This is an occasional series spotlighting men and women who work at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. For more “People of IMS,” click here.
Ray Harroun and the Marmon Wasp, Parnelli Jones and “Calhoun,” Jim Clark and his rear-engine Ford-Powered Lotus and Johnny Rutherford and his famous Yellow Submarine represent winning Indianapolis 500 driver/car combinations that will never be forgotten, but perhaps the most fondly remembered pairing of them all is one that never won the race.
In 1946, the Indianapolis 500 was renewed following a four-year respite due to World War II. The event is remembered for many reasons, not the least of which was the introduction of a Kurtis chassis powered by a V8-supercharged Winfield engine that was renamed the Novi. Ralph Hepburn drove the powerful new Novi to one- and four-lap qualifying records that year, but it would be two more years before the Novi met the man who got the most out of it.
“When the Novi was still pretty new it had a reputation for being very difficult to drive and how Duke Nalon got into one of the cars — and I don’t know what the thinking was — except that in those days there was a lot of changing around and everyone was trying everybody else’s vehicle,” said IMS Historian and close Nalon family friend Donald Davidson. “So he gets in and then was the fastest qualifier in 1948 and ends up finishing third, which would be the highest finish by a Novi. They were still around until 1966, which was the last year of the Novi at the track and occasionally they would finish, but nobody ever topped Duke Nalon’s third in ’48. That could’ve been a victory, but there was a lengthy pit stop which caused him to drop back to third.”
Nalon, who raced in 10 Indianapolis 500s and remains one of the most beloved drivers ever to race at the Brickyard, has a lasting presence at IMS through his son, Patrick, who for the past seven years has been leading grounds tours for fans at The Racing Capital of the World. Patrick believes there’s one particular aspect of the Novi that set it apart from other Indianapolis 500 cars.
“The sound,” he said. “This all happened before my time, but people tell me that there were a lot of businesses around the Speedway here and they would plan their lunch hour around coming over to the Speedway to listen to the Novi because it was so distinctive. Whether it was my dad or whether it was Chet Miller or somebody else running the car, they knew the Novi was on the track.
“They were very difficult to drive on tires that were hard and seven inches wide with 600-plus horsepower in the 1940s, and front drive. It took a real different skill to run the car, and he was one who was able to figure it out.”
Although Nalon, who became known as “The man who tamed the Novi,” usually had control of his ride on the famed 2.5-mile oval, things didn’t always go as planned.
“He had this terrible accident in ’49, which was recorded on film by the newsreels,” Davidson said. “He took off from the pole in ’49 and built this huge lead over Rex Mays — his teammate — and an axle broke before he hit the wall in Turn 3 (Lap 24). There was a fire and he got burned and was hospitalized for many, many weeks. He came back from that and then missed the show in ’50 — they had all kind of technical problems — and then he comes back in ’51 and wins the pole, so that added to his hero status, the fact that he’d come back from that terrible accident and here he is back on the pole again.”
“He was a big man and tough, but he loved racing and loved the Indianapolis Motor Speedway,” Patrick said. “He knew that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway made his career, and there’s a lot of drivers now that know that. Dario Franchitti knows that, Tony Kanaan knows that.”
The Nalon family lived in Phoenix, Arizona, and the 59-year-old Patrick, initially visited the Speedway as a 2-year-old and attended his first Indianapolis 500 in 1964. As a youngster, Patrick revered his father and as he grew up he decided to go against his parent’s wishes and enter the family business.
Patrick’s career as a racecar driver began with Claimer Stock Cars that could be claimed for $100 and were lacking in speed and quality safety measures. Although he experienced moderate success, his parents had no idea that he was racing.
“What are you doing, son?” was the inevitable question asked by Patrick’s legendary father when he learned of his son’s secret occupation. “I’ve been racing. I wanted to race, I was going to race and I was dead set on racing,” Patrick replied. “So I brought them a couple of trophies and said, ‘I did OK.’
“I told them I’m racing Friday night and they said we’re going to be there. I blew it up and there was a big ball of flame down the straightaway and it was spectacular (he was not injured). So they come out of the grandstand and told me if you’re really going to be in this deal you’re not going to be driving these things anymore.”
While Patrick pursued his fledgling racing career out west, his mission was always to race somewhere else.
