Diverted flight turns into INDYCAR bonding experience

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It was the rack of chips that broke the ice. In the midst of an airport desert filled with stranded passengers, the airline had rolled out an oasis of snacks as temporary reprieve for a gate of travelers starving for a way home.

“Are those chips free?” inquired the woman seated to my right. They were indeed, I informed as I rose to browse the offerings. Thus, our conversation began.

Jake Query with Joyce and Bill Vukovich Jr.We began chatting as I devoured my complimentary Sun Chips. There we sat, stuck in the Austin airport, common passengers on a bad-luck flight diverted from its intended Indianapolis destination after leaving Dallas.

I’d been in Texas for the previous night’s DXC Technology 600 at Texas Motor Speedway. Waiting at the gate in Austin to learn the fate of our grounded flight, I assumed I was sitting next to a pair of race fans who had taken in the NTT IndyCar Series action.

The plane was, after all, predominantly filled with those who make up INDYCAR’s traveling circus: race officials, media, staff and drivers alike. Now, everyone was shot-gunned throughout Austin’s main terminal, trying to find a flight – any flight – to get us within even driving distance of home.

A mechanical issue had airdropped us into the Texas capital, and it seemed Mother Nature was intent to keep us there with a flurry of storms spreading from Texas to Indy. We set off on a scavenger hunt for any flights into the Midwest. All flights to Indy were booked. Louisville? Cincinnati? Chicago? No luck.

As I sat at the gate, the nice woman next to me asked if I’ve ever been to the Indianapolis 500. Yes, I informed her, 34 times.

“My husband raced at Indy,” she mentioned of her travel mate dozing under his Hoosier tire hat. “Twelve times.”

She made her introduction. Joyce Vukovich and her husband Bill. The 1968 Indy 500 rookie of the year. The runner-up in 1973. The son of the 1953 and 1954 winner Bill Vukovich Sr. Seated right next to me. Our immediate future and timetable as uncertain as qualification into an Indy 500 field with 62 entries, which the younger Vukovich accomplished in his final Indy 500 in 1980, our conversation was off and running.

They were not, in fact, returning from the Texas race. The Vukoviches had visited their native Fresno, California, for a combination trip. The city unveiled a historical placard near Fresno’s Saroyan Theater and Convention Center, commemorating the racing legacy of the city’s most beloved racing sons – three generations of men named Bill Vukovich. Additionally, Joyce’s sister Sandra had passed away in April, and her nieces had organized a lunch to celebrate her life. There we sat, our fates crossing, in the final leg of a trip where Joyce would recognize the riches that come from people in one’s life.

I told her I knew the story. I knew of racing taking her father-in-law in 1955, five years before she and Bill Jr. became high school sweethearts. I knew of the racing legacy. The dirt-track and USAC wins, the runs at Indy and the close encounter with victory in 1973. Joyce told me more. So, so much more.

Bill Vukovich Jr. 1973 Indy 500They came in the stands to get her in 1973 (Bill is shown after qualifying for the 1973 race at right). The rain-soaked month was finally concluding, and race officials came calling for her in the stands. They did that to escort the winner’s wife to victory circle.

“I told them I didn’t want to go until we knew for sure,” she told me. “I’m not going down until the checkered flag falls.”

Her intuition was correct. It was Gordon Johncock, not Bill, who was leading the race.

“There was confusion,” she explained. “The scoring was pretty antiquated. They used a clock to time and score, but someone had kicked the cord. For a brief moment, they thought Bill was leading the race.”

Order was maintained and Johncock was given his first Indianapolis 500. Bill, she told me, has never once claimed otherwise.

The conversation was more than fascinating racing recollections. Their son, Billy Vukovich III, was fatally injured in 1990. Racing can be a cruel sport, and one would understand if that led Joyce to stay away, but the Vukoviches haven’t.

Bill, his memories of daily activities eluding him from time to time, still finds fraternal bond with his old racing pals.

“I have to repeat myself a lot,” Joyce said. “But talk about old racers and races, and he’s sharp as a tack.”

So we did. I asked about his best friend (Gary Bettenhausen). I asked about his most respected foe (Parnelli Jones). I asked about his most annoying contemporary (he wouldn’t say).

I asked Joyce about Billy III, a third-generation driver who loved his sunflower seeds and had a passion for the sport that took his grandfather before Billy’s father had become a racer.

“I told him this is dangerous,” Joyce recalled. “I believe you bring a child into the world, you open your hands and you let them fly.”

Bill Vukovich III 1989 Indy 500Billy (shown at right after qualifying for the 1989 Indy 500) told her repeatedly he was doing what he loved to do. That pursuit of a dream eases the pain of Joyce’s loss. It never fully goes away, but it’s been in their family for so long, she tells me, that racing is their fraternity.

Fraternal feeling. It’s what you get in racing. A sport where people look after one another. Take care of one another. I don’t know if it exists in other sports, and it would be disingenuous to say it does not. I can’t, however, see others out matching the bond that folks feel in racing.

The sunflower seeds. Billy loved them. Joyce still sees them. Her message from her son that life is going to be OK. When they moved back to Fresno a handful of years ago, she saw them in her driveway. When they got tired of California’s gas prices and returned to Indiana, she saw them while filling up in Indianapolis. The sunflower seeds: the message from her son.

Eventually, I got the text. The number of INDYCAR personnel stranded in Austin warranted a charter plane to get us home. No overnight stay. No hotel vouchers and shuttle rides and returns to the airport and reboarding process. Just an Uber to the charter terminal and a quiet, late-night flight home.

I asked if Joyce and Bill could join us. Could the sport with the tight fraternity make way to give a small gift, after never being blamed for having taken so much.

A fraternal family.

I asked Joyce if she wanted to join us on the charter. I promised they’d get home OK.

Off we went. My new travel companions, whom INDYCAR so graciously allowed onto the charter. We laughed at our adventure. We bonded over old stories. We smiled over a few stories of their son. And just hours before the sun rose, we were back where we were supposed to be.

“I knew Billy was watching over us,” Joyce said. “He was with us.”

I knew I was fortunate to work for a series and in a sport filled with people who look after one another. In this case, I was fortunate to make new friends who helped make an adventure become all that. And a bag of chips.

(Veteran broadcaster Jake Query is a member of the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network team and offers his musings regularly on IndyCar.com.)

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