INDIANAPOLIS, Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2001 -- Dennis "Duke" Nalon, who came as close as any driver to mastering the powerful Novi race car at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, has died four days shy of his 88th birthday. Saluted as a ...
INDIANAPOLIS, Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2001 -- Dennis "Duke" Nalon, who came as close as any driver to mastering the powerful Novi race car at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, has died four days shy of his 88th birthday. Saluted as a Legend of the Speedway last May, Nalon passed away Feb. 26 at St. Vincent Hospital in Indianapolis. Nalon's death leaves George Connor, now 94 and living in Hesperia, Calif., as the only surviving driver who participated in the Indianapolis 500-Mile Race before World War II. Nalon drove in the 1938 and 1940-41 races before the worldwide conflict forced a shutdown of the Speedway from 1942-45. Nalon returned to drive in seven races after the war. His last start at Indianapolis came in 1953, when he finished 11th. But he was at the Speedway in May almost always thereafter, even driving the Buick Pace Car in 1981 and 1983. Fame came to Nalon because he seemed to be able to control the brutish Novi in the 1940s and 1950s as well as anyone. It took a man with both strength and skill to handle this machine that was so popular with fans 50 years ago. Together, Nalon and the Novi never won the 500, but he drove it to the pole twice, set fast time twice and manhandled the racing beast to a third place in 1948. But the Novi also got occasional revenge on Nalon. In 1949, he led the first 23 laps, then hit the north chute wall in a crash that took him out of racing for a while due to serious burns. In an interview last May, Nalon stated flatly that the Novi cars were jinxed. "You get to believing in the jinx when they happen to you," he said. One of Nalon's proudest moments came when he was honored last May at the Speedway and driven around the track by four-time Indianapolis 500 champion Al Unser to the applause of the practice day crowd. "That was my Victory Lap; that was a Victory Lap," he said proudly. A board member of the 500 Oldtimers Club, Nalon always could be found in the Oldtimers Room telling stories about racing. He had incredible recall for names, places and races. Just three weeks ago, he told visitors at a care center where he was being attended that he led the first 23 laps of the '49 race as he autographed photographs of his accident that year. He was still sharp mentally. Nalon was born March 2, 1913, on the south side of Chicago, son of Patrick and Katherine Nalon and one of nine brothers and sisters. One brother nicknamed him Duke after a comic strip character Duke the Fluke. Nalon began working in a garage at 12. When he was 20, he was in the old Roby Speedway in northwestern Indiana when a race ride opened up. He had a pair of goggles in his pocket and got the ride. Not only that, he won the race, and his career was launched. He also won the season-ending race at the track. During the Great Depression, Nalon raced everywhere and anywhere to make a buck. He arrived at the Speedway for the first time as a riding mechanic for Johnny Sawyer in 1937 and ended up taking part of a rookie test but didn't make the race. He returned the next year and squeezed a car owned by a Chicago Ford dealer into the 33rd and last starting spot, climbing through the field to finish 11th. He won a race at Altoona, Pa., in 1939 on the same day as the 500, but was back for 22nd- and 15th-place finishes, respectively, in 1940 and 1941. After working with Rolls Royce fixing fighter-plane engines during World War II, Nalon got his big break in 1948. He was selected to take over the Novi ride that became available after the death of Ralph Hepburn. Chet Miller had turned it down. Nalon turned in a qualifying run speed average of 131.603 mph, fastest for the field. However, he started 11th because his run didn't come on Pole Day. He brought the car home third. Nalon captured the pole with a speed of 132.939 in 1949, but the crash and burns kept him out of the race until 1951 when he came back to put the Novi on the pole with a speed of 136.498. He wound up his Indianapolis 500 career driving the Novi to 10th, 25th and 11th place in his last three races. "My first year here I started 33rd," said Nalon, who called the 500 the Olympics of auto racing. "To come from the back row in 1938 to the front row in 1949 and 1951, when I had the pole, was quite an accomplishment. I thought that was pretty good for a kid from Chicago. "I think once you've got a taste of the Speedway and you accomplish what I did, even though it took that many years to come from the back to the front row, that's enough of an accomplishment." Nalon worked for Autolite for 10 years and lived in Phoenix before moving back to Indianapolis for the rest of his life. Nalon is survived by his wife, Fran; two sons, Patrick and Dennis "Duke" Jr.; and two great-grandchildren.
Services will be at Conkle Funeral Home, Speedway Chapel, 4925 West 16th Street, Speedway, Indiana. Calling hours will take place from 4-8 p.m. Thursday, March 1. Funeral services will be Friday, March 2 at 10:00 a.m. Burial will be at Washington Park North Cemetery in Indianapolis.