By Mark Ambrogi
Bob Gates found himself in the hospital in the early 1980s following back surgery with time on his hands.
“I was reading Open Wheel Magazine and I thought to myself, ‘I can write this well,’” Gates said. “I wrote an article and submitted it and went on from there.”
That started a second job for the Greenwood resident, who has written for several publications over the years. He just finished writing his fourth book, updating Wilbur Shaw’s autobiography. Shaw, who died in 1954, was an Indiana racecar driver and president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway from 1945 until his death. The book was released May 24 at a book signing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum.
“When you grow up in this area, it’s either racing or basketball,” said Gates, a 1964 Center Grove High School graduate. “I was attracted to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway before I ever was to racing as a whole. Just all the buzz around the Indy 500. So I grew up like a lot of kids interested in racing. I thought maybe I could drive and did go-karts. I always had that vision in my brain of being a writer. That was my way of getting involved in racing.”
After writing for Open Wheel until it ceased publication, he started writing for Speed & Sport and other magazines.
Gates was a manager of the machining department at Caterpillar in Indianapolis for 10 years, retiring in 2012.
Gates attended his first Indy 500 in 1961.
“I can’t say I’ve been to all of them,” Gates said. “I missed some when I was in the service. I can’t think of any I’ve missed since the early ‘80s.”
Prior to his Air Force service, Gates attended IUPUI for three semesters and took an English/journalism class.
“I had to write a short story, which I did about racing and the instructor said I should have it published,” he said. “I never did but when I thought about getting something published, it motivated me.”
His first book, Hurtubise, about late race car driver, Jim Hurtubise, was published in 1995. Hurtubise died in 1989.
“A publisher read some of my stuff in Open Wheel Magazine and asked me if I would do a book on Hurtubise,” Gates said. “There had been a few attempts that had been unsuccessful but I was able to get with the family to do it.”
His second book was Vukovich: An Inspiring Story of American Achievement in 2004.
“That was the book I wanted to do because (Bill Vukovich, Sr.) was a hero of mine when I was growing up,” Gates said. “He was always a man of mystery. I’ve taken a lot of pride in the fact that I was able to look at him – as an individual.”
Vukovich, a two-time Indy 500 winner, died in a crash while leading the Indy 500 in 1955. His son, Bill Vukovich II and grandson, Bill Vukovich III competed in the Indy 500 as well. Vukovich III died in a 1990 sprint car accident.
The third book was California Gold: The Legendary Life of Troy Ruttman in 2012. Ruttman died in 1997.
“It’s a niche market, so it’s a labor of love,” said Gates, who said he made a little money in book sales.
The book he just released is called Gentlemen, Start Your Engines: The Rest of the Story. Shaw, a three-time Indy 500 winner, had written an autobiography prior to dying in a plane crash.
“I’ve added several chapters with the help of Wilbur Shaw, Jr. (who goes by Bill),” Gates said. “Wilbur Shaw was president of the Speedway when he died. He was the one who convinced Tony Hulman to buy the Speedway (in 1945).”
Longtime racing writer and NBC Sports reporter Robin Miller said Gates gained the trust of the families to share stories about their history.
“Vukovich, Sr. was real private and so is Vuky, real private,” said Miller, a Southport High School graduate. “So, when Bob came out with his book, I was so impressed they were so open and cooperative with Bob. I think it’s because he’s such an honest guy. They knew they could trust him if he they said this is off-the-record or you can’t use this. He’s one of those guys that is instantly likable and everyone trusts him.”
Gates is involved with the Indiana Racing Memorial Association, which is erecting historical markers pertaining to auto racing in Indiana.
“We’ve done it all over the state the last four years,” he said. “We’re up to our 35th marker.”
Gates is the editor of the Indianapolis 500 Oldtimers newsletter.
“The best part of it is being part of something I’m passionate about and really enjoy,” Gates said.
Miller said it’s clear Gates loves racing.
“It’s pretty neat he has a second career,” Miller said.