Indy 500 winner at 22

Rags to riches Ruttman youngest driver to win Indy 500

HOW he fitted his 1.95m (6’4”) frame into the tight confines of a racing car cockpit remains a mystery, but Troy Ruttman did so on many occasions, sometimes without wearing shoes, but with many successes, including the big one — a win in the Indianapolis 500 of 1952.

He was aged just 22, the youngest driver ever to win the iconic Indy 500.

America’s biggest race counted towards the World Drivers’ Championship at that time, so tall Troy simultaneously notched up points in Formula 1.

But a pitlane incident that day came frighteningly close to cremating him in the cockpit. 

His life story is a classic tale of rags to riches.

Born in Mooreland, Oklahoma, in March, 1930 Troy was the elder son of destitute parents known as ‘dustbowl emigres’ who left the then barren post-WWI Great Plains state to move to southern California via what later became known as Route 66.

But it was not the promised land they expected and their patch of real estate, known as Billygoat Acres, didn’t produce enough money to buy a house, so they ended up living with relatives.

In his early teens Troy worked at two jobs after school, in an ice cream parlour plus delivering newspapers, to help boost the family finances.

Then, in 1945, a friend told him of a roadster race in San Bernardino, so he and his dad went along to have a look.

Next thing, the public address system announced a late entry: Troy Ruttman!

He’d quietly entered the family car, a Ford roadster –  and at the end of the 30-lap race, he took the first of what would become many victories.

He was only 15 at the time but he used a cousin’s birth certificate to be eligible. 

He got $25 in prize money, earning more in one night than he could in a week with his two jobs, so he quit high school and his jobs and raced five nights a week. 

He’d been driving since the age of nine and his experience and an over-supply of natural talent paid off, resulting in 19 wins in 21 races to quickly become one of the stars of the Los Angeles scene.

By 1947 he was the California Roadster Association champion. 

He’d also won his first five midget car races that season (he was only 17)  and in 1948 again took the Roadster championship plus was the United Racing Association Blue Circuit champion and had 23 midget car victories.

In high demand for his skill, he was driving for various racing outfits and raced in the AAA and USAC Champ Car series in 1949–1952, 1954, 1956–1957 and 1960–1964 with 58 starts, including the famed Indianapolis 500 in 1949–1952, 1954, 1956–1957 and 1960–1964. 

He finished in the top ten 26 times, taking five wins and finished runner-up in 1952 National Championship and also won the 1956 USAC Short Track Stock Car division title. 

Famous drivers, including Dan Gurney and Bobby Unser, listed him as one of their racing idols and Rodger Ward said he was the most naturally talented race car driver he had ever seen.

Troy entered his first 500 in 1949, at the age of 19, two years younger than the Indianapolis Motor Speedway rules allowed — but his cousin’s birth certificate came in handy once more.

Then, in 1951, he fancied a change from circuit to open road racing and went to Mexico to experience the fearsome Carrera Panamericana road race.

It was first run in 1950, attracted 132 entrants, and was organised by the Mexican government to celebrate the opening of its new highway from Juarez to Chiapas, on the border with Guatemala in the south – a distance of about 3350km. 

The 1951 race reversed the course, running from the southern end at Tuxtla Gutierrez to Ciudad Juarez, near El Paso. 

Among the entries of amateur and professional racers from around the world, nearly every motor sport was represented. 

The first winner, Oregon racing ace Herschel McGriff, drove an Oldsmobile 88 at an average of 78 mph (124km/h) – and it somehow clattered across the finish line very noisily and in a cloud of smoke, having lost its oil sump some distance back.

European entries that year included a brace of Alfa Romeo 6C 2500s, crewed by Italian stars Piero Taruffi and Isidoro Ceroli and Felice Bonetto and Bruno Bonini, their cars finishing fourth and eighth, respectively – also with damaged crankcases.

The pace and terrain in 1950 was such that there were four fatalities.

In the next four years of its running,  it claimed the lives of 23 more competitors. 

For 1951 there were 106 entrants, among them Troy Ruttman and a Clay Smith (later his chief mechanic at the Indy 500).

They didn’t get a sponsored ride, so they just went to a local used car dealer and bought an old Mercury 89M coupe off the stand for $1000.

