The 144th Running of the Kentucky Derby was run this past weekend and was won by Justify the pre-race favorite. He was ridden by veteran jockey Mike Smith and trained by veteran trainer Bob Baffert.
That brings up the trivia question. Has an Indianapolis 500 winning race car owner also owned a Kentucky Derby winning race horse? The answer is yes. A wealthy oil man named Howard Keck was the car owner of the winning 1953 and 1954 Indianapolis 500 race car driven by Bill Vukovich. He and his wife Elizabeth were also the owners of the 1986 Kentucky Derby winner named Ferdinand. Who was Howard Keck?
He was second of six children born to William and Elizabeth Keck of California. William Keck was the founder of the Superior Oil Company of California. Upon his fathers death in 1963, Howard took over the oil company. He made substantial investments in oil exploration and the company became the largest independent oil company in the United States. The company was sold to the Mobil Corporation in 1984.
He was also the head of the W.M. Keck Foundation, a philanthropic foundation that provided funding for many science and technology institutions. Under his guidance the foundation grew from 250 million to 1.2 billion in assets.
In 1952 he purchased a race car based on a design by two veteran mechanics named Jim Travers and Frank Coon and built by Frank Kurtis. The chassis had the engine off set to the left and the drive shaft running along side of the driver. This allowed a much lower center of gravity and a greater aerodynamic advantage. The popular dirt track designed race cars of the day featured an upright engine in the center of the chassis with the driveshaft passing under the driver.
When Bill Vukovich first saw the car he said it reminded him of a roadster that he used to race so he called it a roadster. The name stuck and within two years the roadster design would become one of the most important car designs in the history of the Indianapolis 500. It would remain the dominate race car design at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway until the mid 60’s when the rear engine design became the dominate race car.
At the same time a man named Stu Hilborn had designed a device that would eventually eliminate the carburetor from the Indianapolis 500 forever. It was called fuel injection and the basic design remains in use in most race cars today. The car became known as the Fuel Injection Special and it became one of the most well known car names in Indianapolis 500 history.
It is ironical that one of the most popular days at the present day Indianapolis Motor Speedway is Carb Day. The fact that none of the race cars today has a carburetor is irrelevant to the huge crowds that attend the big party that day.
In four years Bill Vukovich dominated the Indianapolis 500. Three years in the Fuel Injection Special and fourth in car owned by Lindsey Hopkins. Here are his statistics.
1952: He led 150 laps, lapped the entire field and the car broke eight laps from the end because of something in the steering of the car. The race was won by Troy Ruttman and it was the last Indianapolis 500 to be won by a dirt car designed race car.
1953: He won. He led 195 laps and lapped the entire field.
1954: He won again. He led 105 laps and lapped entire field.
1955: Lapped all but six cars in 57 laps. He died in a crash involving three other cars while going down the back stretch.
Howard Keck and his wife Elizabeth were long time members of the American Thoroughbred Racing industry. They were owners and breeders of thoroughbred race horses for many years.
In 1986 their horse named Ferdinand won the Kentucky Derby ridden by the famous jockey Willie Shoemaker. It would be his last Kentucky Derby win. Ferdinand did not win the triple-crown that year, but in 1987 he won the Breeders Cup Classic and was named the horse of the year.
The legendary A. J. Foyt has owned thoroughbred race horses, but has never won a Kentucky Derby. He has won the Indianapolis 500 four times as a driver and has one win as a car owner in 1999 with Kenny Brack as his driver.
When he decided to use the number 14 on his race cars it was because of his great admiration for Bill Vukovich who won the 1953 and 1954 Indianapolis 500’s driving the car number 14.