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Checkered Past: Kelly Petillo And How Not To Build A Racing Legacy

The Depression-era Indy 500 champ was banned from the track for his heinous crimes, but his name lives on in unexpected places.

In racing, maybe more than any other sport, family matters. Three generations of Andrettis have competed at its highest level, their name inescapable over more than a half-century of results. The multigenerational patriarch A.J. Foyt picked up the habit from his own father, who raced midget cars for fun. Stock car racing has its own familial dynasties, the Earnhardts and the Pettys synonymous with their near-Shakespearian tragedies and triumphs.

That trend goes back to the earliest days of motorsport, with champions like Gaston Chevrolet and his clan of driver-businessmen, or Louis Meyer, the first three-time Indy 500 winner whose great-grandsons are still in the family business. But in other ways, the world around the track wasn’t always so family-friendly. Befitting the rough-and-tumble fin de siècle era in which auto racing was born, it had its share of scrappers and scoundrels, drawn to a big-money sport where anyone who could put together enough cash and know-how to build a competitive machine could compete alongside the gallant celebrities.

One of those competitors was a man you’ve probably never heard of: Kelly Petillo. Petillo competed in 10 Indy 500s, winning in 1935 and making history in the first car to do so with an Offenhauser engine under the hood, the brand that would dominate the sport for years to come. He raced for decades, a rarity in an era when the sport was even more dangerous than it remains today. He did so by bending the sport—bending his competitors, really—to his relentless tempo. He refused to offer his rivals even the slightest on-track courtesy, forcing them to make way for the cream-colored “Kelly’s Folly.”

Anyone with Petillo’s combination of elite mechanical ingenuity and will to win can get on the track. With skill and luck, those qualities can put your face on the Borg-Warner Trophy, in magazine advertisements, in the history books. They can’t, however, build you a legacy. A legacy is based on your influence: what you did for the sport, how you treated those around you, who followed in your footsteps. In each of those departments, Petillo failed miserably.

“He’ll never be inducted into the Hall of Fame,” says Eric Powell, director of communications for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum. “You have to draw a line somewhere, and you have to say character matters. His behavior is a direct cause of him not getting into the Hall of Fame.”

Petillo’s “behavior” involved everything from harassment of his competitors and track officials to outright brawls with U.S. Marines, culminating in the dark episode that sealed his exclusion from not only racing history, but polite society: a brutal knife attack on an ex-girlfriend. Petillo alienated himself not only from the rapidly professionalizing world of midcentury racing, but from nearly everybody close to him; his death in 1970 at age 66 was barely noted by the press. His legacy today is that of a champion, but no more than that.

“He was pretty much persona non grata, because he brought discredit to the sport,” says Donald Davidson, the retired IMS historian. “Not only had he done bad things, but the fact that they were in the newspaper … [the guardians of the sport] were trying to enhance the image of the racecar driver.”

Petillo’s hard life and violent spirit didn’t just bring him to the brink of anonymity. It made him a fugitive. More than a decade after his 500 win, Petillo was in hiding, wanted for the knife attack on his former girlfriend Naomi Shofner. He’d finally come up against a force he couldn’t outrun: the Criminal Court of Marion County, which sentenced him to 10 years. He was apprehended, naturally, after a race in Shiawassee County, Michigan—one which, naturally, he won.

His talent as a racer was undeniable, as much as the fact that he was a criminal and serial abuser of women. The former put speed records and victories in the books that will never be erased. The latter made him a footnote.

When he was released from prison in August 1955, Petillo went to California to live with his only son who had become a dentist, Kelly Jr. But the same relentlessness that brought the infamous driver to racing’s peak and celebrity status two decades earlier pushed him once again to burn down his life, his legacy, his freedom. After just nine months, he fled the state, and California officials put out an alert for him for violating parole.

When the subsequent manhunt led to his door, Kelly Jr. offered the authorities just one piece of advice: Look for him at the track.

