Hayward’s Bob Sweikert was one of 16 driversamong the 33 who started the 1955 Indianapolis500 who would be killed in racetrack accidentsover the next
Hayward's Bob Sweikert was one of 16 drivers among the 33 who started the 1955 Indianapolis 500 who would be killed in racetrack accidents over the next 11 years.
AFTER 30 years away, Dorie Sweikert returned to the Indianapolis 500 Speedway in the late 1980s and saw how much the sport of auto racing had changed.

"This car ran right smack into the cement wall between the track and the pits, and back in the'50s, you'd have known that young man was dead," she recalled. "The engine came out of the thing ... the wheels were off ... the car disintegrated like nothing I'd ever seen.

"And the driver was all right."

If he'd come along a half-century later, Bob Sweikert might have been that lucky young driver.

In the 1950s, talent won races, but luck decided who lived and died on the track. The good drivers weren't immune.

"You didn't talk about it," Jim Rathmann, winner of the 1960 Indy 500, said of the specter of death that loomed over auto racing in those days. "I never talked about how brave I was. I just raced. That was your job.

"I was 17 when I first started racing. I didn't even think I'd hit 21. When I hit 30, I figured I'd better quit."

Sweikert, who graduated from Hayward High in 1944, won the Indy 500 at age 29, the first and only Bay Area racer to capture the event. Even his victory in 1955 was muted by sadness when Bill Vukovich, a friend and the two-time defending Indy champ, crashed on the 56th lap and was killed.

Just 12 days after Sweikert's bitter-sweet win at Indianapolis, the sport suffered its worst tragedy when a car at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in France went off the track and into the crowd, killing 80 spectators.

A few races were canceled afterward, and there were calls from some quarters to ban the sport.

Sweikert, even after his big victory,

"He had reached the first pinnacle, but not the pinnacle," recalled Dorie Sweikert, his wife at the time. "He said, 'I still can't relax.' He said this was just one race. Now his dream was not just to win Indy, but to be the best in the world.

"There was always the darkness ... the thing about Vukie.

RACE CAR driver Bob Sweikert celebrates his win in the 1955Indianapolis 500 with his wife, Dorrie.
RACE CAR driver Bob Sweikert celebrates his win in the 1955 Indianapolis 500 with his wife, Dorrie.
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A year later, on June 17, 1956, Sweikert, just turned 30, was killed when his sprint car shot over the edge of the high-banked, half-mile track at Salem, Ind.

Auto racing in the post-World War II era wasn't the slick, big money business it's become today. NASCAR hadn't yet arrived to swallow the sport.

None of today's safeguards existed then. There were no space-age helmets and flame-proof racing suits. Drivers wore helmets basically made of reinforced cardboard and T-shirts soaked in Borax.

"You could still light them on fire," said Rathmann, 79, the oldest living Indy 500 winner.

Drivers sit so low in modern cars, nestled safely into a protective cockpit, that you can hardly see them. Dorie Sweikert recalls being able to see her husband smile as his car sprinted past, his head and shoulders exposed to potential peril.

"It was a time before safety — that's just the way it was," said Steven Levinson, a semi-retired attorney and amateur auto racing historian, who grew up in Indianapolis in the 1940s and '50s. "There was kind of a machismo attached to it.

"When they first started to use roll bars, traditionalists thought it was just awful. Of course, it saved a lot of lives."

Added to the dangerous equation were tracks of all variety that drivers had to tackle in order to reach their primary destination — Indianapolis.

Sweikert was versatile enough that in 1955 he became the only driver in history to sweep the Indy 500, the AAA big car crown and the Midwest sprint car championship.

Donald Davidson, historian for the Indianapolis 500, said Sweikert is highly regarded among those familiar with the sport's heritage.

"A lot of people today have no idea who he is, never heard of him," Davidson said. "But there are those who think he adapted to the track as well as anybody.

"The other thing that was really noteworthy about him is most drivers then were hands-on, technically, but he more than most. He actually maintained his sprint car, even after he won (Indy)."

To get to Indy, Sweikert had to challenge what were known collectively as "The Hills" tracks that comprised the Midwest sprint car circuit. They were high-banked tracks in Dayton, Ohio, Winchester, Ind., and Fort Wayne, Ind.

"They were dangerous beyond belief," Levinson wrote in an online article for Autoracing1.com. "A good Sunday was when every driver cheated death and went home alive."

