In five starts at the Indianapolis 500, racer Ed Elisian never finished higher than 18th. It was his second Indy 500, in 1955, behind the wheel of the 1952 Kurtis Kraft 4000 sponsored by Westwood Gage & Tool, that some believe shaped his tragic and macabre career, after witnessing the death of his friend and idol, Bill Vukovich. One of less than 15 examples built, the KK4000 driven by Elisian at Indy in 1955 crosses the auction stage on May 19, part of Mecum’s 2018 Indianapolis sale.
Technically speaking, Elisian didn’t even qualify the number 68 KK4000 at Indy in 1955 — at least not before the final gun sounded on Bubble Day. Looking to bump Len Duncan from his spot on the bubble, Elisian took to the track at 5:50 p.m., with ample time left to qualify. At the end of his second warmup lap — of the three allowed – the driver was given a red flag by an official who’d miscounted the laps. Car owner Pete Wales protested, as did Elisian, but officials showed little interest in reversing the ruling, at least until a second car owner — Indy legend J.C. Agajanian — weighed in on the discussion.
To pacify the influential Agajanian, who threatened to pull his own already-qualified car from the race, officials agreed to grant Elisian one more attempt to qualify. Sometime after 7:00 p.m., he took to the track in car 68, compiling an average speed of 135.333 mph, good enough to bump Duncan from the race and put Elisian 29th on the grid. The incident immediately became known as “The Midnight Run of Ed Elisian,” prompting the driver and his crew to pose with lanterns for a post-qualifying photo.
In 1955, Bill Vukovich was looking for his third consecutive Indy 500 victory, and started the race in fifth place, in the center of the second row. Atop his game and driving a particularly fast Offenhauser-powered Kurtis Kraft of his own, Vukovich had worked his way to the front and amassed a 17-second lead by lap 57. Exiting turn two, he came upon a trio of slower cars, driven by Rodger Ward, Al Keller, and Johnny Boyd.
A gust of wind across the back straight caused Ward to swerve, and to avoid contact, rookie Keller did the same, losing control of his race car in the process. Keller struck Boyd’s car, pushing it into the path of the hard-charging Vukovich. With no time to brake, the two-time race winner hit Boyd’s car and went airborne, his race car cascading over the guard rail on the back straight, hitting a parked Jeep and a pedestrian bridge in the process. The fuel tank split, and Vukovich’s car was immediately engulfed in flames.
Seeing the accident, Elisian pulled to the infield on the back straight and sprinted across the track, nearly getting hit in the process. First on the scene, he tried to reach and overturn Vukovich’s burning car, but the heat was too intense. It wouldn’t have mattered, since the popular star had died of head trauma before the fire even ignited. At age 36, closing in on what likely would have been his third win at the Brickyard in as many years, Bill Vukovich was gone.
Though he received a sportsmanship award from General Petroleum for his efforts to save his friend, car owner Wales was reportedly furious at Elisian for parking a perfectly good race car, effectively withdrawing from the Indy 500. By some accounts, he was never the same driver behind the wheel of a race car, and his already-tragic life was about to get much, much darker.
In June 1956, while fighting hard for position with Bob Sweikert — the 1955 Indy 500 race winner — at Salem Speedway in Indiana, Elisian witnessed Sweikert go over the outside rail after making contact with the barrier. Though there was no fire, Sweikert died of a fractured skull in a crash eerily reminiscent of the 1955 wreck that killed Vukovich. Elisian was investigated after the accident, but since no direct contact had taken place, his racing license wasn’t suspended.
Two years later, at the 1958 Indy 500, Elisian enjoyed his best-ever starting position, qualifying second between pole-sitter Dick Rathmann and third-place qualifier Jimmy Reece. Determined to prove his ability, Elisian pushed hard to lead the first lap, prompting some to speculate that the bonus would go to pay down his gambling debts. In turn three, still on the race’s first lap, Elisian spun, hitting Rathman and putting both cars into the wall. The ensuing wreck collected 15 cars and caused the death of Pat O’Connor (who’d also driven the same KK4000 race car offered for sale in Indianapolis), who again died of a fractured skull, pinned in a burning race car.
This time USAC stepped in and pulled Elisian’s racing license, though it was reinstated a short time later. Already disliked by some, the crash caused further isolation between the driver and the racing community, a rift that deepened when Elisian was involved in yet another driver death the following month at New Bremen Speedway in Ohio. This time, it was Jim Davis, who survived the initial crash but died at a local hospital of head and chest injuries.
Three months later, USAC again suspended Elisian’s credentials, this time for passing bad checks. He’d be reinstated in May 1959, but wouldn’t race again until August, when he entered a 200-lap race at the Milwaukee Mile (then the Wisconsin State Fair Park). On lap 29, the driver hit a patch of oil on the track, spun and collected the wall with a force great enough to rupture the fuel tank. The car overturned and caught fire, with Elisian still trapped inside, and by the time the fire was extinguished, Ed Elisian was dead. The macabre tale of one of the sport’s most tragic figures was over.
Chassis 345, the KK4000 to be offered in Indianapolis, returned to Indy in 1956, but failed to qualify for the race in the hands of driver John Kay. A testament to the competitiveness of the Frank Kurtis design, it would continue to be raced by Wales’ team into the 1959 season, while other KK4000 chassis would see action (primarily on dirt tracks) into the early 1960s. After its retirement, the car remained with Wales until sold to collector Robert Boudeman, who in 1979 sold the highly original car to Hal and Bill Ulrich.
The consignor acquired the car from the Ulrich brothers, and began a restoration that would take until 2017 to complete. With the exception of hood and side panels, all of the bodywork is original to the car, and the period-correct 270-cu.in. Offenhauser four-cylinder engine is even fed by the same type of Hilborn fuel injection system used at Indy in 1955. Today it wears the same livery it carried at Indy in 1955, and chassis 345 is believed to be the only KK4000 equipped with a rear grille.
The car crossed the auction stage with a different firm at Amelia Island earlier this year, where it bid to $210,000 but failed to meet its reserve. This time around — perhaps in a more fitting location — Mecum is predicting a hammer price between $165,000 and $185,000.
Mecum’s Indianapolis sale takes place from May 15-19 at the Indiana State Fair Grounds. For additional details, visit Mecum.com.