Most race fans remember Duke Nalon from his many Indianapolis races. They remember how he tamed the powerful and legendary Novi's. They remember the track records he set, the 500-mile races he nearly won and the fiery crash that he miraculously survived. But to race fans in 1940, the Duke was already a legend. While he raced midgets and big cars coast to coast, Duke spent a lot of time at Detroit's Motor City Speedway. He was a friend to my father and to many who were part of the racing scene before and after WWII. For more about the Duke's early years, read on.
Duke Nalon was born March 2, 1912, and died in 2001. He grew up on Chicago's south side. His given name was 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 in an interview in 2000. 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 Roby Speedway in northwestern Indiana.
In addition to news stories and his weekly column, he also produced dozens of driver bios over the years under the title "Behind the Wheel". Below is a description of Duke from one of those features in the Illustrated Speedway News as it appeared in the ISN issue for October 27, 1939. The information came from Nalon himself.
He is big and fair and raw-boned. His name is almost a legend in the history of doodle-bugs and today his probably ranks third as the world's most important midget driver. Bob Swanson is undoubtedly the foremost midgeteer, with Erinie Gesell a close runner-up.
Nalon was born Clayton Dennis Nalon in Chicago on March 2nd, 1912, was a foreman in a steel factory before he turned his hand to automobile racing in 1933. He joined the equipe of Wally Zale, famed Mid-western speedster, and kept the motors of the famous Zale cars in tip-top shape.
In 1934, Duke climbed into big cars and drove the Mid-western circuit at Roby (Speedway, Hammond, Indiana), Winchester and similar tracks. He made an auspicious start and won the first two meets he ever competed in. One was a 100-lap affair and the other 50 laps.
ENTERS MIDGET COMPETITION
The following year year, 1935, Duke entered midget competition and went from coast to coast, jousting on every important track in the nation. Later in the year, he went to work for Floyd Dreyer and pushed the big cars around the AAA's Midwestern tracks. He traveled East in 1936 and drove at the Madison Square Garden Bowl. He was one of the outstanding drivers of the season and won consistently at the famous New York track.
In 1937, he again concentrated on the midgets and rode at Freeport, R.I., and similar tracks. He also tended bar at Jimmy Snyder's tavern in the winter of that year.
Serious accidents have had little or no part in Duke's long and distinguished career. There were little spills in Philadelphia in 1936 and at Freeport in 1937, but Nalon doesn't like hospitals and never stayed in one. Duke figured in the spectacular crash at Nashville in which the beloved Howdy Cox was killed, but he was not injured himself.
In 1937, Nalon entered the competition at Indianapolis for the first time and he turned in a creditable job in that Kohlert Special, riding home in 11th spot. Like almost all drivers do, he has his mind set on winning the classic 500-mile race.
DRIVES ADAMS COSTLY "SKIDEE"
The same year, out of six starts, he won two big car features, took one second and two sixths. His car blew up on the other attempt. Duke also drove in 1937 on other Eastern midget strips trying to find the grooves with Rudy Adam's new and costly red and black enameled Skidee, which was fashioned after the late Floyd Roberts' Indianapolis winning No. 23 Skidoo.
This year Duke drove Paulo Russo's red number 25 Offenhauser and took down a good share of the prize monies over the Eastern AAA-sanctioned midget strips. At the present time Nalon is competing in small car competition out at the West Coast speedways driving Rex Mays' midget wagon, but when the Chicago Armory opens with its indoor programs of midget racing it is expected that the Duke will be on tap as the Chicago ace has always done well at this indoor plant.
Duke is married to a Chicago lass named Charlotte and recently became the proud papa of "Little Zeke",the Duker or Clayton Dennis Nalon, Jr.
He is properly superstitious of peanuts, green things and is positive harm will befall anyone who crawls into the car over the exhaust pipe or who has his picture taken before the first heat.
The Duke is setting his cap to win a lot of trophies and plaques this winter which he can take home to little Zeke."
Duke Nalon is shown here in the Marks Special, a Silnes/Offy, at Indianapolis in 1940. It was his second year at the brickyard and he qualified 25th and finished 22nd. He qualified at 121.790 mph and was out after completing 120 laps with a broken rod. He completed one more 500 in 1941 before the start of WWII. (Blixt photo)
Duke lived for a time in Detroit and was a regular competitor at Motor City Speedway and other tracks in Michigan, Ohio and Indiana. Here is the Duke in the #4 Leader Card midget at Motor City in 1941. (Blixt photo)
Here is Duke at Motor City after the war. Most of the cars he drove were a characteristic maroon like this one. This photo appeared in a number of race programs and in ads for the Dicicco Garage. Note the Army surplus Jeep from Dicicco's is giving him his push start. (Blixt photo)
Duke told my dad he tended bar at Jimmy Snyder's tavern in the winter of 1937. Here is a Blixt photo of Jimmy with my dad's inscription "Jimmy Snyder, an all-time great". Snyder was part of the "Chicago Gang" that included Tony Bettenhausen, Cowboy O'Rourke, Wally Zale, Paul Russo and Duke Nalon. They toured tracks in the Midwest and East Coast in the late 1930's. Snyder won the 1937 track championship at the Chicago Armory.