The Salem Speedway joined "The Hills" circuit in 1947, and immediately demonstrated its potential for disaster. On the first lap of the first race held at Salem, on June 22, 1947, Clay Corbitt locked wheels with Jack Schultz, went over the banking and was killed.

Not all would race "The Hills." Six-time Indy 500 entrant Jimmy Reece refused, calling it "the idiot circuit."

For most drivers, the Midwest sprint car series was a necessary proving ground. "If you wanted to be a racer, that's what you had to do," Rathmann said. "The guys who didn't run there, they were flat-ass chicken."

No one had to twist Bob Sweikert's arm to race at Salem. "That was Bob's favorite of the half-mile tracks," Dorie Sweikert said. "The banks were spooky. But he liked to race on them."

Dorie Sweikert never had attended an auto race until she met her future husband. Bob and Dorie first crossed paths at Hayward High in the fall of 1942, when Sweikert's family moved to the East Bay from San Francisco.

Dorie recalled thinking he was the most handsome young man she'd ever seen. "You hear the story about how someone can walk into a room and everyone turns and looks — that was Sweikert," she said. "He had that charisma."

After a complicated, sometimes off-and-on courtship, they were married in 1953.

In between, she got her first taste of the sport — and it terrified her.

"It was a very scary thing ... the sound was so frightening," said Dorie Sweikert, now 79 and living in Redding. "I had a deep spiritual belief that got me through that. I had to work very hard at that, not to make it a negative. You just couldn't be afraid all the time."

Perhaps in part because Bob Sweikert refused to accept fear, Dorie convinced herself he was safe from harm. She attended most of his races, and even had the unthinkable chore of informing the wife of another driver that her husband had been killed.

But Dorie didn't believe it would happen to Sweikert.

"I wanted what he wanted," she said. "I know that sounds corny, but that's the way it was. It would do no good for anyone to tell Bob Sweikert to quit racing. He would have raced, anyway."

After winning the'55 Indy title, Sweikert began plotting his next move. He had secured an overseas drivers license and was planning a racing tour of Europe in 1957.

First there was the business of trying to defend his Indy 500 title. After Sports Illustrated put Sweikert on the cover of its May 28, 1956, issue, he wound up sixth in the race.

That wasn't what qualified him as an early victim of the SI jinx.

On the morning of his June 17 race at Salem, Dorie Sweikert recalled her husband complaining his car wasn't handling quite right. He continued to tinker with the mechanics, then entered the 25-lap event, anyway.

Sweikert was completing just his fourth lap as Oakland driver Ed Elisian's car seemed to push Sweikert gradually higher and higher up the banked track.

"I saw him coming out of the fourth turn, he and Ed up so high," Dorie Sweikert said. "I didn't see him airborne."

Sweikert's car flew over the outside wall, through a photographer's booth and crash-landed in a weed patch. Sweikert was thrown from the car and was pronounced dead of head injuries upon arrival at Washington County Hospital.

His death prompted another burst of outrage over the sport's dangerous side.

Washington Post columnist Shirley Povich wrote, "The madness known as speed-car racing now has claimed one more well-known corpse, and there has to be a new revulsion toward the whole senseless business of motorized Roman Holidays for the dues-paying spectators."

Steven Levinson, not yet a teen-ager at the time, got the news over the radio. "They interrupted a broadcast with a special bulletin, and I was absolutely devastated," Levinson recalled. "He was one of the good guys.

"I don't know how you could be the wife of a race car driver in those days. You go to Salem, and you go home a widow. It's like Iraq — it's that kind of grief."

That grief gripped the loved ones of dozens of race car drivers in the 1950s. Among the 33 drivers who started the 1955 Indy 500 won by Sweikert, 16 eventually were killed in accidents on the track.

Fifteen were gone within just seven years.

For Dorie Sweikert, the loss never really went away. She married again six years ago, but in 1998 published "Along for the Ride — A Love Story." The book is a personal, poignant and sometimes painful look back on her time with Bob Sweikert.

"It had been there in my head and in my heart for a long time," she said. "One day I just said, 'OK,' and I wrote it."

Dorie doesn't blame anyone for Sweikert's death. She figures it was a combination of factors, but mostly this: "It was Bob's time to die, and he died."

Fifty years later, her memories of those days paint a picture of the entire experience.

"There were exciting, happy, even playful moments," she said. "And there were sad ones. Times you just didn't want to look."