Friday, May 21, 2010

May 21, 1972: The World According to Herk

I'm a sponge when it comes to Petty Enterprises-related trivia. I soak it up from whatever source I can find it. Who-What-When-Where-Why-How. Interested in all of it.

Several months ago, I learned Jim Hurtubise drove a couple of races in 1963 for the Pettys. He ran the Daytona qualifying race (an official Cup race back then), the Daytona 500, and the Atlanta 500. He finished 17th, 28, and 22nd, respectively.

Hurtubise was a popular journeyman Indy driver from upstate New York. He raced multiple times in the Indy 500 from the late 50s through the early 70s. He earned the nickname Hercules - often shortened to just Herk. Although I'd heard of Hurtubise over the years, I knew little about him. When I think of the nickname Herk, I'm instead reminded of the classic scene of the Klumps' dinner table in Eddie Murphy's remake of The Nutty Professor.

I now know Herk was hired to run another Petty Plymouth in a couple of 1963 races. I know where he finished. In an educated guess, I'd suggest his car was even painted Petty blue. That much I know. What I don't know is why or how Herc hooked up with Lee and Richard.

In 1964, Herk was involved in fiery crash at the Milwaukee Mile. During his recovery, he was advised he'd likely not race again...ever. Instead, he insisted he would and asked to have his badly damaged hands formed to hold a steering wheel.

Return he did - both to USAC open wheel and a few remaining NASCAR Grand National (now Cup) races. He even won the 1966 Atlanta 500 by stomping the field by a full lap.

Somewhere along the way, he adopted #56 as his trademark number and carried it on most of his open wheel and NASCAR rides. Here he is sporting #56 and his Miller High Life beer sponsor in a USAC stock car race at Milwaukee in the early 1970s.

Herk's dalliance with stock car racing continued to interest me. So I dug deeper into some of my Google search results. In doing so, I stumbled across this 1978 vault article from Sports Illustrated. The article is a good mid-70s recap of Herk's career around that time. I tossed aside my primary interest in his stock car racing and just enjoyed the read about his overall racing efforts.

Buried in the middle of the article, is the telling of what has to be one of the greatest, all-time racing pranks pulled in any racing series.
May 21, 1972 was another last day of qualifying for the Indianapolis 500. It had been several years since Hurtubise had entered the race with any kind of chance to win it, lead it or even qualify well for it. For most of that time, he had been engaged in a quixotic attempt to qualify an improved version of the outmoded front-engine "roadster" that had dominated the Speedway until the rear-engine revolution of the mid-1960s.

With time growing short, there was a fever of activity around Hurtubise's Miller High Life Special as it slowly moved toward the head of the qualifying line. The crowd buzzed. Would the old Mallard, as Hurtubise called his car in tribute to its ducktail rear end, get a chance to make even a ceremonial tour of the Brickyard? No. Precisely at 6 p.m. the gun sounded, locking in the field for another year. At which time Hurtubise removed the cowling from his Mallard to reveal neither an Offenhauser nor a Ford, but rather five cases of his sponsor's product, already chilled and ready for folks to drink. Which is what most of the Speedway officials soon did. Erk, erk, erk.

How great would it have been to be in Gasoline Alley that day? The story, from a Volunteer State Bench Racing perspective, would have been all the more gut-busting funny had the brew been Schaefer. Yet to have someone put that brain fart into motion with the Champagne of Beers is still simply classic.

Herk passed away 1989 from a heart attack. His age at the date of death? Appropriately enough it matched his car number - 56.

Delma Cowart from Savannah, Georgia made a handful of infrequent starts in Cup races during the 1980s - most often at Daytona and Talladega. He almost always drove car #0 which pretty well matched his percentage chance of being competitive - much less win.

Yet Delma showed up at the track once or twice a year ready to have plenty of fun. His most oft-used quip was "I ain't never won a race, but I've never lost a party."

Sounds like Herk may have lived that same motto on May 21, 1972.



  1. I was at Trenton in 1971. The announcer stated a fan had given the next qualifier a ride from Flemington Speedway to qualify for tomorrow's Northern 300, here's Jim Hurtibise.

    While everyone else was letting off at the flagstand and picking up the throttle again between one and two Ol' Herk just didn't let off till he was nearly in T1. There was a sound of screaching from a set of tires just not up to the task of that kind of centrifugal force and Ol' Herk backed her in, through and down the other side of the turn 1,2 wall.

    He shortened up the Miller High Life machine and didn't make the show the next day, which had "Friday" Hassler on the pole with Richard Petty setting next to him.

    What a pity there was no television to record those kind of days.


  3. I remember years ago in the late seventies early eighties Herk was trying to qualify the mallard at Indy. The car was way under what he needed to make the field. They waved the run off but couldn't get Herk off the track. I felt so bad for him. I know back in the 60's after he qualified for the 500. He would put a sign up "gone fishin'" on the garage door

  4. Your story about the beer in '72 is only partly correct. He made the show the 1st weekend of qualifying in a competitive rear-end car. Then he took the Mallard out for grins the next week in practice and got it up to qualifying speed at about 180. Everyone thought, how ironic, finally Herk gets the Mallard up to speed ... when he's already solidly in the field in a rear-engine car. Some rumors circulated that Herk would qualify the Mallard and put another driver in the rear-engine car, but apparently Herk's sponsor contract stipulated that he had to drive the rear-engine. Regardless, on bump day, he rolls out the Mallard and the crowd went nuts, assuming he was going back on his sponsor contract, or had permission to break it, and all knew that the Mallard was fast enough to make it. So he sat in line looking very intent, until the gun sounded at 6 pm, and then he opened the hood of the Mallard to reveal the beer. That's how it really happened.

  5. I was there that day and was hoping he was going to qualify, he had the car on the track that afternoon and it was really fast down the straightaways loved watching the old front engine cars.