Former stunt driver and pilot, Harkey started six Indianapolis 500s between 1964 and ’76.
He was thus in the middle of the transition from roadsters to be-winged rear-engined turbocharged monsters, but the Charlotte-born racer never had a car capable of winning, not at IMS nor anywhere else in his 84-race USAC National Championship career.
Harkey’s NASCAR Midget championship and victory in an ARDC Midget at Brewerton Speedway in 1961 helped earn him a USAC Sprint Car ride with Walter Flynn. But a pair of third places – at Allentown in ’63 and New Bremen in ’64 – were his strongest results.
It would prove to be a similar tale in Indy cars, with second place at Milwaukee in ’66 driving Pete Salemi’s Gerhardt-Offy proving to be very much against the run of play. Instead, Harkey was better known for being a midfield runner who could put uncompetitive cars in the field at the Indy 500.
In 1974, he drove Lindsey Hopkins’ Coyote from 31st on the grid to finish eighth. It would remain his strongest result at IMS.
Outside of racing, Harkey led a fascinating life. As a keen boxer, Bob Harkey fought middleweight but took part in Golden Gloves bouts against eventual heavyweight legend Floyd Patterson.
Harkey taught himself to drive at speed by running as a decoy to lure cops away from those doing illegal moonshine runs in North Carolina. He was also a stunt driver – Thunder Road starring Robert Mitchum and also Paul Newman’s Indy car classic Winning, featured Harkey’s work.
Yet he would go on to serve as lecturer for Champion Spark Plug's famous Highway Safety program in which Indy car drivers would visit high schools to lecture students about safe driving. In fact, he did this across 36 states for some 15 years.
The fearless streak combined with his fascination with aviation meant Harkey was not only happy as a stunt pilot, but also performed as a wing-walker in aerial circuses. Very late in life, he still owned a 1941 Boeing Stearman PT17.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Doug Boles issued a statement saying: "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."