INDIANAPOLIS — Report by Race Chaser Online Managing Editor Jacob Seelman — IMS Archives photo —
North Carolina native Bob Harkey, who started six Indianapolis 500s between 1964 and 1976, died Saturday in Indianapolis at the age of 85.
While he relocated to the Hoosier State to pursue his dreams of competing in ‘The Grestest Spectacle in Racing’, Harkey was born in Charlotte, N.C. on June 23, 1930 and walked a multi-faceted path for many years that made him one of the most interesting figures in all of motorsports.
Harkey grew up to taking part in numerous activities, doing time as a stunt pilot, wing walker and middleweight boxer in his time outside the race car. The latter led him to several bouts at Golden Gloves status, including one fight against future world heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson in an Olympic qualifier (which Harkey ultimately lost).
Inside a race car, Harkey was known as a driver who could take lesser equipment and get the maximum capacity out of it, often making the show or finding success in the process.
He competed in the first-ever stock car race at the Daytona International Speedway in 1959 — a 100-mile prelude to the inaugural Daytona 500, in which he finished 10th in a Buck Baker-owned Chevrolet after passing then-relatively unknown Richard Petty for the lead at lap five.
He also drove roadsters and midgets before his transition the the championship (Indy) cars, netting back-to-back UMRA midget championships in 1956 and 1957 before adding the NASCAR Florida Midget Championship to his resume the following year (1958).
After that, Harkey made the move to USAC in hopes of eventually reaching the legendary Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He started in USAC Sprint Cars before stepping up to the Indy car ranks in 1963, missing the 500 in his first attempt but making the race the following year for Wally Weir in a front-engine Watson-Offenhauser.
While he never was able to drive for “Foyt, Gurney or Penske” at Indianapolis like he once said he hoped to, Harkey did manage to put often-unfamiliar cars into the field on Bump Day — with final qualifying efforts of 27th, 28, 31st and 33rd among his last ditch efforts in time trials.
He scored a best finish of eighth twice (in 1964 as a rookie and again in 1974), while his final start came in 1976 driving for Agajanian Racing in a rear-engine King-Offenhauser machine.
Harkey was one of only eight drivers still living (as of Jan. 1) who had competed at IMS in both front and rear-engine roadsters — along with A.J. Foyt, Jim McElreath, Gordon Johncock, Parnelli Jones, Johnny Rutherford, Bobby Unser and Chuck Hulse.
“Bob Harkey competed during one of the most transformative times in Indianapolis 500 history as the cars moved from rear-engine to front-engine and from no aerodynamic devices to wings and downforce,” said Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Doug Boles in a public statement. “But what made Bob Harkey special was his continued involvement in and around the Speedway each May after his racing years. He always had time for our fans, young and old, and his passion for the Indianapolis 500 was evident in every fan interaction.”
“Our thoughts and prayers are with his friends and family.”
About the Writer
Jacob Seelman is the Managing Editor of Race Chaser Online and creator of the Motorsports Madness radio show, airing at 7 p.m. Eastern every Monday on the Performance Motorsports Network. Seelman grew up in the sport, watching his grandparents co-own the RaDiUs Motorsports NASCAR Cup Series team in the 1990s.
The 21-year-old is currently studying Broadcast Journalism at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., and is also serving as the full-time tour announcer for both the United Sprint Car Series and the Must See Racing Sprint Car Series.
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