***

Cavino (Kelly) Petillo, born in Philadelphia in 1903, had a saying: “Keep the foot down, and keep it down hard.” His family, headed by a barrel-chested Italian immigrant named Luigi (or Louis), moved from Pittsburgh to the Los Angeles area in the 1920s. There, Kelly learned to drive.

His childhood nickname was “The Shiv,” a nod to his penchant for fighting. On the streets of Los Angeles, the boy was known as a terrorist on wheels because of his destructive, aggressive style of driving the family’s fruit truck. He drove his route at dangerous speeds over the Ridge from Los Angeles to Fresno, eventually transferring that talent to the world of racing where he got his competitive start at the nearby Legion Ascot dirt track. Not long after he started to drive, he started to win.

By 1934, Petillo had already made his first national waves, winning the pole for the 22nd running of the Indianapolis 500—despite his greenness. He qualified with a record-setting speed of just more than 121 miles per hour. (Today’s IndyCars hit 230 mph, but in 1934, reaching 120 was unheard of, more than 15 mph faster than the winner’s time that year.)

Track officials had to slow the fruit-truck terrorist down for safety reasons. “Had the officials of the American Automobile Association, in charge of the trials, [not] flagged me to go slower, I firmly believe I would have hung up a record of 121 miles an hour or more,” Petillo wrote in an essay for the International News Service.

He finished that year’s 500 in 11th place, but people were talking about his speed as much as any victory. Papers across the country began to refer to him as the “Los Angeles speed demon.” His pole win helped him purchase a Ford V-8 sedan, with a smiling Petillo inspecting the title on the front of The Indianapolis News sports page. He kept going, setting a record at Legion Ascot and winning the 200-mile race. But Petillo wasn’t the refined personality that had dominated the early days, like Chevrolet, Meyer, or Rene Thomas. Said one car owner: “I would love to have Petillo drive for me, if you could just bring him to the track in a cage and only open it to put him in a car.”

Petillo (right) and his 500-winning Gilmore Speedway Special.Courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway

While Petillo was making his ascent in the racing world, so was the Indy 500. No longer merely a test track for drivers built in the middle of 328 acres of Indiana farmland, the race had become a staple of pre-war Americana. In 1928, the last hour was broadcast on NBC. In 1929, the winner took home $31,950 (more than half a million dollars today). In 1911, there were 80,000 spectators in the stands; that number nearly doubled over the following decade. It was a remarkable rise for a sport that just a decade before was considered a research curio, “primarily for the purpose of developing and improving the cars in everyday use,” according to Motor Age.

For as hard-driving a man as Petillo, an Indy 500 pole wasn’t enough. He entered the 1935 race not looking simply to inspire sports world gossip as a “speed demon,” but to win the whole thing. He put aside $2,000 of his own money and his father mortgaged the family grocery store for an additional $600. A family friend who operated an aircraft salvage yard allowed him to take parts from wrecked planes to augment “Kelly’s Folly.”

Its front axle was lifted from a totaled Plymouth; the engine, a $3,500 Offenhauser, was given to him on credit with the hope that his winnings would pay it back. After incurring debt, scraping together small-time wins wouldn’t be enough. To make real cash, Petillo needed a win on racing’s biggest stage.

Petillo set the record in qualifying at 121.687 miles per hour, although the run was disallowed because he was five-eighths of a pint over the permissible supply of gas. On his second attempt, a broken connecting rod scattered parts of his motor along the track, but eventually Petillo qualified for the eighth row. The night before the race he stayed up until 4 a.m. making tweaks to the vehicle. On May 30, 1935, with Amelia Earhart as the honorary referee and a record crowd of 155,000 watching, Petillo stomped his foot down and gunned for the history books.

He first grabbed the lead on the 68th lap. He would trade it with rival Rex Mays, who, according to racing historian Denny Miller, believed Petillo’s “patched up motor wouldn’t match the pace he tried to set.” Not so: Mays dropped out on lap 123, and Petillo would lead almost the rest of the way even as rain slowed the pace near the race’s end. In his history of the Eddie Rickenbacker era of ownership at the IMS, Miller writes that Petillo led three times for a total of 102 laps, setting a speed record for the race of 106.24 miles per hour.

