Bill Puterbaugh, after qualifying for the 1975 Indianapolis 500. Photos courtesy Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 was a childhood dream of racer Bill Puterbaugh, whose persistence finally paid off on his seventh attempt to make the grid. Thanks to coaching from veteran Lloyd Ruby, Puterbaugh was the fastest rookie in the 1975 race, and his seventh-place finish on race day earned him Rookie of the Year honors. On Monday, October 9, Puterbaugh died at his Indianapolis home, at the age of 81.
An oval-track specialist, Puterbaugh was successful behind the wheel of a USAC Sprint Car, finishing third in the 1969 season standings behind Gary Bettenhausen and Larry Dickson. His skill on short tracks, and on dirt, didn’t seem to pay dividends at the Brickyard, though, as attempts to qualify in 1968, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, and 1974 all came up short. The same might have happened in 1975, had it not been for car owner Lee Elkins and driving advice from Ruby and Al Unser.
Elkins was a veteran team owner who hadn’t fielded a squad at Indy since 1959, but as Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian Donald Davidson explained in a 2012 article, Elkins saw the potential in Puterbaugh, providing him with a turbocharged Offy-powered Eagle procured from Patrick Racing. Ruby agreed to be his driver coach, first providing advice on car setup (“drop the nose an inch,” and “use a bigger wicker bill on the rear wing”), then giving detailed instructions on when to back off in the corners.
Puterbaugh thought Ruby was crazy for driving so deep into the corners, but the advice worked. Suddenly, the rookie had picked up another seven mph per lap, and his three-lap average of 183.833 mph was good enough to put him in the 1975 show on the first day of qualifying. Better yet, it was good enough to keep him there, and for his first Indy 500, Puterbaugh started from 15th on the grid, a better position than Mario Andretti (27th), Gary Bettenhausen (19th), and Pancho Carter (18th).
Rain shortened the 1975 race, ending it on lap 174 instead of lap 200. By then, Puterbaugh was nine laps down, scored in seventh position, but he’d achieved his goal of running at Indy, likely exceeding even his own expectations with a top-10 finish.
Puterbaugh in 1977, after qualifying for his final Indy 500.
The following year, Puterbaugh qualified 18th, finishing another rain-shortened race in 22nd place. He returned in 1977 as well, still driving the turbo Offy Eagle, starting from 28th place and finishing the day in 12th. It would be his last Indy 500, though Puterbaugh tried without success to qualify for the 1979 and 1980 races.
Though he never won at the Brickyard, he was proud of the fact that he never dropped out of an Indy 500 race, even when challenged with mechanical difficulties. His USAC National Championship career spanned from 1967 to 1979, and in this time Puterbaugh earned 11 top-10 finishes in 30 races, an impressive statistic for a driver who never had the best of equipment or even enough money to put together a full season ride.
Puterbaugh is survived by his wife Joyce and sons Russel and Billy.