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99 Speedway 1946 ( before completion)

Billy Vukovich at Stockton 99 Speedway in 1947.

Stockton 99 Speedway, Early Race. Note the goal posts in the infield, St. Mary's High School played football there!!

A family tradition till the end
The Record
Published Sunday, Sep 3, 2006

As the final lap is run, as 59 years of racing at Stockton 99 Speedway ends on Sept. 16, the venerable track will come full circle. So to speak.

Among those who will gather to say goodbye to a tradition that began May 27, 1947, will be Janet Vukovich King.

The Fresno woman is the niece of racing legend Billy Vukovich and daughter of Eli Vukovich.

Both men raced in that inaugural 25-lap main event of midgets, with Bill taking the checkered flag. As the speedway's management team seeks to locate the top 75 racers in track history to witness the final run, it has found a representative of the first winner.


"I'd be honored," King said.

She's proud to have grown up Vukovich.

Although only 7 when her famous Uncle Billy died at the 1955 Indianapolis 500 after winning it in 1953 and 1954, she has one lingering memory of him and has heard all of the stories.

"He used to come over and toss me in the air, and he'd tell my dad what a beautiful baby he had," King said.

She also remembers the day he died on the track at Indianapolis.

"We would sit around the kitchen table and listen to the race, as people of my generationdid," King said. "I vaguely remember they made the announcement that Bill Vukovich was dead. My dad reached out, turned off the radio, walked out into the alley and we didn't see him for several hours."

Just a little girl, King didn't understand what death meant.

"I knew my dad was different after that," she said.

Eli never spoke about the accident that took his brother. But he continued to race, and after he stopped driving, never tired of reminiscing about the sport the two had shared.

What started as a couple kids getting their kicks on the family property turned into a moneymaking venture for teenagers trying to help support a sick mother and five sisters after their father committed suicide in 1932, the year of the Depression in which he lost his farm.

"Somehow they made their way to a track and started racing," King said. "I think Bill was more of a daredevil. He was a rebel. My dad went along with him and they made good money. They got $25 if they won a race and that was more than they made in a week or two working. They made pennies an hour picking grapes."

Bill Vukovich, in particular, was likely to bring home first-place money.

"They were ferocious," said Stockton 99 Speedway promoter Ken Clapp. "They were tough. Billy Vukovich was one of the great, great drivers of all time at Indy. Another of his greatest experiences was driving midget race cars."

It was a midget car he drove to victory at Stockton 99 Speedway in 1947.

King wasn't even born when her uncle won that race after having won the Pacific Coast midget racing crown the previous two years. In fact, she has very few memories of being at a race track as a child.

"I know you were never allowed to wear green because it was a bad-luck color," she said. "My dad used to take money out of his wallet."

Also bad luck, King said, were peanuts.

While today's racers avenge being wronged by other drivers by knocking into them in races, Eli would stick peanuts under the seat of other drivers. If the car flipped, peanuts would fly out and Eli was immediately named as the culprit.

Eli was nicknamed the Banana King because he loved the fruit and would drive down the runway eating them and tossing the peels, as though fellow drivers would slip and slide on them. Sometimes instead of a trophy, he'd be handed a bunch of bananas.

He also was famous for driving down the straightaway and giving a middle finger salute to the grandstand. Paid $25 by promoters to pull the stunt, it never failed to get a crowd going. Or to cost him a $50 fine. Still, it was his trademark.

Billy didn't practice such crowd-pleasers.

He was strictly known for his skill as a racer, as Clapp said, one of the best ever.

Certainly he was one of the best in his day.

He devoted himself to racing, leaving California in 1950 to race full time around the country. Eli, though, was devoted to his career as a mechanic and viewed racing more as a hobby.

His wife eventually got him to quit the sport in 1958.

Bill Vukovich Jr., who was 11 when his father died, followed in his dad's footsteps, and was named Indy 500 Rookie of the Year in 1968.

When his son, Billy III, known as Billy the Kid, began racing in the 1980s, he asked his great uncle Eli to help set up his car. The gesture united Billy, Eli and King and reignited Eli's passion for the sport.

King, who'd always dreamed of being at the Indy 500 with her dad to watch a Vukovich race, realized that dream when she arranged for them to watch Billy the Kid drive in the famed race in 1988, earning Indy 500 Rookie of the Year honors.

"I was holding my dad's hand and we were both shaking and he says, 'Give 'em hell, Butch,' " King remembered.

She thought she misunderstood him, but when she returned home and told her mother what he'd said, her mother said, "Don't you know why he said that? When it was just him and his brother, he always called his brother Butch."

Billy the Kid was killed in 1990 in a sprint car race in Bakersfield at age 27. Eli took his death hard. Racing was never the same for him, although he followed NASCAR until his death five years ago.

King, too, follows NASCAR.

Come Sept. 16, she'll do more than follow it.

She'll proudly serve as the link between the final sanctioned NASCAR race on Stockton 99 Speedway, and the first main event ever held there.

Contact columnist Lori Gilbert at (209) 546-8284 or