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How a long-lost manuscript on one of Indy 500's most tragic stories finally came to life

INDIANAPOLIS -- On the morning of the day he would die at Indianapolis Motor Speedway vying for his third straight Indianapolis 500 victory, Bill Vukovich did things he had never done before on a race day. They were strange, over-the-top, sentimental, emotional, touching, odd things.

It was almost as if he knew.

After the 36-year-old Vukovich got ready on that race morning on May 30, 1955, he gave his wife, Esther, a kiss. Moments later, he walked back to Esther and gave her another kiss.

"What was that for?" his wife asked him. Vukovich smiled. "Can't a man kiss his own wife?" He then drained his wallet, except for one dollar bill he would use for breakfast, and handed it to Esther, telling her, "I won't be needing (the money)."

But he did talk about needing luck that morning, something he had never referenced in his four previous Indy 500s, including the consecutive races he had won in 1953 and 1954.

Vukovich then walked out the back door of the house he was staying at for the race and walked right by Conkle Funeral Home on his way to the track.

He had no idea then, but in an eerie, devastating, tragic twist of fate, that same funeral home is where Vukovich would end his day.

It was the 57th lap of the 1955 Indy 500 and Vukovich was leading as he exited Turn 2 behind three slower cars driven by Al Keller, Rodger Ward and Johnny Boyd when Ward's car hit the backstretch outer wall and flipped, landing in the middle of the track. Keller, trying to avoid Ward, hit Boyd's car and pushed it into Vukovich's path.

Vukovich's car went over the outside wall and became airborne. It flipped multiple times, landing on top of a group of parked cars before resting upside down and bursting into flames.

As the car burned, fellow driver Ed Elisian stopped, jumped out of his own car and raced in horror toward Vukovich to try to help him. It was too late. Tests revealed Vukovich had died instantly from a skull fracture.

The headlines blared the startling words about "Vuky," one of auto racing's most beloved drivers: "Vuky Dead in Pileup" and "Vuky Burns to Death in Five-Car Smashup: Flaming Death of Vukovich Ends Colorful 17-Year Racing Career."

But as the world and his family mourned Vukovich's death, there was one man who felt the loss deeply. That man was Indianapolis News sports reporter Angelo Angelopolous, one of the most talented writers to grace the printed pages of the city.

Grappling with the loss of his close friend, whom he had spent many days and nights with at his Speedway garage and the town's dives and restaurants, Angelopolous took his grief and mourning and started writing a book about Vukovich.

It was a raw, real, fascinating story of the tragic ending to a life with so much promise ahead.

But when Angelopolous' own life ended seven years later in tragedy, cut short at the age of 43 after battling leukemia, it seemed that book would never be published.

And it wasn't for more than six decades. Not until another former Indianapolis News sportswriter found out about Angelopolous' manuscript on Vukovich, revived it and brought it to life in a newly-published book.

"This book is a biography, according to literary classification," Mark Montieth writes in the prologue of the book titled "Vukovich: The Man Who Wouldn't Lift." "But it's also a drama, a mystery and, ultimately, a tragedy."

Actually, two tragedies -- the author and the subject.

Front cover of "Vukovich: The Man who Wouldn't Lift," recounting the life of racecar driver Bill Vukovich who won the 1953 and 1954 Indy 500 but died in the 1955 race.
Front cover of "Vukovich: The Man who Wouldn't Lift," recounting the life of racecar driver Bill Vukovich who won the 1953 and 1954 Indy 500 but died in the 1955 race.

'It was a mess, double-spaced, typewritten...'

Montieth became familiar with Angelopolous' work 30 years ago while reading microfilm of old articles as he did research on the city's early professional basketball teams -- the Indianapolis Kautskys of the 1940s and the Olympians of the early 1950s.

"And I kept running into his stories about those teams, and it just jumped out at me how good he was," said Montieth, who started at the Indianapolis News in 1993 and left IndyStar in 2008. "He was really good, and he was so well-liked by everyone he covered."

Montieth became curious about his old fellow "Newsy" with the byline Angelopolous and he started calling people who would have known him. It was the early 1990s, so plenty of people were still alive, including his wife Joann and his younger brother, Jimmie, who worked for the News until he retired in 1991.

"I talked to Jimmie and, in those conversations, I learned that Angelo had written a book on Vukovich that never got published," Montieth said. "But it didn't really register with me."

Montieth was more interested in learning about Angelopolous' career as a sportswriter. The book was a side note he quickly forgot about.

A photo of Angelo Angelopolous who was one of the most talented sportswriters of his time working for the Indianapolis News.
A photo of Angelo Angelopolous who was one of the most talented sportswriters of his time working for the Indianapolis News.

But then about a year ago for reasons even Montieth can't explain, he remembered that unpublished book on Vukovich he had heard about in the early 1990s, and he became motivated to start digging into it. First, He Googled obituaries and found out that one of Angelopolous' sisters had married Pete Kirles, who owned a jewelry store on 86th Street.

The original Pete Kirles died long ago, but his son Pete Kirles (Angelopolous' nephew) was still alive. Through the jewelry store, Montieth got in touch with him.

"I reached out to Pete just to see what he knew about Angelo, whatever information he might have," Montieth said. "And he mentioned that he had the manuscript of (the) book in his closet."

