20 Best Dirt Track Racers Who Won The Indy 500: #17 Kelly Petillo

Post 1935 Indianapolis 500 win- Kelly Petillo & Jimmy Dunham. Photo from IMS Blog.

The 103rd Indianapolis 500 event is scheduled to take place on Sunday, May 26, 2019, at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indiana. The legendary event has been the premier event for American open wheel racing for decades with roots deeply imbedded in dirt track racing. To honor this heritage, we plan on counting down the top 20 dirt track racers that have won the Indianapolis 500.

We continue our countdown with #17 Kelly Petillo. Born Cavino Michelli “Kelly” Petillo in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, who led a colorful but sad life. He competed in the Indianapolis 500 on ten occasions, winning the race in 1935. This was the first win by a car powered by an Offenhauser engine, starting a legacy that will never be achieved again in a non-engine spec series. Petillo won the 1935 AAA National Championship. These were the high-points in a career that saw many lost years when he ran afoul of the law.

His star began to rise in the early 1930s when he became a routine winner at Legion Ascot. When he teamed with Joe Marks, he became one of the top drivers in the country. He battled and bested drivers like Rex Mays, Mauri Rose, Floyd Robers, and Al Gordon routinely.

1935 would be Petillo’s best year as a driver, but would start down the road of destruction as a person. Winning features at Legion Ascot going into May, Petillo built his own Indy car, which included an engine on credit from Fred Offenhauser.

Kelly Petillo in the #5 Gilmore Speedway Special (Wetteroth/Offy) at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1935. Photo from IMS.com.

At Indy, Petillo qualified on pole but was DQ’d for a fueling violation. He started in 22nd and drove through the field to win the race. He didn’t handle his success very well and was constantly in trouble with the law for assaults, drunkenness, disorderly conduct. His entry into the 1946 Indy 500 was rejected, which he fought, and lost in court. This all came to a head when he was charged with assault and battery with intent to kill in 1948. He was tried, convicted, and sentenced to 10 years in the Indiana State Prison in 1949.

After he was released, Petillo was returned to prison for parole violation. He was released on April 23, 1959 and promptly filed an entry into the Indianpolis 500. The Speedway rejected his entry and he took the matter back to court where he lost again. Kelly “the Shiv” Petillo died of Emphysema in 1970. A very sad ending to a once great dirt racing superstar.

About the author

Bobby Kimbrough

Bobby grew up in the heart of Illinois, becoming an avid dirt track race fan which has developed into a life long passion. Taking a break from the Midwest dirt tracks to fight evil doers in the world, he completed a full 21 year career in the Marine Corps.
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