Ed Elisian was, perhaps, one of the most star-crossed drivers in the history of American racing.
Drama and tragedy stalked him at every turn. He was accused of — and later exonerated of — causing Bob Sweikert’s fatal crash at Salem (Ind.) Speedway in 1956. He had earned a reputation of overly aggressive driving before his infamous involvement in the multi-car pileup that took the life of Pat O’Connor at the start of the 1958 Indianapolis 500.
Still, there were many who considered him talented and worthy of support. Among them was car owner/promoter J.C. Agajanian, famed car builder/chief mechanic A.J. Watson and USAC President Henry Banks.
Born in Oakland, Calif., to a dirt poor, Armenian family, Elisian started racing roadsters after being discharged from the Navy following World War II. He advanced to midgets and by 1952 to the Midwest and the challenging AAA circuit.
He won his first sprint car feature, that same year. 1953 saw his first championship car start — the Hoosier Hundred. In 1954, he quietly ran his first Indianapolis 500.
1955 was anything but quiet.
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After struggling for speed all month, Elisian rolled out with only 10 minutes remaining on Bump Day. After a couple of warm-up laps, he was red flagged. A heated argument among officials and the Pete Wales team followed. Officials insisted he’d taken all three of his warm-up laps. Others insisted he hadn’t. Once Agajanian got involved, the AAA rechecked the timing tapes and discovered they were wrong. At 7:10 p.m., Elisian bumped his way into the starting field and a dramatic role in a tragic 500.
On lap 57, all hell broke lose on the backstretch and the iconic Bill Vukovich crashed to his death. Elisian, who worshiped “Vuky,” came upon the scene. He spotted Vukovich’s flaming car, jerked his to a stop and ran to Vukovich’s aid, but to no avail.
Elisian was inconsolable.
The goodwill generated by his actions, however, opened doors for 1956. When that year’s 500 winner, Pat Flaherty, was injured at Springfield, John Zink’s team manger A.J. Watson put Elisian in one of the team’s cars. Elisian responded with a win in the non-championship race at Dayton (Ohio) Speedway.
Unfortunately, during this time Elisian’s troubled personal life bubbled to the surface. Word of a gambling addiction circulated. A gun was pulled on him in Chicago, supposedly over a gambling debt. He passed bad checks, attempting to stay ahead of collectors.
Most car owners shied away. Watson, however, retained confidence and when Flaherty failed to pass his physical for the 1958 500, Watson put Elisian in Flaherty’s car. Elisian came through with a one-lap track record and a front-row-starting spot. Only Dick Rathmann was quicker, setting a four-lap record.
To showcase the upgraded pit complex from 1957, the field was started single-file from the pits. Somehow the front row got a half-lap ahead of the pace car, only managing to slip into place as the field roared to the green flag.
Rathmann jumped into the lead with Elisian in hot pursuit. Charging into turn three, neither backed off. Elisian got squirrelly and collected Rathmann. A quarter of the field was involved in the ensuing melee. Jerry Unser went over the wall. O’Connor overturned and died.
The cause of the fiasco spurred gossip, speculation and accusations. Smokey Yunick insisted he’d heard Elisian say that if he led the first lap, all his problems would be behind him. Others insisted Rathmann should’ve backed off. O’Connor’s widow told this writer that the blame should fall on race officials, who started the race with the front row charging into place.
Most blamed Elisian. USAC suspended him, but reinstated him a few days later. In June, Elisian was involved in a New Bremen Speedway accident that took the life of Jim Davis. Though exonerated, fellow competitors demanded something be done.
Elisian certainly didn’t help himself. He wrote more bad checks, took a swing at a cop and was arrested for not appearing to be fingerprinted. In September, USAC suspended him for these infractions.
While suspended, Elisian worked to clean his act up. He stopped gambling. Watson and Banks helped him pay off his gambling debts. He was reinstated in May 1959 and, with an offer from car owner Al Dean, he looked poised to finally display his potential.
But in his comeback race at Milwaukee on Aug. 19, Elisian spun in oil from A.J. Foyt’s blown engine, went upside down and died a gruesome death in the ensuing fire.