Duke Nalon hadn’t raced a car at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 30 years, yet he continued to be one of the more recognizable people at the track each May until his death on February 26, 2001. He continues to be cherished by the fans, who were race goers in the 1940’s and ’50’s.
Duke lived in the Detroit area for a while and was a regular competitor at the midget races at Motor City Speedway.
Duke won many titles during his 20-year career, including both the AAA Midwestern and eastern championships, but his name remains synonymous with the famous Novi racing cars. They were the temperamental machines, which captured the public’s imagination because of their brute power, noise, speed, and recurring mechanical failures. The Chicago-born Nalon had already been an Indianapolis competitor for 10 years when he accepted an opportunity to drive one of the cars in practice for the 1948 “500”.
Great Mystery surrounded the Novis because of the complicated machinery beneath the hood and also the fact that several drivers had spun the cars while trying to harness their awesome power. One driver helped to intensify the mystique, gaining considerable newspaper space by quitting the team after a spin with the claim that the cars were “dangerous”. So when Nalon substituted for him, practiced at speed, and pronounced the car to his liking, a hero-worshipping crowd declared him “The man who tamed the Novi.”
The Nalon legend developed further when he later turned the fastest qualification laps of 1948 and came closer to winning the race than any man would ever do. He was apparently headed for victory when a pit crew’s miscalculation forced him to stop for fuel with only 16 laps to go. He had made his one scheduled pit stop Just past the halfway mark and was believed to have had his 110-gallon fuel tank completely filled. It transpired that this was not the case; ration in the gasoline during the first stop caused the tank to appear full when it was not, and Duke was forced in for emergency replenishment. The misfortune was compounded when the engine stalled, and by the time Duke returned to he track he was fortunate to salvage third place at the finish.
In 1949 it appeared that Duke would win the race in a cakewalk. He on the pole, grabbed a huge lead at the start and smashed distance records every time he crossed the line during the first 50-miles. But the car lost a wheel on the 24th lap and the Novi slammed into the third turn retaining concrete wall. The fuel tank erupted and a river of burning fuel trailed the sliding car along the wall, and then flowed down the track to the infield as other drivers steered through the blaze. Ten years later, Hollywood racing epics were still utilizing newsreel shots of the spectacular accident.
Duke was able to crawl from the burning car, but suffered burns, which kept him, hospitalized for weeks. His nickname transformed into “The Iron Duke” as he made his comeback in 1950. The setback was overcome and in 1951 Nalon and his Novi were back on the pole with another track record. He announced his retirement in 1957, having driven in the “500” 10 times between 1938 and 1953.