Rivals marveled that Petillo’s car was “held together with piano wire, a bit of twine from the corner grocery, and a couple of rolls of adhesive.” Miller writes that when Petillo found out that he’d won, he declaimed, “This is the first time a car ever stayed together for me!” His wife, Valentine, said she “knew he would win if he didn’t run out of gasoline.” Petillo, ever the cad, would repay her support by asking the nurse at the infield hospital for a date that very night.

The win placed him, cad or not, in the upper echelon of the country’s sports heroes. “Petillo ranks high in American sport today, a position he well deserves to occupy,” The Indianapolis News wrote. He appeared in a Camel ad with 1935 World Series hero and future Baseball Hall of Famer Goose Goslin. He won a small fortune by the standards of the time, the equivalent of $760,000 today.

None of it satisfied his competitive spirit or his need to drive. That year, he told his family that he would quit racing if he didn’t finish in first or second in any race. A brother-in-law noted, more prophetic than he could have known: “He won’t, for racing is his life and he can’t keep away from it.”

***

Petillo won three out of his five races in 1935, including that 500 victory. But he also had two disappointing runs, finishing sixth out of 12 cars in a race at the Illinois State Fairgrounds and nearly last in a race in Syracuse. On January 1, the Associated Press called his post-500 bluff: “Will Kelly Petillo, American automobile race driving champion, stick to his resolution to retire?” Pete DePaolo, a friend of Petillo’s who won the 1925 Indy 500, mused to the press that his net earnings from the race constituted “a neat little fortune to retire on.”

Not a chance. Racing was Petillo’s lifeblood, his oxygen supply, his addiction. But an addiction, of course, can be as powerful in destruction as the rush it delivers. Petillo gave retirement an honest shot after 1935, but it wouldn’t take: For the 1936 500, he chose George “Doc” MacKenzie to replace him as a driver, but when MacKenzie trailed in seventh after 141 laps, Petillo booted him from the car, driving it to a third-place finish. His lack of camaraderie extended beyond the track. The prior year, top drivers had combined forces to organize the National Championship Drivers of America, a group that leveraged their celebrity to promote races and therefore grow the pot of winnings. Not Kelly, who was unwilling to part with the money from individual appearances that membership would have required him to forgo.

Petillo entered the 1938 Indy 500 at the age of 34. He finished 22nd and showed, according to an Indiana paper, “no fear.” Which is a great quality on the racetrack. It’s less so out in the real world, where Petillo would begin a long, downward spiral into crime. “The Shiv” may have been a sardonic nickname for a bully of a child, or a tough-as-nails driver, but it took on a much darker cast in his personal life.

His descent into lawlessness started with a punch. In August 1941, Petillo struck LAPD officer E.D. Brown in the eye, after police refused to raid a nightclub that chose not to admit him. Brown got one black eye and broken glasses. Petillo received two black eyes for his trouble. Brown didn’t want to press charges, and Petillo was cleared. As they left the courtroom, the two shook hands.

A ticket to the 1935 Indy 500.Courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway

It was just one of many reported scrapes in which Petillo would find himself through the 1940s. He knocked a tooth from a policeman who pulled him over for speeding. He cracked a man over the head with a bar stool in the nightclub he owned. In one incident, he threatened a couple of Marines with a rifle at his club and ended up with a charge for assault with intent to commit murder.

But no one fared worse with Petillo’s ill temper than the women who came in and out of his life. In July 1943, Valentine Petillo filed for divorce after more than 20 years with Kelly, alleging physical and mental cruelty. Their family history was troubled: As far back as 1930, she asked a court that her husband pay alimony. An account in The Los Angeles Times claimed the two were “estranged.” Valentine mentioned in a divorce hearing that her husband “associated with other women, was continually drunk, and he didn’t like the married life at all. He said he wanted to be free, so he could do as he pleased.”

