1 Bob Sweikert 1955
Bob Sweikert’s 1955 Indianapolis 500-winning ride. (Bob Gates Collection photo)

Sweikert: From Singing Lessons To Indy Greatness

The tragic death of Bill Vukovich during the 1955 Indianapolis 500 cast a shadow over the legacy of race winner Bob Sweikert.

That’s unfortunate because Sweikert was one of the most naturally talented drivers this country ever produced. He won in midgets, sprint cars and Championship Cars. He even attracted attention from Europe with his sports car mastery.

Born in Los Angeles, on May 20, 1926, his parents divorced before his birth. His mother remarried, and in 1942 the family moved to Hayward, Calif.

While attending Hayward High, Sweikert wanted nothing more than to become a crooner like Frank Sinatra and took voice lessons toward that end.

Then, he discovered cars.

He bought an old Ford coupe, rebuilt it and regularly beat all comers in street races around Hayward, including a guy he would often cross paths with, Ed Elisian.

Out of high school, Sweikert joined the U.S. Army Air Corps. However, injuries from a training accident saw him discharged just as World War II wound down. He returned to Hayward and opened a repair shop in the family garage, “Sweikert Automotive.”

It was here he built the track roadster that he used to launch his racing career. In his first race on Memorial Day 1947, he finished an impressive second at Oakland Speedway.

Midget racing was booming and he joined the fray in the small racers. Running with the BCRA, Sweikert captured their Indoor Championship in 1949.

That same year he strapped into Karl Orr’s sprint car, running a series of AAA races at Oakland Speedway.

He so impressed AAA California Zone Supervisor Gordon Betz that Betz touted him as ready for the AAA Sprint Car circuit, and possibly Indianapolis. He scribbled across Sweikert’s driver certification, “The greatest 500 prospect from California since Freddie Agabashian.”

In 1950, Sweikert lived up to Betz’s glowing endorsement on the Midwest’s infamous “Banks” — a trio of blindingly fast tracks, Dayton, Winchester and Salem, considered too dangerous by many. “Not even on weekdays,” tough Jimmy Bryan responded when queried by a reporter if he ever ran them.  

Yet, Sweikert thrived on them and his prowess there earned him a shot at the speedway after barely two months in the Midwest. The car wasn’t much. It scarcely got him through his rookie test and he failed to qualify.

Still, Sweikert was convinced he could make it big at Indy. He found work at an Indianapolis factory to stay in the Midwest and pursued that goal with a singular focus.  

His 1951 ride wasn’t much better. He qualified but was bumped. In 1952, he finally made it, barely. His race was short-lived, but he was an Indianapolis veteran.

With that, his career exploded. He won routinely in AAA sprint cars. In 1953, he made Indianapolis with top-notch equipment — the Clint Brawner-wrenched, Dean Van Lines Specials.

In September, he won what’s still considered one of the most dramatic of championship races: It came down to the inaugural Hoosier Hundred, where the top four finished so close a photo had to be used to sort them out.

Bob Sweikert in 1954. (Bob Gates Collection photo)

Sweikert gained a reputation for being cocky and self-centered. Johnny Boyd, who knew him well, disagreed.

“Sweikert and A. J. Foyt were so much alike, it’s unbelievable,” insisted Boyd. “Sweikert lived, drank, ate, slept racing. Sweikert was good, and he knew it. He was self-confident, not cocky. To me, a guy who is good has a certain carriage that conveys he’s good. Sweikert had it.”

His star on a steep ascent, for 1955 Sweikert landed with the John Zink team and their young mechanic/builder, A.J. Watson. But only days before the 500, Watson rushed home to California. His pregnant wife had lost their son.  

That could’ve proved disastrous for many teams. However, Sweikert led the crew in readying the car and rebuilt the Offy engine himself. It never missed a beat in his 500 win.

After Indianapolis, Sweikert won the 1955 National Championship and the AAA Sprint Car Championship. He remains the only driver in history to accomplish that trio of victories.

1956 loomed even brighter. He appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, joined the D-A Lubricants team and fielded inquiries to race in Europe after a third-place run in a D-Jaguar at Sebring.

But on June 17, during a sprint car race in Salem, Ind., running close with his street-racing nemesis Elisian, both pushed high. Sweikert’s car brushed a chunk of metal extending from the wall and flipped violently out of the track.

Bob Sweikert died instantly. He was 30 years old.


SPEED SPORT Insider is the ad-free premium extension of SPEEDSPORT.com. Insider is dedicated to the best and brightest in motorsports journalism – created by the best writers, photographers and reporters in the business. From veteran Hall of Fame writers like Bones Bourcier, Dave Argabright, Pat Sullivan, Keith Waltz, Ralph Sheheen and Editor in Chief Mike Kerchner, to behind the scenes SPEED SPORT reporters such as David Hoffman, Nathan Solomon and more.

By subscribing to Insider, you not only get exclusive access to this premium content, but you support the journalists that are vital to telling the stories that matter most. Subscriptions are just $5/mo or $44.95 for an entire year.  View plans and details.

SPECIAL OFFER! Subscribe now with this link and save $5.00!

Insider Logo New