Archive for May 16, 2007

Region Racers at the Indianapolis 500 — Art Cross

By: Wm. LaDow
Daily Trackside Reports from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Published in the Post-Tribune/Chicago Sun-Times News Group — May 16, 2007
Speedway, Indiana

Art Cross

The 37th running of the Indianapolis 500 was a scorcher and not just because of the speeds that the 33 racers were generating on the track. Ambient air temperatures near 100 degrees, along with track temperatures of 130 degrees and nitro-methane exhaust fumes, created a never before realized hazard at Indy, and in the end it was the only Indy 500 on record where a driver, Carl Scarborough, died during the race because of heat prostration.

Of the starting 33 drivers in the 1953 Indianapolis 500, a total of 16 called for relief drivers generating a staggering 85 pit stops during the course of the race. At one point, even the relief drivers were begging to be relieved.

Winning what would later become known at the “The Hottest 500” was legendary Indy Iron man and eventual two-time winner of the Indianapolis 500, Bill “Vuky” Vukovich. Finishing right behind Vuky was LaPorte’s own, Art Cross. Both men drove the entire 500 miles distance themselves.

The Art Cross story begins with his youth in Jersey City, New Jersey. As he grew to manhood, he started racing in the ultra-competitive East Coast midget racing contests. He then entered the Army Tank Corps during World War II, eventually being wounded in the “Battle of the Bulge” and subsequently being awarded the Purple Heart.

Following the end of the war, Cross returned to the States and began midget racing again, soon learning that there was a burgeoning racing circuit growing in the Midwest that offered more promise, and the potential of finding his way to driving in the Indianapolis 500, the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

Art Cross decided in 1949 to move west and settled in LaPorte, Indiana with his wife, Margaret.

Midget and sprint car racing was where Art focused his efforts, often collecting the princely sum of $30. per week in purses. In May of 1951, Cross visited the Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the race and joined a group of race fans who had constructed some scaffolding just outside the speedway allowing the spectators to see one of the turns, without paying for tickets. It wasn’t long before Art Cross said to himself “I can do that!”

Art Cross came to Indianapolis an unproved rookie in 1952. He was able to secure a ride in the No. 33 Bowes Seal Fast Special, a Kurtis-Kraft 4000/Offy. Starting 20th he battled his way up to the leaders and stayed in contention for most of the day till finishing fifth. So impressive was Art Cross’ performance in his first Indy 500 that he was named “Indianapolis 500 Rookie-of-the–Year.” The first time the award was ever bestowed.

His second Indy 500 revealed even more of what Art Cross was made of. Driving the No. 16 Springfield Welding Special, a Kurtis-Kraft 4000/Offy, supported by chief mechanic Ralph Ruttman (father of 1952 winner Troy Ruttman,) for the 1953 Indy 500, he qualified better than he had in 1952, starting on the outside of the fourth row and pushing his way all the way into second place. He held on through the unbearable heat, knowing that his car didn’t have the power to overtake the race leader Vukovich, but hoping that Vuky’s car might fail. Cross shadowed him for all 200 laps, finishing with an average race speed over 126 mph.

When asked after the race how he was feeling after competing in the terribly oppressive heat he replied “I felt a little bit of it. It was very confusing passing cars, because I wouldn’t recognize the drivers. They all were swapping drivers.”

Art’s Herculean performance earned him a place in the coveted Champion Spark Plug “Indy 500 Hundred Mile an Hour Club” and netted him $27,296 in race winnings. With his new found wealth he purchased a 40 acre farm between LaPorte and Rolling Prairie.

Art went back for his third Indy 500 in 1954 and piloted the No. 45 Bardahl Special, another Kurtis-Kraft 4000/Offy, to an 11th place finish, once again completing the entire 500 mile distance. That season he was asked to drive a few more races on AAA Championship trail, finishing sixth at Darlington and fifth at the Milwaukee Mile.

His final Indianapolis 500 came in 1955 when he joined the Murrell Belanger team with Earl “Frenchy” Sirois and Dale “Tiny” Worley as his Co-Chief Mechanics. After leading 24 laps, the car broke a connecting rod and ended up completing just 168 laps, rendering a 17th place finish. This race, unfortunately for everyone involved, was the race that Bill Vukovich lost his life and cast a pall over the entire racing fraternity.

Art Cross drove the final Indy car race of career three months later at Milwaukee, finishing fourth. Many surmised that Cross’ retirement was due to the loss of his friend Bill Vukovich. Though saddened by Vuky’s loss, what really motivated Art Cross was his fondness of his family, and his unhappiness of missing them while on the road, racing. He greatly missed Margaret and his three children. So with that, Art Cross, still in his prime, walked away from racing. “My family was growing up, and I wasn’t being around my kids,” he said about his abrupt retirement at the height of his career. “This began to bug me.”

Cross went on to work for twenty years as a heavy equipment operator, while also farming corn and raising horses on his property. He and his wife went on to enjoy Art’s eventual retirement from construction and farming.

While at Indianapolis in 1953, during the Month of May, Art Cross gave an interview to Floyd Clymer a noted racing journalist. In that interview, Art Cross said he had three goals in life; 1) Win Indianapolis. 2) Own a farm and 3) Raise corn and children.

He may not have won Indianapolis, but the things he did accomplish are some of the most noble a man can strive for. In addition to his many successes as a businessman and father, he was also inducted to the National Midget Auto Racing Hall of Fame.

Art Cross passed away at the age of 87 on April 15, 2005.