was a Kurtis 500A, built in 1952. Unlike the 500A roadsters of that same lineage, however, it was of upright design.
When Indy practice began, Ruttman experienced an odd beginning to his racing return. He was flagged in after his first lap because he didn’t have a medical release. Medical clearance secured, he was soon turning laps equal to those of the hottest car-and-driver combos.
He qualified a respectable 11th. Then, at the green flag on race day, he stunned those gathered with his spectacular early race performance. Fueled by an intense desire to prove himself, he called on his incredible natural talent, honed on race tracks from the age of 15, and passed six cars on the first lap.
The 180,000 fans, aware of his past travails, were on their feet screaming in appreciation. In a lap Ruttman had became their favorite. Unknown to most, however, was yet another motivation (should he have needed one) for his breathtaking charge to the front. His car owner offered him $1,000 for every lap led, equivalent to $6,500 in today’s dollars.
Within three laps he’d moved into third behind Jack McGrath and Jimmy Bryan, who were running faster than he’d qualified. The battle was so spirited Ruttman wore out his right rear tire in 20 laps and was forced to pit. He charged back, and was again hard on the heels of the leaders when a quick spin put him back in the pits.
Ruttman failed to collect any of Casaroll’s thousand dollar bills, but despite the blown tire and the spin, he still finished fourth. Without his problems he might very well have won his second 500.
Regardless, Ruttman reestablished himself that May afternoon and went on to race another 10 years. Picking and choosing his races, he remained competitive in Indy cars, won in stock cars and became the first Indianapolis winner to race in Formula One, driving a Maserati in the 1958 French Grand Prix.
Ruttman’s place in auto racing history is well established, and his masterful drive at Indianapolis in 1954 is no small part of the reason.