West Coast Ace Veith Made 11 Indianapolis 500 Starts

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IN THE HUNT: Bob Veith was a contender to win the 1958 Indianapolis 500. (Indianapolis Motor Speedway Photo)
IN THE HUNT: Bob Veith was a contender to win the 1958 Indianapolis 500. (Indianapolis Motor Speedway Photo)

Bob Veith raced in 11 Indianapolis 500s. He never won, but that mattered little. Just competing in the 500 fulfilled his dreams and, he believed, defined him as a driver — and with good reason.

After 100 years, having raced in at least one Indy 500 still carries a unique aura. Doing it in Veith’s era, 1956 through 1970, was especially remarkable. For in those years, the world’s best competed on that grand stage. Veith proved he could run with the best of them.

Veith was born in Tulare, Calif., Nov. 1, 1926, moving to Oakland in 1934. There he attended high school with erratic Ed Elisian, with whom he would often cross racing paths.

Veith dropped out of school to join the Merchant Marines in 1942. After World War II, he returned to Oakland, earned his high school diploma, and, in 1947, began his racing education with the likes of Bob Sweikert, Elmer George and Elisian on the tough CRA circuit.

He moved from roadsters, to midgets, and befriended two-time 500 winner Bill Vukovich. Vuky told Veith if he was serious about advancing his racing career, he’d take him back to the Midwest to go racing.

That was 1954. Veith agreed, but showed up late at Vuky’s Fresno home. Vuky had left without him. Veith caught Vuky in Bakersfield, and despite Vuky’s wild driving, which included passing cars at will on blind curves with his midget in tow, they survived the journey.

At the Speedway, Vuky introduced him around and arranged for him a job as a stooge on Jimmy Reece’s car. After the 500, Vuky helped him secure a seat in his former ride, the famed Gerhardt midget.

From the midgets, Veith graduated to AAA sprint cars on the ultra-fast high banks of the Midwest. Success there usually assured a driver of a ride at the Speedway.

Veith got his chance in 1956.

Driving the Russ Snowberger-prepared Federal Engineering Special, he made the most of the opportunity, taking rookie of the year honors with a seventh-place finish. Most observers believed a win at Indy was on his horizon.

Veith’s best shot came in 1958, driving one of Bob Bowes’s cars, with legendary mechanic George Bignotti as chief. He qualified fourth and knew at the start that he had a car capable of winning.

But in front of him, former schoolmate Elisian plowed into Dick Rathmann as they barreled into turn three. Reacting to that, third-place qualifier Jimmy Reece stood on the brakes. Veith ran into him and spun in front of Pat O’Connor. Avoiding Veith, O’Connor rode over Reece’s wheel and flipped to his death. Veith was out of the race.

Veith ran eight more Indianapolis 500s, making the challenging transition from front-engine to rear-engine cars in the process.

He retired quietly in 1969 and remained proud to carry the title Indianapolis 500 driver until his death on March 29, 2006.