It was a manuscript that, through the years, had floated around. Other family members had been owners of it, former IndyStar sportswriter Robin Miller once had it in his hands and IMS' longtime track historian Donald Davidson knew about it.

Davidson told Montieth that sometime around 1990, a racing publication had even published a chapter from the manuscript hoping there would be enough interest in it to motivate somebody to turn it into a book.

If Montieth had been intrigued before by Angelopolous' long-lost manuscript, he was really intrigued now. He asked Kirles if he could take a look at it. Kirles dropped the manuscript off at the jewelry store and Montieth went in and picked it up.

A hand-edited inside page of Angelo Angelopolous' typewritten manuscript on the life of his friend and racecar driver Bill Vukovich. He had a contract with a publisher in 1960, but the project was abandoned for unknown reasons.
A hand-edited inside page of Angelo Angelopolous' typewritten manuscript on the life of his friend and racecar driver Bill Vukovich. He had a contract with a publisher in 1960, but the project was abandoned for unknown reasons.

"It was a mess. I mean, double-spaced, typewritten with all these handwritten edits," said Montieth. "And that, I think, just scared off everybody. It obviously was going to require a lot of work to even put it into a condition where you could edit it."

Montieth's wife, Faith, took on that challenge. He would get up in the mornings and she would be down at the kitchen table typing away. She typed the entire manuscript into a laptop word for word. She and Montieth then went over Angelopolous' handwritten edits together, trying to make out his writing. They added back in some of the words he had crossed out.

When they were done, Montieth was in awe of what Angelopolous had put together -- and he decided this manuscript would never be forgotten again.

'It just needed to be Angelo's book'

Montieth said he has no clue why the manuscript wasn't published in 1960, two years before Angelopolous died. He found separate stories in the Indianapolis News that said Angelopolous had secured a contract with Indianapolis publishing company Bobbs Merrill to bring out the book in the spring of 1960.

"And again, it didn't happen. It just didn't happen," Montieth said. "I could only speculate why it didn't happen."

Angelopolous may have been dying of leukemia in 1960, but he was still writing a lot. He wrote his last article in the newspaper in September of 1962, and he died weeks later on Oct. 14, 1962.

"He worked as long as he could possibly work, so it wasn't (his illness)" Montieth said. "But he obviously just put that manuscript aside and gave up on it because it just never got beyond the condition it was in when I got it."

Indianapolis News sportswriter Angelo Angelopolous is shown at IMS, still covering auto racing even as he battled leukemia, which would ultimately take his life.
Indianapolis News sportswriter Angelo Angelopolous is shown at IMS, still covering auto racing even as he battled leukemia, which would ultimately take his life.

Montieth did not list himself as an author of the book saying, "I wanted it to be Angelo's book," but his name is on the epilogue and on an extensive prologue which tells the story of Angelopolous.

"I was seven years old when Angelo died in 1962, so obviously I had never met him and had only heard about him and read him, but I just liked the idea of kind of doing this favor for him and getting this book published that he had obviously spent a lot of time on," Montieth said. "It had to be a real pain to him to have that thing go by the wayside. It just needed to be Angelo's book."

While Angelopolous may not have gotten to see his Vukovich manuscript published, his nephew Pete Kirles is "thrilled to death" that his uncle's words live on, said Montieth.

The book is so much more than a biography or a mundane historical account of Vukovich's life because it was written by a man who knew him and loved him.

"They became such good friends. It was back in that era where (journalists) were more allowed to be friends with somebody they wrote about," Montieth said. "They just got to know each other and became close."

That wasn't a usual thing for Vukovich. He never wanted media around, he never cared what people thought of him and he wasn't ever going to "suck up" to anyone.

"Yet, Angelo was granted a one-on-one interview with Vukovich, and a friendship was born," said Montieth. "Angelo was always welcome in his garage and they went to dinner together. That's what separates this book from other things that have been written about Vukovich. It takes you into the garage. It takes you to dinner with them. It's a present tense thing instead of just looking back."

Bill Vukovich was one of the most popular drivers in Speedway history, and his death during the race in 1955 rocked the sport. He was bidding for his third consecutive victory at the time.
Bill Vukovich was one of the most popular drivers in Speedway history, and his death during the race in 1955 rocked the sport. He was bidding for his third consecutive victory at the time.

Angelopolous titled his manuscript, "The Man Who Wouldn't Lift" because of Vukovich's bold driving style. Cars in his era would reach 180 miles per hour on the straights but didn't have the aerodynamics to maintain that speed in the turns.

"Vukovich won because he kept his foot on the throttle longer than other drivers," Montieth writes in the book. "He was strong enough and brave enough to take on more speed through the turns while other drivers let up."

Angelopolous didn't lift either.

"He wrote for as long as his withering body permitted, returning to the typewriter until he simply couldn't go on," writes Montieth. "Despite all the tributes, memorials and memories he inspired, his primary legacy should be his written words. Hopefully this collection of them, tardy as it is, will stand as his greatest triumph."

Buy "Vukovich: The Man Who Wouldn't Lift online at Amazon, Walmart, Barnes & Noble, Half Court Press and in person at Kirles Jewelers and Three Sisters and a Trunk in Speedway.

Follow IndyStar sports reporter Dana Benbow on X: @DanaBenbow. Reach her via email: dbenbow@indystar.com.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Long-lost manuscript on Bill Vukovich's tragic story lives on