BAKERSFIELD, CALIF., NOV. 25 -- Bill Vukovich III, a third-generation race car driver and rookie of the year in the 1988 Indianapolis 500, died today following a sprint-car crash at Mesa Marin Speedway.

The 27-year-old Vukovich had just completed a few practice laps when his car slammed into a retaining wall at about 11:30 a.m. PST, according to Frank Lewis, president of the California Racing Association.

"Basically he went into the turn, took his foot off the gas and went to hit the brakes to slow the car down," Lewis said. "The car locked up and he went straight into the wall.

"He hit his head against the wall and that's what killed him," Lewis said.

Vukovich, who was practicing for an afternoon race, was taken to Kern Medical Center, where he died a short time later, Lewis said.

"It was a complete shock to all of us when you have someone that talented. It's very difficult to assess," Lewis said.

The driver's grandfather, Bill Vukovich, won the Indy 500 in 1953 and 1954 and was killed while leading the 1955 race.

His father, Bill Vukovich Jr., was runner-up at Indy in 1973 and raced Indy cars for 12 years.

The younger Vukovich, who lived in Fresno, Calif., raced in seven Indy-car events beginning in 1988 and earned $469,569 in his brief career.

He competed in the last three Indy 500s, and finished 14th in 1988 when he was honored as rookie of the year.

In 1990, he raced Indy cars only twice, finishing 24th at Indianapolis and 13th in a 500-mile event at Michigan International Speedway.

His best career Indy-car finish was ninth in the 1988 Pocono 500.

Vukovich was the 1986 West Super Modified champion with six victories.

The next year he reigned as the U.S. Auto Club Super Modified Champion, winning 12 of 17 races, including a record-tying seven straight.

His father, who works in racing with Simpson Safety Equipment Co., and his mother were flying to Bakersfield from Indianapolis today, Lewis said.