Championship winning Crew Chief Clint Brawner said of Ed Elisian: “I always liked him. He worked hard and had a great, if uncontrolled, desire to be a race car driver.” Author Ross R. Olney referred to him as: “Another Vukie…Almost. He only lacked a little of the skill and judgment of the great Bill Vukovich.” And Vukie himself had sung the praises of his fellow driver before Elisian arrived in the Midwest. He may in fact, have set the bar too high.
Elisian was born in Oakland, CA and began his racing career in the late 1940’s. He drove Hardtops at Contra Costa Stadium and rapidly found his way into the popular Midgets. In 1951 he won Bay Cities Racing Association features in the indoor series driving for Bob Marchel and in ’52 finished fourth in BCRA points. It was during this time that Elisian became acquainted with Bill Vukovich whom had nearly won Indianapolis in his sophomore appearance. The two became fast friends in the Midget ranks and Vukie did his best to contact Elisian with Big Car rides.
In 1953 Elisian made his first Big Car start at high banked Dayton, Ohio while Vukovich dominated the Indy 500. Driving a state-of- the- art Kurtis roadster, Vukie qualified on the pole and led all but five laps of the hottest race on record. Finally, the following year, Elisian was able to join his mentor in Indianapolis. Vukie would again pilot the ’53 winning car while Elisian secured a ride in a solid Stevens’s dirt car owned by H.A. Chapman. Vukovich struggled in qualifying and didn’t make the race until the third day. He would start from the nineteenth slot while his protégé stormed from the final row. In the race Vukovich paced himself, finally taking over the lead at the halfway point and won going away. Rookie Elisian did a respectable job, bringing his mount home eighteenth, and six laps behind the leader. Away from the Speedway, Elisian was making a decent living. He won a Big Car race at Terre Haute and finished ninth in AAA Midwest points.
1955 was looking promising for the duo; defending Champion Vukovich had a new Kurtis roadster for the 500 which he qualified fifth while Elisian switched teams and put his Kurtis in the twenty ninth position. When the starter’s flag dropped, Vukovich forged his way into the lead and appeared to be on his way to an unprecedented third victory. Then on the fifty seventh lap some back markers got together and tagged Vukie as he attempted to squeak by. The contact put him into and over the guardrail, crashing in flames. Seeing this Elisian intentionally spun his car, unbuckled and attempted to save his friend from the burning wreck. Sadly his actions were in vain as Vukovich had fractured his skull in the initial impact. Elisian was led from crash scene sobbing and was too distraught to resume racing.
With the demise of his closest friend, Elisian became a bit of a lost soul. The sullen driver soldiered on in 1956 qualifying his first proper roadster fourteenth at Indy but was out at 160 laps. He fared better in the short track events, finishing sixth in AAA standings. In ’57 he procured his best ride to date driving for Lee Elkins and put the McNamara Special seventh on the grid but broke a timing gear at fifty one laps. On the short tracks he improved by one position in the AAA (now USAC) rankings and again was victorious at Terre Haute.
In 1958 it appeared that Elisian’s period of mourning had ended. He secured the seat in Jack Zink’s new roadster and a rivalry developed between him and Dick Rathmann who had taken over the McNamara ride. Fast lap of the month was passed back and forth between the two with Rathmann ultimately claiming the pole. The feud continued after the drop of the green flag as neither driver was willing to lift at the end of the back straightaway. This resulted in a collision that started a chain reaction involving more than half the field. In the end, Elisian, Rathmann and six other cars were eliminated and crowd favorite Pat O’Conner was dead.
Though Elisian wasn’t any more responsible than Rathmann, the incident was more or less pinned on him. The fact that he was unpopular among his fellow drivers certainly didn’t help. Without his advocate Vukovich to defend him, Elisian’s life began to spiral downward. He continued to perform well on short tracks but missed the ’59 500 over a suspension that involved gambling debts and bad checks.
Before ever having reached his full potential as a driver, Elisian crashed to his death on the Milwaukie Mile on August 30th 1959. He was thirty two years old and had never married. Unfortunately other than his immediate family, there were few to mourn him.