Motorsports OF of America: Nalon leads Detroit's last class

Duke Nalon’s crash on Lap 23 of the 1949 Indianapolis 500 is one of the most spectacular in the history of the race.

The axle on Nalon’s brutishly powerful No. 54 Novi Mobil entry broke as he entered Turn 3, the car backing into the wall and scraping along it with flames spewing everywhere and wheels flying in the air.

Somehow, Nalon survived the inferno by holding his breath and not inhaling deadly fumes until he climbed from the wreck, badly burned, nevertheless.

Nalon would miss the next year of racing recovering but was back at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1951, when he finished 10th in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

Nalon, or “The Iron Duke,” as he was called, was one tough driver, representative of the men and women who risked their lives in midget, sprint car and Indy cars of the day.

Nalon’s son Patrick described his father’s wreck that Memorial Day Monday at the Brickyard.

“Dad had about 80 gallons of fuel aboard,” Patrick said. “He hit the wall and was lucky he didn’t get knocked out. He crawled from the burning car over to one of the track workers (yellow shirts), who didn’t seem to have seen what was happening. The guy was eating lunch. My father said, ‘Can you help me?’ The worker got up, threw up and passed out at the sight.”

Patrick said Duke was taken to Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis, where he was treated for burns to his face, body and legs.

“The only place on his driving suit that wasn’t burned when they cut it off was a small area around where his name was,” said Patrick, 60, who also raced midgets and sprint cars. “His teammate, Rex Mays, and all the other drivers came to the hospital room to visit him. He was a popular driver.”

Duke died in 2001 at 87. Patrick Nalon, who lives in Indianapolis, will be at the Fillmore Detroit tonight to see his father inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America, the final time the event will be held in the Motor City.

The Hall of Fame and the annual induction ceremony is moving to Daytona International Speedway after 27 years in the Detroit area.

“This is such a huge honor for Dad,” Patrick said. “He’d be so proud.”

Duke Nalon drove at Indianapolis between 1938 and 1953 — his best finish was third in 1948 when he started from the pole. He also led the 500 to the green flag in 1949.

Duke was not Nalon’s real name. He was born Dennis Clayton Nalon in 1913 in Chicago.

He would begin his racing career as a riding mechanic and go on to tour tracks in the Midwest and on the East Coast.

“My father got his nickname loosely from a cartoon character in the Chicago newspapers comic strip section named ‘Luke McGlook,’ and it stuck,” Patrick said. “They also called him ‘the pest’ because he was always pestering car owners to let him drive.”

Duke Nalon, who raced at the Detroit Motor Speedway (became Motor City Speedway), enters the Hall of Fame with fellow 2015 inductees Ricky Carmichael (motorcycles), Tommy Kendall (sports cars), Mark Martin (stock cars), Walker Evans (at-large), Warren Johnson (drag racing) and Lloyd Ruby (open wheel).

Nalon’s contemporaries included Bill Holland, Johnnie Parsons, Mauri Rose, Sam Hanks, Troy Ruttman, Ted Horn, Joie Chitwood, Tony Bettenhausen and Mays.

“Drivers like Dad — they drove all sorts of cars in their day, like A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti and Tony Stewart did. I think that’s the measure of a great driver,” Patrick said.

When Patrick took Duke to the 2000 United States Grand Prix at Indianapolis, his father was very ill. He couldn’t keep food down.

But it didn’t stop Duke from heading to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum and sitting near the front door and signing autographs, Patrick said.

“He sat there signing until the doors closed,” Patrick said. “That was who he was.”

Contact Mike Brudenell: Follow him on Twitter @mikebrudenell.

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Vroom! Vroom!

What: 27th Annual Motorsports Hall of Fame of America Induction Ceremony.

When: 5:45-10 tonight. Dinner is at 7, induction ceremony starts at 7:45.

Where: Fillmore Detroit, 2115 Woodward.

Emcee: David Hobbs.

Presenters: Jeff Burton, Brian Vickers, Parnelli Jones, Jeff Emig, Donald Davidson and Tony Sheffler.

Tickets: Call 248-349-7223 or go to Tickets start at $100.

The inductees

Ricky Carmichael

He won 10 straight national Motocross titles (1997-2006) and has 150 career wins.

Walker Evans

He won nine SCORE world championships, the 1991 Grand National sport truck championship, 17 championships and has more than 118 career victories.

Warren Johnson

As of the 2010 season, Johnson won six NHRA pro stock championships and 97 NHRA national events.

Tommy Kendall

Driving Roush Racing Mustangs in 1997, he had 11 consecutive wins, setting an all-time record for win streaks.

Mark Martin

He made 882 starts in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in 1981-2013, finishing second in the championship standings five times.

Duke Nalon

A driver whose career spanned the pre- and post-World War II eras, he was among the top midget drivers before the war and competed in several championship races.

Lloyd Ruby

He had dozens of wins in midgets and culminated in 18 consecutive years in the Indianapolis 500 (1960-77), with a best finish of third in 1964. ___


This article was written by Mike Brudenell from Detroit Free Press and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.