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.
Today we break into our top 3 with Troy Ruttman at #3. Many fans may question our ranking of Ruttman so high on the top 20 list due to his relatively sporadic career after his career defining Indy win. We answer this by explaining that a diver is more than just his accomplishments on the track. Ruttman was a young racing prodigy, who may have peaked too early, but his influence and assistance to other drivers were invaluable to the sport. He earned our #3 spot for being a teacher and mentor as much as a winner.
Troy Ruttman came from a poor family in Southern California. In 1945, Ruttman took the family’s beat-up wreck and entered a roadster race in San Bernardino, California. Remarkably, the 15-year-old won the race and went on to win 19 of the 21 races held at the track that season. The die was cast.
By 1947, Ruttman was racing, and winning in the California Roadster Association (CRA), a sanctioned series that still exists to this day. In fact, he was the CRA series champion. The young driver managed to find open seats in midget cars and won the first five events he entered in that class. He continued racing in the CRA and repeated as champion in 1948. Meanwhile, he competed regularly in the URA Blue Circuit for the more powerful Offy engine midgets, and won a championship there with 23 wins on the season.
Convinced of his ability, car own AJ Walker took Ruttman to the high profile, and lucrative races in the AAA series in the Midwest. Just as he had done in California, Ruttman won three AAA Sprint Car championships in the next three seasons. He also competed in 51 midget races, winning 16 and placing in the top three 28 times, his natural skill was on show for all to see.
It was inevitable that Ruttman would wind up at Indy, and in his first Indianapolis 500 race, the 19-year-old driver took an aging car and milked the most out of it before retiring in the pits. The next year he crashed into the wall during practice, setting a track record on the lap prior to the crash. In 1951, Ruttman qualified well, but his car was worn out near the end of the race, and he was forced to retire in the pits.
1952 was completely different than his past attempts to win the brickyard’s most famous race. He had a great car, and one of the best chief mechanics at the time. Even with a great crew, there were some bumps in the road. The team accidentally set Ruttman on fire in the second pit stop when the dangerous blend of methanol, gasoline, and nitromethane caught fire. Ruttman never left the cockpit. He waited for the crew to put the fire out, then drove back on to the track. Taking a late race lead with eight laps remaining, he crossed the finish line as the youngest driver to ever win the race. He still holds that distinction today.
He was injured from a sprint car crash in August 1952, which sidelined Ruttman for one and a half racing seasons. Ruttman returned in 1954 on a greatly reduced, and sporadic schedule. The driver would show up at different tracks, many times with odd machines, and occasionally show flashes of his driving brilliance. He often helped the other drivers, teaching them how to make the most of what they had.
After attempting to race stock cars in the NASCAR Cup Series for a couple of years, Ruttman retired after the Indianapolis 500 in 1964 to operated a motorcycle and snowmobile shop in Michigan. He died of lung cancer in 1997.
Ruttman was inducted into the Indianapolis 500 Hall of Fame in 1992, the Sprint Car Hall of Fame in 1993, the West Coast Stock Car Hall of Fame in 2002, the National Midget Hall of Fame in 2003, and the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 2005.
Parnelli Jones still calls Troy Ruttman the best there ever was.