Remembered by Rick Kavanagh
Jim Hurtubise may be best remembered as a tough charger who raced U.S.A.C. stock cars, champ and Indy cars, and continued to show his talent as a driver despite a fire at Milwaukee in 1964 that nearly cost him his life.
However, Jim later to be followed by his brother Pete, had a history of stock car racing that goes back to the early days at Merrittville Speedway. Jim would tow his #56 coupe from his home in North Tonawanda, New York, and race regularly on Merrittville's 1/4 mile oval. After the 1955-56 season, Jim left for California to pursue more racing exploits.
He would race anything on four wheels but his first real success showed up in 1960 as Rookie of the Year at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Hurtubise won at Sacramento in 1959, at Langhorne in 1960, and at Springfield in 1961 and 1962. As a member of U.S.A.C. "Herk" would race stock cars, sprint cars and champ cars all over the U.S., and also make his bid at Indy every Memorial Day. The fiery crash occurred at Milwaukee in August of 1964, and Herk was flown to the Army burn centre in Texas. He recovered, 1959 1962 1970 but it was doubtful that he would drive again, since his hands were burnt badly.
Hurtubise disagreed, and had his fingers formed so he could hold a steering wheel. he returned to the sport he loved and was determined to make a success of his career. he continued to race championship cars on the rough flat tracks, such as Trenton and stock cars at Milwaukee, raw fingers and all. Jim came back to finish 14th in USAC points in 1965 and won the Milwaukee 250 Stock Car Race. His hands were healing and he now wore gloves to protect them, but his passion was to continue to race at Indy. He had been given a new Halibrand car to race by the Tombstone Life people, but crashed the first weekend of qualifying. He then drove a Granatelli Novi, that only finished one lap. His best effort was driving for Jim Robbins in 1962 to a 13th place finish. Indianapolis was not kind to Hurtubise.
In 1960 there was engine trouble, in 1961 it was a burned piston, 1963 an oil leak, and 1964 oil pressure trouble, 1965 a broken transmission, overheating in 1966 and a burnt piston in 1968, but he loved the place and he loved the roadsters. One real crowning jewel in "Herks" career occurred in 1966. He had his familiar #56 on the side of a Hemi-Plymouth stock car, he entered the Atlanta NASCAR race and won it, to the surprise of the southern fans. He went on to win a USAC 250 miler at Langhorne as well. It was during this period that I met him at Speedway Park in Hamilton, Merrittville's sister track.
As many of you will remember, Speedway Park was a 1/2 mile oval built in 1961, by Ken Kavanagh, Bill Russell, John Marino, and George Cullen, the same people that founded and owned Merrittville Speedway. It was my first exposure to USAC Championship Sprint Car Racing. These open wheel sprints were fast, and really put on a show.
One of the guests in the Announcer's Booth was Jim Hurtubise and met this 5'9" race driver. I not only remember the ravages caused by the fire in 1964, but also the friendly atmosphere, especially when being interviewed that evening by Wheelspin News owner Dizzy Dean Murray. Those fellows who raced those sprint cars that evening were spectacular but the lasting impression was left by "Herk". I believe it was during 1968 that Herk built his lasting achievement. He constructed a modern front engined Indy roadster.
You have to remember that this was at a time when Indy cars were rear-engined. He named his creation the Mallard. It was a pretty duck-tailed roadster, powered by a 4 cylinder turbo charged Offy. Since Jim Hurtubise was one of the first to go over 150 mphs at Indianapolis, he set his sights higher.
Again this is the car that let him down at Indy in 1968, but it wouldn't in his new pursuit. On Friday July 5, 1968, the Mallard set a new 2.5 mile closed course record of 191.938 mph. for one lap. He had beaten Cale Yarborough's record of 189.22. Jim "Herk" Hurtubise is gone now, but not forgotten. He was the only driver who raced at Merrittville to race at Indy. He was the true epitome of a "charger". When you think of Herk, think of Merrittville, the Mallard and #56.
Hurtubise earns Posthumous Induction into D.I.R.T. Hall of Fame A true pioneer of automobile racing in Southern Ontario and New York state has been named the 1998 pioneer selection for the DIRT Motorsports Hall of Fame.
Induction ceremonies are scheduled for Sunday May 24, 1998 on the Cayuga Co. Fairgrounds. While Jim’s career spawned four decades, he was the only competitor to race at Merrittville Speedway and go on to USAC and race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, fondly known as the “Brickyard”. After his driving career ended, Jim operated a hunting lodge in Texas, however he died of a sudden heart attack on January 6, 1989. His wife Jane resides in Indianapolis today.
It is with deep appreciation that I reprint an article that I wrote for Merrittville Memories a year ago.
Its especially fitting that we at Merrittville Speedway celebrate his induction during our race night tonight, this is where Jim Hurtubise competed in the mid 1950's and also where he won his first race some 43 years ago. Sincerely, Rick Kavanagh