The North Tonawanda History Museum reminded us, through a banner on their window, that Wednesday (May 21) is Jim (Herk) Hurtubise day, in the city of his birth.
Hurtubise (1932–1989), nicknamed Hercules, or Herk, for his belligerent, muscular style, was a race car driver from North Tonawanda.
Despite limited success, and a hand smashing injury when he was at his peak - he was a favorite of fans as an underdog, a showman, and a crash victim who returned to the sport after everyone counted him out.
A free-spirited maverick with a heavy right foot, and his own style of cornering, he was the last of the old-style race car drivers.
In 1957, Hurtubise started his NASCAR career. Over the next 20 years he competed in 36 races, winning one at Atlanta Motor Speedway, and amassing eleven top 10 finishes.
Hurtubise raced in the USAC Championship Car series from 1959–1974, with 97 starts. He finished in the top 10, 38 times, with four victories.
Hurtubise ran in 10 Indianapolis 500 races between 1960 and 1974. His best finish was 13th in 1962.
In the 1964 Rex Mays Classic, in Milwaukee, Hurtubise crashed and a fuel tank exploded, setting him on fire. He was flown to the burn center at the Brooke Army Hospital in San Antonio with second-and third-degree burns over 40 percent of his body. The little finger of his right hand was amputated at the first joint.
When asked how he wanted to have his remaining fingers permanently fused, he told doctors, "Just make 'em so I can hold a steering wheel."
Thereafter, his knuckles flexed, but his fingers were fused into claws. On both hands, there was a webbing of skin between the third and fourth fingers. If he even dialed a phone or opened a can, his hands would bleed.
Yet the following March, Hurtubise finished fourth in an Indy car race at Phoenix. He qualified and ran - although he finished 33rd - in the next (1965) Indy 500.
In the spring of 1966, he won the Atlanta 500 in a Plymouth.
In 1967, he won the Ralph DePalma Award for "perseverance in the pursuit of the sport of auto racing."
But his career began to slide and, ironically, not because of his crippled hands.
Hurtubise's career began at a time when everybody had access to the same, uncomplicated engines and chassis. Whatever edge a team created for itself was the result of the skill of its driver or the talents of its mechanic.
This changed in the mid 1960's with the introduction of the turbocharger. Tire companies developed wider tires, car builders designed chassis with wings, spoilers, trim tabs and other aerodynamics, and engines were moved to the rear, all of which made race cars corner faster, and made them impossibly expensive for small, independent drivers and owners.
In 1960, Hurtubise held the record for the fastest lap in the history of Indy, a qualifying lap just .16 of a second below 150 mph.
Now rear engined turbo-charged cars were soaring past 200 mph.
Big corporate stepped in to own the industry. Goodyear soon became the dominant source of financial support for successful owners and drivers and Hurtubise, unable to fit in with Goodyear's corporate sponsorship style, and unable to afford the expensive, turbo charged rear engined cars, became an anachronism.
As time progressed, his efforts became increasingly quixotic, as he continued to appear with his inexpensive, front-engine cars, garnering what sponsorship he could, to compete against vastly more expensive, faster, more aerodynamic cars with both large Goodyear tires, and sponsorship.
He drove the last front engine car ever used by any driver in the Indy 500 in 1968. He drove the last front engine car, the Mallard/Offy, in any IndyCar race, at Michigan in 1972, qualifying 26th (last) and finishing 23rd.
Thereafter, Hurtubise attempted to qualify a front-engined car for the Indy 500 every year from 1975 to 1981 but failed.
In time, he became more of a showman, a protester, and a colorful relic of the past, when races could be won by a driver with talent without huge corporate sponsorship.
One year, in Gasoline Alley, at the height of a tire (and sponsorship) war between Goodyear and Firestone, to the dismay of both companies, Hurtubise wheeled out a roadster that sported two Firestones and two Goodyears.
On May 21, 1972, on "bump day," he put his Miller Beer sponsored car in line to make a qualification attempt shortly before the closing deadline of 6 p.m.. 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 five chilled cases of his sponsor's product, which he shared with the other pit crews and race officials.
In 1978, when he did not meet certified speed and was denied an attempt to make the race, he got in Bob Harkey's car and locked the brakes. He then ran on the track until he was apprehended by the police.
On another occasion, while being sponsored by Pepsi-Cola, he raised a 22-foot Pepsi blimp over his Indy garage, mocking the larger Goodyear airship, until a voice over the public-address system blared, "Jim Hurtubise, report to the garage office—or we're going to shoot that thing down."
After suffering a heart attack near his home in Port Arthur, Tex., he died on Jan.6, 1989. He was 56.
Hurtubise grew up in 1930's and 40's in North Tonawanda where he worked with his father Ernie, and brother, Jim, at their modest auto garage. He married Jane (1932-1999) and had three children, Karen, Patty and Andy.
Hurtubise was inducted into the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in 1993.
At the North Tonawanda History Museum, open house is from 10 to 3 p.m., on Wednesday for Jim (Herk) Hurtubise Day.
An entire exhibit about Herk is on display.