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Losing the last Bill Vukovich: Famed Fresno racer, who faced tragedy on track, dies at 79

Bill Vukovich Jr., part of Central Valley motor-sports royalty but also a central figure in a tale of auto racing tragedy, died this past week. He was 79.

The Fresno native was struggling with heart issues in recent weeks and passed away after catching pneumonia, according to family.

The 1968 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year, Vukovich Jr. raced from 1965 to 1983 and competed in the IndyCar Series and USAC Championship.

He had six top-10 finishes in 12 starts at Indy, including a second-place showing in 1973.

Fresno native Bill Vukovich Jr., part of a prominent but tragic auto racing family that competed in the IndyCar series, died from pneumonia at 79 years old.
Fresno native Bill Vukovich Jr., part of a prominent but tragic auto racing family that competed in the IndyCar series, died from pneumonia at 79 years old.

But it wasn’t just Vukovich’s individual accomplishments that made him one of the most recognized racing names to come out of the central San Joaquin Valley.

It was the fact that Vukovich’s father and son — Bill Vukovich Sr. and Bill Vukovich III — also flourished as race-car drivers.

Together, the Vukovichs became the first three-generation family to race in the Indy 500.

“The Central Valley was very invested in the Vukovichs,” said Stacey Siroonian, a niece of Vukovich Jr. “I know my uncle and my cousin spent a lot of time racing locally before going to Indy.

“They became well known here. When they reached Indy, people in the Valley had someone to root for. My uncle’s father, of course, started it all by winning it up in Indy.”

Tragedy, however, also was part of the Vukovich family legacy.

Both Vukovich Jr.’s father and son died on the track.

Vukovich Sr., a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner who came close to winning two other times, crashed and died in 1955.

Vukovich Jr. was 11 at the time of his father’s death, listening to the racing action on the radio when people pulled him aside and told him what happened.

Vukovich Sr., 36 when he died, ran into a four-car wreck with his car flying over the outside wall of a track and flipping into parked vehicles before bursting into flames.

Then in 1990, Vukovich Jr. lost his only son when Vukovich III lost control of his car and crashed into a wall at 130 mph while practicing at Mesa Marin Raceway in Bakersfield.

Vukovich Jr. was 46 when his son “Billy” died at age 27.

In a Vukovich family biography published in 2012, Vukovich Jr. cried while talking about the losses he suffered.

“It happened to me twice,” Vukovich Jr. said in the biography. “The impossible happened twice.”

In the biography, which was written by Bones Bourcier, the loss of Billy Vukovich “turned death into something more than a bad childhood memory for Billy Vukovich Jr.”

“With Billy,” Vukovich Jr. says in the biography, “it was like I had a total loss of control.”

Bill Vukovich Jr. was the 1968 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year. He had six top-10 finishes in 12 starts at Indy, including a second-place showing in 1973.
Bill Vukovich Jr. was the 1968 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year. He had six top-10 finishes in 12 starts at Indy, including a second-place showing in 1973.

In 1981, Vukovich Jr. got inducted into the Fresno Athletic Hall of Fame. Vukovich Sr. was part of the 1959 induction class and Vukovich III got inducted in 2007.

For his racing career, Vukovich Jr. had a combined 158 starts and finished in the Top 10 85 times.

His time racing includes various Saturday nights at Kearney Bowl (long defunct) while competing on a dirt oval track in southwest Fresno.

To honor the Vukovich racing family, the City of Fresno placed a memorial in 2019 in front of Selland Arena in downtown Fresno.

“He went peacefully,” Siroonian said. “He’s with his son now.”

Fresno native Bill Vukovich Jr., part of a prominent but tragic auto racing family that competed in the IndyCar series, died from pneumonia at 79 years old.
Fresno native Bill Vukovich Jr., part of a prominent but tragic auto racing family that competed in the IndyCar series, died from pneumonia at 79 years old.