Once he could, things would get much darker still. In November 1945, Petillo and James W. Theriac were charged with attempted rape. Marie Cooper, then 44, was lost in downtown Los Angeles. Looking for directions, she accepted a ride from the two men who were on their way to the ocean when Cooper said they attacked her. Police said she responded by “screaming and fighting like a tigress,” suffering two black eyes and a cut lip.

By then, Petillo had gone too far to ever again be accepted as a gentleman racer in good standing. In 1946, the IMS rejected his application for the Indy 500, and the American Automobile Association, then still heavily involved in motorsports, banned him for “conduct unbecoming a race driver.” Petillo spent $50,000 on a lawsuit against the track, but it went nowhere. He told media he was racing for “peanuts” as his savings dried up. Hounded by creditors and with a growing rap sheet, the former champion reached what less than a decade prior would have seemed like an unimaginable low point.

***

Despite his ban from racing’s upper echelon, not to mention his venture into the seedy nightclub business, Petillo couldn’t keep himself away from the racetrack. At 42, he was still traveling the country, peddling every last ounce of his fame for whatever he could get in return. On June 28, 1948, he was 100 miles from Indianapolis in Logansport, where he’d defeated the racer George Tichenor in a head-to-head duel.

That night, he returned to the city and checked into the Roosevelt Hotel to see Naomi Shofner, a former girlfriend who worked with Petillo as his secretary and had taken up residence there. He lured her into his room, and when she told him she was now married, “he was jealous and infuriated,” Shofner told the Star. So infuriated that he slashed her face with a knife, creating a wound that would eventually require more than 40 stitches. By 3 a.m., he had checked out and fled the hotel.

By the next month, Shofner had spoken with the press and was staying with her parents in Lebanon. Petillo was on the run, as Indianapolis police had asked for help from both their counterparts in Chicago and the FBI. For four days, Petillo was missing. According to the historian Miller, he was then banned from participating in the Indy 500, as well as on any other AAA-sanctioned course.

Petillo’s relief on the Borg-Warner Trophy.Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Which is why when he resurfaced it was in the small town of Ovid, 300 miles away in mid-Michigan. All week, newspapers had been promoting a 200-lap stock car race at the Owosso Motor Speedway, a slice of old-time Americana in the heartland. The entry fee was $10, and the purse was 40 percent of the gate.

Before the race, Shiawassee County Sheriff Duane Kear went to the track and found Petillo, who had been braggadociously promoting his appearance via radio despite his fugitive status. For reasons that are still unclear, Kear didn’t apprehend Petillo, telling his deputies around the track not to make a move until the race was over. The drivers started their engines. Petillo took first place, got out of his car, the deputies moved, and he was arrested.

Petillo gave himself up to the law for a purse of $113, protesting his innocence all the way like a petty hood from a film noir. He gave up the little he had left of his livelihood, his freedom, even his humanity for another shot at the checkered flag. It was all he knew how to do.

If his career as a competitive driver wasn’t already over, Petillo’s last stint in prison sealed it. Months after his release from prison in 1955, he skipped parole for Indianapolis, determined to re-enter the 500. Miller writes that during this time, he was racing for petty cash across the Midwest under an assumed name, before he was apprehended in 1957 for violating his parole.

After he was freed in 1959, he unsuccessfully attempted to enter the 500 once more, and filed another suit against the IMS when he was denied. In April 1962, pushing 60 and long after his name had become either a whispered epithet or a punchline within racing circles, he was still haunting the Speedway, looking for one last shot.

“If he can find a sponsor,” the Star wrote, “he’ll be something more than a spectator. Petillo has a supercharged two-cycle Lycoming engine. All he needs is a little money and somebody with a chassis in which to use it.”

