Jim Hurtubise is best remembered as a tough charger who raced just about anything with four wheels. He continued to display talent and passion even after a fire at Milwaukee in 1964 nearly cost him his life. A life long fan of front engined roadsters, Herk drove the last one at the Brickyard in 1968.
Jim Hurtubise was from North Tonawanda, located midway between Buffalo and Niagara Falls. A big favorite with the fans, you just knew when Herk sat down in a race car that something was going to happen.
Hurtubise raced in the USAC Championship Car series in the 1959-1968 and 1970-1974 seasons, with 97 career starts. He began competing in local stock car races with brother Pete in the early 1950's, and later in Tampa as a member of the U.S. Coast Guard.
After a stint of racing modified stock cars in California, Jim became involved with sprint cars and was leading the IMCA points standings in 1959 when Art Lathrop offered him a drive in the USAC Hoosier 100. Herk won his second USAC race in Sacramento, which set the stage for his 1960 debut at the Indy 500.
There he set a new one lap record of 149.601 and won Rookie of the Year honors. Later in his career, driving one of the wild Novis, he bet Parnelli Jones he would lead the first lap. In one of the wildest first lap rides ever Herk beat Parnelli by inches to collect the bet.
Jim ran in the Indy 500 10 times between 1960 and 1974. Twice he started on the front row, but Tony's palace was never very kind to the always smiling Herk. In 1960 there was engine trouble, in 1961 it was a burned piston, 1963 an oil leak, 1964 oil pressure trouble, 1965 a broken transmission and overheating in 1966, but he loved the place and he loved the roadsters. His best finish was a 13th in 1962.
In 1968 Herk built a modern front engined Indy roadster at a time when Indy cars were rear-engined. The Mallard was a pretty roadster, powered by a 4 cylinder turbo charged Offy. This became the last front engined car at the Brickyard but sadly his day ended early with another retirement due to a burnt piston. However on Friday July 5, 1968, the Mallard set a new 2.5 mile closed course record of 191.938 mph. for one lap beating Cale Yarborough's record of 189.22.
He attempted to qualify a front engined car for the Indy 500 every year from 1975 to 1981 but failed. One year, on "bump day", he put his Miller Beer sponsored car in the line for qualifying shortly before the closing deadline. The time expired before it was his turn to qualify. He then removed the engine cover to reveal that the car had no engine, but a cooler filled with his sponsor's product which he shared with the pit crews and race officials.
In 1957, Hurtubise started racing in NASCAR. Over the next twenty years, he would race 36 times, winning only once at the Atlanta Motor Speedway in 1966 but finishing in the top ten eleven times.
Champ cars, sprint cars or stock cars Herk drove them all as fast as they would run. He was a threat to win every time out, if the car could stand his right foot on the throttle.
A week after the 1964 Indy 500 on June 7, Jim suffered a horrific crash at Milwaukee. He sustained burns over 42 percent of his body, and nearly died. Herk was flown to the Army burn centre in Texas. He recovered, but he was told that he would drive again as his hands were so badly burnt. Jim ordered doctors to mold his severely burned hands to grip a steering wheel. The stands erupted in cheers when he sat in his familiar red number 56 for the first time after the accident, for 1965's first championship race in Phoenix, in which he finished fourth.
Hurtubise continued racing into the late 1970's and few race fans ever see that number 56 on a race car without smiling as they remember Jim Hurtubise, a true crowd pleaser.
Hurtubise died on January 6, 1989 after suffering a heart attack near his home in Port Arthur, Texas. He was 56 years old.