Snyder appeared in the Indianapolis 500 five consecutive times beginning in 1934. He set track records in 1937 and 1939. His best finish was second in 1939. Snyder was killed in 1939 while racing in an appearance to help a midget promoter in Cahokia, Illinois.
Also mentioned in the "Behind the Wheel" bio was a driver named Howdy Cox. A Texas driver born James Howard Cox, Howdy was competing in a 25-mile feature race on September 27, 1937 at the Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville. Cox was about to be lapped by when he spun out in front of Duke Nalon. Nalon's view was impaired by the dust thrown up by Cox, leading to a collision. Other cars also became entangled in the wreckage. Cox was killed, Nalon, Ted Horn, and Vern Orenduff were hospitalized with non-life-threatening injuries. (Source: Motorsport Memorial ) Cox is shown here in a Blixt photo probably about 1937.
Other Nalon Facts:
1913: Born March 2nd in Chicago (This is the "official" date. Nalon gave the year of birth as 1912 when interviewed in 1939)
1933: Duke began his racing career with a victory. While working for Wally Zale in the pits, Zale allowed Duke to warm-up the car on occasion and when Walter Galven needed a driver at Roby Speedway, Zale talked him into giving Nalon the ride. Duke won the feature and a great career was started. (Source National Midget Auto Racing Hall of Fame)
1937: Track champion at Freeport (NY) Municipal Stadium with eight feature wins ahead of Johnny Duncan, Bill Holmes, Ernie Gesell and Bill Schindler. Other competitors included Henry Banks, Paul Russo, Tommy Hinnershitz and Ronnie Householder. The end of season 100-lap championship at Freeport paid a purse of $2,513.00 ($35,000 in 2007 dollars according to the bureau of labor statistics). ( Source: Race historian Gordon White, Yahoo Racing History Group)
1939: East Coast AAA Big Car Champion
1941: Midwest AAA Big Car Champion
1941: Set track record at Jungle Park Speedway (IN) in October, 1941
1942-1945: Famed mechanic Cotton Henning got Nalon a job with Rolls Royce during the war. He fixed engines on P-40 fighter planes, was later sent to South America, South Africa, Egypt and China.
1938-1953: Ten starts at the Indianapolis 500, two poles and one track record. Sadly, no victories.
Duke's post-war career at Indianapolis is probably what most people remember most about him. Driving the powerful and mysterious Novi's, Nalon nearly won the 1948 race only to run short of gas and had to pit 16 laps short of the checkered flag. He was the fastest qualifier sitting on the pole in a Novi in 1949 with another Novi driven by Rex Mays in second spot. He lost a wheel and crashed on lap 24 after grabbing a huge lead on the field. He was severely burned when his fuel tank exploded and was hospitalized for weeks. After this Duke became known as the "Iron Duke" as he made his comeback in 1951 as he set a new track record in another Novi-powered Kurtis. Source: Michigan Motor Sport Hall of Fame
Nalon leaps into the lead at the start of the 1949 Indianapolis 500. Photo source: www.historicalracing.com
1954: Won his last race as he had his first, a 100-mile midget race at Terre Haute, Indiana, the only 100 miler ever run at that track. He drove Johnny Pawls"s famous K Offy to victory and then retired.
1983: Drove the pace car to start the Indianapolis 500 in a 1983 Buick Riviera powered by a 450hp 252c.i. twin-turbo V-6 which led to the turbocharged Buick V-6 Indy car engines the following year.
1986: Elected to the Michigan Motor Sports Hall of Fame
1987: Elected to National Midget Auto Racing Hall of Fame
1991: Named to the National Spring Car Hall of Fame
2000: On Monday, May 15th, Duke Nalon was saluted at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as a Legend of the Speedway. Four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser drove him around the track in a 1914 Delage so he could receive the accolades of the fans. "This was my victory lap" he said.
2001: Died February 26th at the age of 88. After retirement, Nalon was a familiar figure for decades at Indianapolis and many old-timer events. Always gracious, he was beloved by fans who were not born in time to see him race.
Postscript: Since first posting this story, I have heard from Rick Wold of Palos Verdes, California. He now owns and races the #21 Tuffy's Offy shown at the top of this article. He races in the Western Racing Association. The original WRA sanctioned sprint car racing in California and Arizona before World War II. The WRA dissolved in 1959. In 1982, a group of former WRA members revived the group as a nonprofit to preserve the memory of these vintage race cars. Below is Nalon's #21, alive, well and racing today.
Rick comments, " Duke was long associated with the Tuffy #21 but, in fact, he only drove it for about 3 months in 1947. He also drove Tuffy's #23 at Detroit and tried to go over the wall in a spectacular crash. He blamed the torsion bar suspension on the #23. His cars all had similar paint jobs although they were not all his trademark maroon and gold. I have owned the Tuffy #21 for over 25 years and try to keep anything associated with Tuffy or Nalon. The opening photo (in this story) is Duke in the Tuffy #21. He often told me it was his favorite midget. Thanks for keeping his memory alive. This car has run with WRA since I finished restoration in 1984. It goes pretty good." (Photo by Harlan Sisco of Turlock, California).