Jim Hurtubise and the Mallard-Offy

Mallard-Offy 1968Here’s one of the most beloved stories in Speedway history: the tale of Jim Hurtubise and his Mallard-Offy, the last roadster to race in the Indianapolis 500. 

 

 

In the golden age of the Offy roadsters at Indy, there were three young lions on the USAC championship trail: A.J. Foyt, Parnelli Jones and Jim Hurtubise. On the dirt ovals that led to the Speedway, these three were the fiercest and fastest. Foyt and Jones went on to wealth and fame. Hurtubise may have been the fiercest of all, but he never got his due.

Hurtubise made his bones in a 100-miler at Sacramento in 1959. The heavy track surface was breaking up and as the other drivers backed off, Hurtubise only got faster. The more dangerous the track, the better he liked it: He ruled at Langhorne, owned Terre Haute. Foyt and Jones were “braver than Dick Tracy,” wrote the sports journalists of the era in their corny vernacular, but Hurtubise was “tougher than dirt.”

They tagged him Hercules, soon shortened to simply Herk, and in his rookie appearance at Indy in 1960, Herk became a bona fide star. Squaring off the corners as if the Brickyard were a dirt half-mile, he out-qualified pole-sitter Eddie Sachs by 3 mph. Those who could bear to watch his hair-raising display of car control were awestruck.

 

1968 Mallard-Offy on scales

But while Foyt and Jones shrewdly managed their careers, Hurtubise relied on his big heart to choose his rides. He wasted several years at Indy driving the hopeless Novi, and in 1964 he campaigned an updated coil-over Watson copy he built himself. It was this car, equipped with an auxiliary fuel tank, in which he was horribly burned in a crash at Milwaukee. He survived, barely, but spent nine months in a burn unit undergoing primitive and painful skin grafts. At his request, the doctors repaired his hands with his fingers permanently tightened to grip a steering wheel.

When Herk returned to racing in ’65, he was labeled damaged goods, as his tender hands could no longer take the pounding of the dirt tracks. He moved over to stock cars and took some NASCAR rides, winning the 1966 Atlanta 500, but returned to Indy every year with his own often unusual equipment.

Hurtubise was technically savvy, and contrary to popular belief, he had no major problem with mid-engined cars—he made three Indy 500 starts in them. Being contrary was just Herk’s idea of fun. Precisely because the front-engined roadsters were considered obsolete, in 1966 he built a roadster for Indy. A dedicated outdoorsman, he named the design after his favorite creature of his native upstate New York: the Mallard.

 

Mallard-Offy on pit road

Mid-engined cars had multiple advantages over the old roadsters: Their rear weight bias gave better bite off the corners, and their compact layout presented less frontal area. But as Hurtubise saw it, the key advantage was their much lighter weight, and for his roadster, he made weight-saving a priority. He said, “They said you couldn’t build a roadster as light as the rear-engined cars. I have. It weighs only 1350 pounds.”

Otherwise the Mallard was a conventional roadster, more or less, but with its turbocharged Offy set back farther in the tubular steel frame. The car was reasonably fast at first, but Hurtubise managed to qualify it only once at Indy, in 1968, burning pistons at such a rate that he exhausted the supply of spare Offenhausers in the garage area. On race day the Mallard lasted only nine laps before the engine gave out again.

 

Mallard-Offy 1969

In the following seasons the roadster quickly grew uncompetitive, serving mostly as a prop for the informal saloon Herk ran out of his garage space in Gasoline Alley each May. The Mallard last appeared at the Speedway in 1980, and in 1989 Hurtubise died of a sudden heart attack while fishing. He was 56—his familiar car number.

Actually, there were two Mallards constructed. Herk also built one for Texas racer Ebb Rose, but it was written off in a crash. Herk’s own Mallard was modernized with squared-off, wedge-shaped bodywork and last raced at Michigan in 1972, where it started 26th (last) and finished 23rd. But probably the Mallard’s most celebrated moment came on Bump Day at Indy in ’72. The car sat in qualifying line all day without making an attempt, and at six o’clock when the gun sounded, the fun-loving Hurtubise opened the hood, where there was no engine to be found—only five cases of beer on ice for his friends.

 

1972 mallard

Photos by Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Another version of this story by MCG appeared in the September 17, 2001 issue of AutoWeek.

 

9 thoughts on “Jim Hurtubise and the Mallard-Offy

  1. I know this is about Jim Hurtubise’ Indy car career, and vaguely remember the crash that burned him, but I do remember seeing him at State Fair Park in West Allis, Wis. driving a Hub Plymouth in the USAC races with Norm Nelson, and Roger McCluskey. I remember, as a kid, the pictures of him creeped me out, because of the burns to his face, and I always rooted for him (even though, I was a Ford fan) I think his racing suit had the words “Tombstone Life” on it, which, further creeped me out. Thanks, MCG.

  2. I saw this car at the Bedford Indy car museum in Indiana. They had an extra chassis set up to show what the car looked like with both bodies.

  3. Met Jim once at a party in Houston where we sat down and talked for about an hour. A very genuine, humble gentleman who lived to race.

  4. That was a nice entertaining story about someone I hadn’t heard of. I’m curious how much the entry fee was for that final day at Indy – sounds like an expensive party, but I bet it was worth it.