He didn’t find any of those things. No sponsor, no money, no chassis. For Kelly Petillo, life as a competitor ended, and life as a spectator began, long before he noticed. Nothing is known about his whereabouts between 1962 and June 30, 1970, when he died at the age of 66. Unlike most other Indianapolis 500 winners, his obituary did not appear in The New York Times. In fact, it took more than a month before the media acknowledged it at all: The Star finally published it on August 9, 1970, on the ninth page of the sports section, the third item in a racing column. It was just two paragraphs.

***

The name Petillo could have died with him in the annals of racing history. Improbably, it hasn’t. John Petillo of Acton, Massachusetts, is a cofounder of Northeast Formula Vee Racing, a group that encourages participation in the titular formula. Formula Vee provides a lower barrier for entry to open-wheel racing, its cars using relatively inexpensive Volkswagen chassis.

John, a good-natured, MIT-trained physicist, is quick to point out that he hasn’t yet found any evidence he’s related to Kelly. But as a die-hard race fan, he couldn’t help but wonder when he first ran across the former champ’s name in the history books.

“I was almost joking with myself, looking to see if there was a Petillo on the list of 500 winners,” John says. “I mean, how ridiculous would that be?”

John helped build his own racing group from a handful of hobbyists evangelizing at regional car shows to a competitive organization sanctioned by the Sports Car Club of America, the country’s biggest sanctioning body for amateur racing. What started out as a seemingly random hobby, free of any familial influence—he started as a teen racing dirtbikes for fun before moving on to the hard stuff—eventually led John to racing’s most hallowed ground.

It’s one where Kelly Petillo spent far more than his own fair share of time: the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where the SCCA held its National Championship Runoffs for Formula Vee in 2017. John finished 17th in a field of 39, a respectable showing. But to him, the experience alone was worth more than getting his name in the standings.

“Being at Indy and racing on the track, it’s unbelievable,” John says. “It’s completely different from what it looks like on TV; we go hit the straightaway between Turn Four and One, we go back, and we’re going clockwise, and the track’s a lot narrower than I would have thought. It was an absolute thrill.”

Kelly Petillo’s father, Luigi (Louis), listed on his U.S. naturalization form his last residence in Italy as Campobasso, a city north of Naples. John’s daughter, Stephanie, has deputized herself in an Ancestry.com-led search, attempting to connect the two disparate Italian-American families. She’s also raced Formula Vee alongside her father, making the East Coast Petillos’ passion for speed a family affair in its own right.

“We dragged Stephanie and [Petillo’s son] John to see the American Le Mans,” John says. “I remember walking over the footbridge while the cars were qualifying, and as we walked over the bridge to the infield, Stephanie turns to me and says, ‘When are we going to do this?’ and that was it.”

Stephanie is her father’s daughter not just in her affinity for racing, but for the sciences: She’s an oceanographic engineer and an MIT graduate as well. And yet another historical continuity that can’t be denied, no matter how speculative: To put a photo of her next to one of Kelly from his racing heyday, the resemblance is eerie, to an extent that strikes superstition into the heart of even an otherwise-rational reporter.

The modern-day Petillos’ connection to a nearly forgotten Indy champ might be ephemeral or even impossible to prove. There’s only so far genealogical research can take you, especially when it extends across the Atlantic.

But John and Stephanie have felt the same narcotic compulsion for speed that drove Kelly to on-the-track glory. They’ve felt the draw, seemingly out of nowhere, to a hobby that would be too fast, too dangerous, too much of an investment for most of their peers. They’ve felt the pride and excitement that come from realizing how with dedication, savvy, and a little bit of fearlessness, anyone can beat their more pedigreed opponents across the finish line—whether a hardscrabble fruit-truck driver from Pittsburgh or a couple of mild-mannered East Coast scientists.

An unlikely connection, given the vast gap in life circumstances and personal character. But considering what the track does to them, they wouldn’t exactly be surprised.

“It’s a slim possibility, but it’s almost uncanny,” John says. “You really wonder if this stuff is in your blood.”

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