Bob Harkey, one of Indy 500’s last ‘gunfighters,’ dies at age 85

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Bob Harkey/Photo from IMS

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. (Jan. 18, 2016) – Bob Harkey, who competed six times in the Indianapolis 500, died Saturday at the age of 85.

Harkey drove in the Indy 500 six times between 1964 and 1976, finishing in the top 10 on three occasions. He raced until 1983, and was one of the last of an era “gunfighters” who could climb into a stubborn car on the final day of qualifications and get it into the race on sheer will alone.

Prior to his passing, he was one of only 11 living drivers who could claim to have driven in the 500 with a front-engine car. He was one of only eight living drivers who started with both a front-engine and rear-engine car; he was one of only six living drivers who could claim a top 10 finish in both.

Harkey raced in USAC National Championship events between 1963 and 1979, and had aspired to drive in the 500 since he was a boy. But he had a problem: he was born and raised in Charlotte, N.C., where stock cars were king. Finding open-wheel racing events proved problematic, but he competed in NASCAR’s short-lived midget division, where he found some success before moving north.

He raced in circuits in Chicago and New York, guiding both midget and sprint cars, as he continued to pursue a spot in the 500.

But racing wasn’t Harkey’s only calling: he performed as a stunt pilot at county fairs and also served as a stunt man in the movies. He performed all the stunts for Robert Mitchum in Thunder Road, was one of the drivers in Winning starting Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward and Robert Wagner, and performed stunts in Speedway with Elvis Presley.

Harkey also competed in the first race at the then-brand new Daytona International Speedway in 1959, a 100-mile convertible race that preceded the inaugural Daytona 500. He started sixth in the race, took over the lead lap by passing a young Richard Petty, and eventually finished 10th.

Harkey is survived by his wife, Cheryl, a daughter, Robyn, and several cousins.

IMS President Doug Boles offered the following statement about Harkey’s colorful career:

“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. 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.”

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