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