There were four early fatalities. On the opening stage, a Packard driven by veteran racer Jose Estrada skidded off the road and tumbled into a ravine, killing him and co-driver Miguel González.

Soon after, a similar mishap killed Lorenzo Lemus and the next day Carlos Panini, a pioneer of Mexican aviation, died when he crashed his Alfa Romeo 6C 2500 SS.

Eighteen cars failed to make it to finish line, among them 1950 winner McGriff.

Fast forward to the finish: First and second were the Ferraris of Piero Taruffi/Luigi Chinetti and Alberto Ascari/Luigi Villoresi with Americans Bill Sterling and Robert Sandige third in a Chrysler Saratoga. 

Fourth came . . . wait for it: Troy Ruttman and Clay Smith in their old banger. 

A year later, on his fourth visit to Indianapolis, came his biggest success: he qualified JC Agajanian’s red and cream Kuzma-Offenhauser on the third row of the grid.

He ran in the top five for most of the race and in the closing laps moved up to second, behind Bill Vukovich. 

Clay Smith, had him running on an 80/10/10 blend of methanol, petrol and nitro, and planned only two refuelling stops — but some fuel was spilt and flames during the second stop and instantly engulfed the car. 

Onlookers were horrified to see Ruttman still sitting in the cockpit while the crew frantically fought the fire.

The flames doused, Ruttman was on his way again.

Why didn’t he jump out and save himself? What went through his mind?

“I knew I’d never get the engine started again,” he explained. 

“And I knew if ever I was going to gamble with my life, this was the time, with a strong car in the Indianapolis 500.” 

Vukovich led 150 of the laps until a steering pin broke on lap 192 and Troy passed to take the lead 20 miles from the finish and won at a record average of 128.922 mph (206.4km/h).

The win made him a national sensation – the youngest winner ever of America’s greatest race.

He was also the last driver to win at the wheel of a front-engined dirt-track race car. 

At that time the race was part of the FIA World Championship from 1950 to 1960 and drivers competing there were credited with World Championship points. 

About three months after his big win he was involved in a serious sprint car accident and was out of racing for the rest of the year and all of the following season. 

On his return to Indianapolis in 1954 he surged from 11th to fifth in an Auto Shippers Kurtis 500 eventually finishing fourth, but there would be no more wins for him at Indy.

However, he did have a few races in Formula 1.

1952 Indy
Sensation . . . 1952 Indy 500 in JC Agajanian’s red and cream Kuzma-Offenhauser


Thanks to a friendship with Luigi Musso, he had an invitation to drive a Scuderia Centro Sud Maserati 250F in the French Grand Prix of 1958. 

The scuderia had started in 1956 as a small privateer team, fielding some Maseratis. 

In the French Grand Prix at Reims, Juan Manuel Fangio, making his final appearance at a grand prix, was the fastest qualifier among the Maserati drivers.

He finished fourth overall, behind Mike Hawthorn’s Ferrari, the Vanwall of Stirling Moss and Wolfgang von Trips’ Ferrari. Troy ran 10th.

Troy was also entered for the German GP at the Nurburgring, but an engine problem in practice forced him to scratch. 

He was also a leading contender in the Race of Two Worlds on the banked Monza circuit in 1957 and 1958.

Driving a Watson Offy in the 1957 event, he finished fifth in heat one, second in heat two and won heat three. 

The next year he was at the tiller of an Kuzma-Offy and ran seventh in heat one, fourth in heat two and a broken fuel line stopped his charge in heat three. 

Troy returned to Indianapolis in 1960, and was leading briefly when his race ended due to mechanical issues after 134 laps. 

Next, Troy successfully competed in stock cars.

But when he turned 34 he decided to quit racing and went on to build a thriving motorcycle and snowmobile business in Detroit.

Then he had a car dealership in Dearborn, Michigan, learnt to fly a light plane and moved to Venice, Florida, where he did well in his aircraft brokerage business. 

Battling lung cancer, he moved to Lake Havasu City, Arizona, shortly before his death in 1997 — just a month before a long planned ‘Troy Ruttman Day’ in his hometown of Mooreland, Oklahoma. 

In 1992 he was inducted into the Indianapolis 500 Hall of Fame and the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in 1993. 

Such was the remarkable life of a penniless lad, elevated by sheer talent and drive from the dustbowl of America to the heights – all 6’4” of him – of US motorsport.


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