“My goal was here,” Patrick said. “I was going to race here at IMS and I was going to win this race. When I was a little kid I was always at the fence and I was always learning. We bought a car from Billy Boat’s dad (Boat drove in seven Indy 500s), Bill Boat Sr. It was a pretty good car and I raced that, but I just didn’t have the talent dad had. I crashed it in Tucson one night and pretty much destroyed the car. That night on the way home dad said, ‘We’re going to build another car,’ and this was a whole 180-degree swap.”
From that point on, Patrick and his father — who never wanted his son to race — became a two-man team. “We would buy the chassis from a builder and the only thing we wouldn’t do was the paint and the chassis,” Patrick said. “I would build the engine and dad would put it all together. I always knew I was in a safe racecar.”
After teaming up with his father, it didn’t take long for Patrick to suddenly find himself in a much more challenging environment.
“So I go from these cars that aren’t that fast to open wheel non-wing sprint cars, and I’m going to go to one of the most dangerous and volatile racecars in the world because dad was of the opinion — and I was of the opinion — that you still worked your way up the ladder. You made your name known in midgets and sprint cars.”
Patrick’s father was always anxious to share his vast racing knowledge with his son that was often — but not always — useful to the aspiring young driver.
There was a disconnect between us in time frame in age,” Patrick said. “He drove in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s and I drove in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Things had changed a lot, particularly with power steering. Every sprint car and midget car has power steering and he never did.”
Patrick raced for six years before coming to the realization he didn’t have the God-given racing acumen of his father.
“There was one night when I just wasn’t getting it done — I just wasn’t — and I handed him my helmet, and said ‘Here, why don’t you go do it?’ And the bad thing was he probably could have.”
Patrick will always cherish the memories of working with his father in racing, and throughout his life he admired many of his father’s finest attributes, including how well he related to his legions of admirers.
“Dad was always good with the fans,” Patrick said. “If he met you today and a year from now he saw you, he’d remember you. He’d remember something about you — either your name or where you’re from — and it was uncanny up until the time of his death and he was unbelievable. Not only a great racecar driver but he was an ambassador for the sport, especially for 16th and Georgetown.”
“He was an absolute gentleman,” Davidson added. “A big man, a gentle giant. Soft-spoken and just so courteous, and always dressed very sharply. A lot of drivers didn’t wear uniforms, and if they did they would be grubby, and he was always spotless. So I just think it was a combination and he was the complete package. I never thought of this until right now, but if Roger Penske had owned cars in the ‘40s, Duke Nalon would’ve been a Penske driver because he fit the mold of the kind of guy Penske goes after.”
After hanging his racing helmet up for good, Patrick worked for the state of Arizona and stayed close to racing by becoming a public address announcer at a variety of racetracks. He moved to Indianapolis in 2007 and is employed as a writer of condition reports and body shop estimates on leased vehicles nearing the end of their term for Ford, Nissan and Hyundai. On weekends he stays close to the passion for racing he shared with his father by working as a tour guide at IMS.
“You get to engage with so many people from all over the world,” Patrick said. “There’s no two days the same. The way I look at it is that I come in and talk about this place and share the passion I have for it and I try to answer as many questions as I can and try to share the tradition, the history, the feel. I still get a weird feeling coming in here. We have name tags and people recognize my name, or if someone else in the museum tells them about my father, I’ll be glad to talk about that.
“I’ve had people that have come in — and maybe it’s the man or maybe it’s the woman that doesn’t want to go on the tour — and most of the time they come back saying ‘Who do I see to get tickets? I want to come to one of these, especially the ‘500.’”
It was Davidson who suggested to Patrick that he would enjoy serving as an IMS tour guide. The two have known each other since Patrick was 10-years-old, and it was Davidson, who at Patrick’s request, gave the eulogy at Duke Nalon’s funeral in 2001 at age 87.
“When Duke passed away and Pat and the family asked me to do the eulogy, that’s about as high an honor as you can get,” Davidson said. “That’s about the topper for me, and I’ve done a few now, but what an honor that the family wanted me to do this. “As time’s gone by — and there’s more and more names now — but at that time he was one of the best known drivers in the history of the track. If you were to make up the iconic names, there’s not much room for non-winners anymore, but back then I think you would put Duke Nalon as one of the most iconic guys ever. If you talk to people that were kids, Hoosiers or race fans in general in the 40s, Duke Nalon was a hero.”