  5. My father in law spent many hours in Jim’s garage on Shawnee Road in Wheatfield NY. He designed & built the frames and suspension for Jim. On that note he always took his little girl with him who became my wife. She spoke about Jim and how she always loved to sit on his lap in the garage. She said even after his accident, she was never scared to go sit on his lap. It meant a lot to Jim as I am sure it was for her. She said his face and hands were burnt badly. To this day I have many pictures of his cars and collectors cars in cases left behind by my in law. I also have an autographed book signed by his author and to make it complete I have my wifes book she took to many tracks with a lot of the racers autographs. It includes his also. Never met Jim but from all the stories I heard, he was a hell of a man. R.I.P. Jim…

  6. I entered the story about the time the frame’s were finished, as I had just finished up with the Norm Demler Turbin car project, and was still in the area. Stopped in one day for lunch and Jim put me to work for the afternoon that lasted 6 months. Don Shepherd was already there, and I welded the tabs on the frame as the Mallard was a semi monocoque light tubing frame with Rolled aluminum riveted to it. Yes Jim built the roll’s and we hand formed the skin for Jim’s and Ebb’s cars. there was aa third frame that never got skinned, may still be having on the back wall of the barn. Then Don Shepherd and I assembled the drive train’s and Jim called Ebb and ask him to send his lucky silver dollar to him and Jim riveted it to the gas peddle of Ebbs car and Ross Trucking sent an 18 wheeler up to transport it to the speedway and after Ebb crash, Don and I spent the night swapping engines as Ebbs was a little stronger. I have a good official qualifying picture for that year. PS Jim’s hands may have been severely burned but he would walk up behind you and grab that shoulder mussel and with his ever teasing laugh drop you to your knees. What a guy ! !

  7. As a kid I went to the races with my father and grandfather. Local dirt tracks in south Jersey. But I fell in love with racing when I saw Jim Hurtubise in his beautiful, red, #56 Chevy powered sprint car at Langhorne in 1961. I was 13 years old. I was in love. I found his home phone number in North Tonowanda through information and I called his house. I had no idea why or what I was going to say, I just had to call. Jane answered the phone and told me he was in the shop working on a car and she would go get him. Before I could SCREAM “NO” she plunked the phone down and it seemed like an eternity, but Jim came to the phone. He did not blow me off in the least, we talked for maybe ten minutes. In the end he knew more about me than I did about him. When he was burned in 1964 I sent him my newspaper money. I earned about $20 a week and I gave it to my dad each week and he cut checks and sent them to the hospital in Texas. In 1965 Hurtubise was back in action and racing a roadster at Trenton Speedway. After the race I went down into the pits, he knew who I was by name. I asked if I could sit in his car. I am 6′ 7″ tall and he looked me up and down. He said, “If you can fit in it, you can sit in it.” I could not fit. Like the picture of me standing in the Mallard. Herk was drinking a long neck bottle of Esslinger beer. I took the bottle and had him autograph it, and I still have it in my office. I will post that picture. Not only was Jim Hurtubise a gifted car builder, an innovator (Chevy engines), a balls-to-the-wall race car driver, he was also a truly nice man. RIP.

  8. I too fell in love with auto racing because of Jim Hurtubise. He was a driver fans could identify with. His pre race interviews with announcers at the various tracks were priceless. They were injected with humor often at the expense of AJ or one of the other competitors. As a ten year old in 1961 I was in awe of all sport figures, regardless of the sport, but there was something about this guy that drew you to him. He was relatable.
    Etched in my mind forever is the day I first met Jim. It was at Langhorne. My dad and I always parked infield turn 1 right up against the fence. Jim came down to view how other drivers were handling that very dangerous section of the track. After a few minutes my pop introduced himself and me and offered Jim a beer. Jim said no thanks, maybe later, “I’m working”. I laughed, thought how crazy is this that a driver took time to speak with us. I instantly became a fan. I still am to this day. I consider myself lucky to have seen him drive and privileged to say I knew him.

  9. ‘Herk” was one of my Top Five All-Time-Drivers who should have won the Indy 500. (The others…Gary Bettenhausen, Lloyd Ruby, Eddie Sachs, and Mike Mosley)
    Here’s a trivia personal thing about Jim Hurtubise I remember: I was born and raised in Indianapolis. During the middle of May, 1963 (or was that ’64) my 6th grade class along with one other from my school [Brook Park Elementary] were on a field trip one morning to the Speedway area Allison GM Plant near the track. I being just a year or so an Indy 500 fan saw as we in the school bus heading toward 16th Street while on Georgetown Road, a couple of race cars practicing. As we were going by the car tunnel area off the 4th turn, we could see a brief glimpse of Jim’s # 56 “day-glow” red Watson Offy roaring by. I loudly exclaimed to the students and teacher and bus driver who that was. For a moment I was an up-and-coming Donald Davidson historian on Herk.
    You know…if Jim had won the “500”…oh what a Victory Party that would have been the next night after the race! That “feel” would have been the same for the great Eddie Sachs.
    In some other 500 trivia repots I read recently (just for the fun of it) one person said, and I paraphrase: “Had Lloyd Ruby won, why the Victory Dinner Party would have been going on for two or three hours longer.” (cause Lloyd was a s-l-o-w talker…Texas style. LOL)

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