On this date in 1962, Gene Hartley of Huntington qualified for his 10th and last ride in the Indianapolis 500.
Except for die-hard racing fans, most people have forgotten or never heard of Hartley's accomplishments in the Indianapolis 500. Although today's drivers will do just about anything to earn a ride in the race, Hartley had to be persuaded in 1950.
“Some car owner (Joe Langley) built a car,'' Hartley said. “He had seen me run quite a bit. He contacted me, and I said he was out of his mind. I had never driven anything but midgets – nothing. I was on a half-mile track a couple of times. I turned him down, and he called me three or four more times and finally pestered me enough that I thought I would go try it.''
Hartley, then 24, qualified with the 32nd-fastest time and made the race thanks to rain on the last day of qualifying and some drivers who crashed. He wasn't awed by his new surroundings, and he became a regular at the speedway in May.
His career at Indy was steady, if unspectacular; he finished 10th in 1957 and 11th in 1956, 1959 and 1961. He is one of only 91 men to drive in the 500 at least 10 times. His cars were involved in only two wrecks, both on the same day in 1953, and he was not seriously hurt in either. Hartley said he had fun, and made a good living and great friends.
Hartley's career ended after 10 runs in the Indy 500 and more than 100 victories on the midget circuit. Hartley saw that the new style would change racing. The drivers were changing, too, and, after finishing 27th in 1962 with a steering problem, Hartley decided to get out.
''The final straw was the next year when I was practicing, and they were bringing some of these foreign drivers in,” Hartley said. “This Mexican guy turned around as we were going down the back straightaway, and he saw me coming and he turned left in front of me. I got out after one more lap after I scooted up to the wall, but I didn't touch it. I was more mad than anything. I went to the chief steward, and I said, 'You have to get that man off before he kills someone.' He said we have to take into consideration that he doesn't speak English. I said, 'I don't understand Spanish either.' I never got into a car after that. If they weren't going to do anything about that, I wasn't going to get in the car again.”
His overall racing career lasted from 1947 to 1963, winning the USAC National Midget Series championship in 1959. He won 33 USAC feature races during his career and was inducted into the National Midget Auto Racing Hall of Fame in 1985.
Hartley was inducted in the USAC Hall of Fame in 2017.
On Jan. 8, 1956, he won the inaugural USAC race at Memorial Coliseum.
He retired in Roanoke and died in 1994 at age 68.
About This Series
Ever wonder what a Northeast Indiana Sports Hall of Fame might include? During a time when it may be difficult to look ahead to great sporting events, The Journal Gazette is going to offer you a look into Fort Wayne and Northeast Indiana's fantastic athletic past. Over the next few weeks, we'll offer some suggestions on the people and events which could be featured in such a facility.