Stockton 99 Speedway 1946 ( before completion)
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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 email@example.com