1946 INDIANAPOLIS 500 STARTER KLADIS DIES AT 92
Midwestern driver competed in first Granatelli entry at Indy
INDIANAPOLIS, Tuesday, April 28, 2009 -- Danny Kladis, who had the distinction of being the oldest driver and having the earliest start of living Indianapolis 500 competitors, died April 26 in Joliet, Ill. 1946 Indianapolis 500 starter Kladis was 92. Although thought of generally as being a Chicago-area driver, Kladis was born Feb. 10, 1917 in Crystal City, Mo.
He began racing midgets in 1935, and his career was gathering momentum when it was interrupted by World War II. Kladis flew with the Army Air Corps and was a flight instructor. After the war ended, he was hired by the youthful Granatelli brothers to drive in the 1946 Indianapolis 500. It was the first "500" experience for all of them, their mount being one of the 1935 front-drive Ford V8 Millers in which the engine had been replaced by a stock-block Mercury outfitted with a Grancor (Granatelli Corporation) head developed by Andy and his brothers.
In a race of great attrition, the steadily running Kladis had moved from 33rd starting position to 16th when he made a pit stop for fuel. No sooner had he returned to the track than his engine lost power, causing him to slow and stop in Turn 2. The Granatellis raced over to the car and towed it back through the infield to the garage area, where they discovered the fuel safety valve had not been switched back to "on" at the conclusion of the stop. To their further frustration, the car was not allowed to re-enter the contest, ruled as having "left the race course," and therefore a retirement in spite of being in perfect running order.
Kladis never qualified for a second "500" despite practicing with cars virtually every year for the next 10 years, although he did rack up 50 laps in the 1954 race as a relief driver for Travis "Spider" Webb. His final try was in 1957, when he struggled unsuccessfully with a pair of Grand Prix cars, a 10-year-old Maserati and a pre-war Mercedes--Benz outfitted -- to the horror of purists -- with a Jaguar sports car engine.
Kladis, the rather surprise winner of a 1954 AAA East Coast sprint car race at Allentown, Pa., was voted into the National Midget Racing Hall of Fame in 2007 due to his numerous sectional titles.
He was a fun-loving storyteller who was once described by a chuckling IMS Public Address announcer Tom Carnegie as being "a rascal." Kladis claimed, "Andy Granatelli called me 'The Wonder Boy of the Speedway' because it was a wonder every time I came around." And, when asked if he had a middle name, Kladis responded: "Oh, no. My parents couldn't afford one."
Kladis is survived by his sons, George, Christopher, Danny and Mike, and his daughters, Joanne, Carole and Cecilia. He was preceded in death by his wife, Mary Jean.
Calling hours are scheduled for 3-8 p.m. (local time) Wednesday, April 29 and Thursday, April 30 at Kurtz Memorial Chapel in New Lenox, Ill. Services are scheduled for 9:15 a.m. Friday, May 1 at the funeral home chapel followed by a funeral at 10 a.m. at the All Saints Greek Orthodox Church in Joliet. Burial will take place at the Calumet Park Cemetery in Merrillville, Ind.