INDIANAPOLIS, Monday, May 8, 2000 -- The Novi race car, like a ferocious jungle beast, never wanted to be tamed at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It bit the drivers who tried, some worse than others.
This brutish race car that enthralled racing fans from the late 1940s into the 1960s snarled at Duke Nalon in a 1949 crash. But Nalon was one driver who bit back. He put a leash on this powerful racing monster about as well as anyone and made a name for himself that remains today as he races through his 88th year.
Duke never won the Indianapolis 500. Neither did the Novi. But together they sat on the pole twice, set fast time twice and finished third together in the 1948 race.
"They were jinxed," Nalon said simply of these mighty racing machines. "You get to believing in the jinx when they happen to you."
The jinx hasn't kept Nalon away from the Speedway. He's been there year after year since his retirement in 1954, always dressed to a T and spinning stories in the 500 Oldtimers room with an incredible recall of names, places and facts. Health problems have slowed him somewhat today, but he still maintains an indomitable passion for the sport of auto racing.
On Monday, May 15, Duke Nalon will be saluted at Indianapolis as a Legend of the Speedway. Four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser will drive him around the track in a 1914 Delage so Nalon can receive the accolades of the fans.
"That will be my victory lap; that will be my victory lap," he said with fervor.
"My first year here I started 33rd. I finished 11th in the race. 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."
It certainly was.
Duke was born March 2, 1913, and grew up on Chicago's south side. His given name is Dennis, but brother Mike started calling him Duke after a comic character Duke the Fluke when he was young.
When he was 12, Nalon began working in a neighborhood garage - "child labor," he quipped. Not only did he work on Model T's, but he drove them. At 20, he had a pair of racing goggles in his back pocket, and that was all he needed when a race car seat opened up for the 50-lap feature at old Robey Speedway in northwestern Indiana.
Naturally, he won the race to start the Nalon legend. He returned in the fall to win the 100-mile finale, too. Then the Triple A suspended him for driving in an outlaw race.
Once at Pride Brothers Speedway in Evansville during the Great Depression, he was so strapped for money he climbed into the ring for a pre-race free-for-all just so he could get $5 for participating. He was the first to be knocked out of the ring but then was able to buy a cold pop to soothe his thirst on a sweltering afternoon.
Nalon showed up at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the first time in 1937, not as a driver but as a riding mechanic for Johnny Sawyer. They didn' t make the race.
"I was glad I stepped out of that job," Nalon said. "Johnny was real muscular, and he was dirt-tracking it. You could see his muscles flexing and everything and you kinda held your breath hoping it wouldn't slip out from under you."
In 1938, he lost a potential ride in the Lee Ballinger car, but then climbed into a car owned by a northwest Chicago Ford dealer and squeezed it into the field in 33rd spot with a speed of 113.828 mph, nearly 12 mph slower than Ronney Householder's track record 125.769. The next year he won a race at Altoona, Pa., on the same day as the 500, but returned to Indy for the next two races before World War II.
Famed Indianapolis 500 mechanic Cotton Henning got Nalon a job with Rolls Royce during the war. He fixed the engines on P-40 fighter planes, was later sent to South America, South Africa, Egypt and China.
The war ended, and it was back to racing.
Nalon got his first chance in the Novi in 1948, but, as Nalon put it, the opportunity came under duress. It came after veteran Ralph Hepburn suffered fatal injuries during practice on May 16, 1948. Owner Lew Welch already had been watching Nalon drive midgets, and when Chet Miller decided to pass on driving the other Novi, Duke got the ride.
"It took me 89 laps to learn how to drive the Novi (a front-wheel drive car). That's when I passed Rex (Mays, the pole sitter). I was leading the race and ran out of fuel with 14 laps to go, finished third."
Mays joined Nalon in Welch's Novi stable for the '49 race. They qualified 1-2, with Nalon on the pole, and Welch told them in a pre-race conference that whichever driver led the first lap would stay in that position the rest of the way. Nalon decided quickly on the way to their cars to start in low gear instead of second, which he and Mays had agreed upon. Duke knew Mays' second gear was stronger so he faked a gear shift on the warm-up lap.
Nalon charged to the green flag so hard that he actually passed the Pace Car and driver/track president Wilbur Shaw. Shaw later altered the rules so that anyone passing the Pace Car would be assessed a one-lap penalty.
"I shifted after I got out on the back straightaway," said Nalon. "I shifted into second and motored away from all of them."
On Lap 30, the axle broke on the Novi entering Turn 3. Nalon backed into the wall and scraped along it toward Turn 4. Sparks from the dragging axle rod ignited the fuel. Nalon climbed out through the fire. He suffered burns on his face.
How did he get out? "Our Father who art in heaven..." he said. "That's exactly right. I got burnt pretty bad on my face, but if it wasn't for the Good Lord I wouldn't have made it."
Nalon missed the 1950 race but was back behind the wheel of the Novi in 1951, winning the pole again, finishing 10th. He qualified it fourth and finished 25th in '52 and finished 11th in 1953 to end his Indianapolis 500 and Novi racing stint. He won a final dirt race at Terre Haute, Ind., in 1954 and retired totally after finishing second at the Reading, Pa., fairgrounds later that year.
He worked for 10 years for Auto Lite, lived in Phoenix, then moved back to Indianapolis. He lives in a third-floor condo on the city's northeast side with wife, Fran. He has two sons, Patrick, and Duke Jr.
What has the Indianapolis 500 meant to him?
"The Olympics of auto racing," he said. "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 row to the front row, that's enough of an accomplishment."
More than enough for this Indianapolis 500 legend who refused to allow the brutish Novi to tame him.
This is the first of a series of stories featuring the legendary Indianapolis 500 personalities who will be honored during the Legends of the Speedway week May 14-19 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The honorees are drivers Joe Leonard (May 14), Duke Nalon (May 15), Emerson Fittipaldi (May 16), Rick Mears (May 17) and Mario Andretti (May 18), and car owner Andy Granatelli (May 19).