Duke Nalon

Legends come in all forms and one may walk right into your life at any moment and leave a permanent impression if you give a person a chance. It happened to me 36 years ago, leading to a day with the inner circle of Indy car racing that I’ll never forget.

Working in the sports department of the Springfield (MO) News-Leader the morning of April 19, 1983, I heard a conversation on the other side of the room. A 70-year-old man who had walked in off the street was pitching a story to our sports editor and I couldn’t help but eavesdrop, especially the insistence of the old guy and the resistance of the sports editor.

"I don’t think that’s anything we’d be interested in,” the editor told the man, trying to shoo him away like so many others who thought their stories were the greatest.

There was something different about this man. His persistence was impressive but so was his grace. He remained polite but didn’t accept “no” as a final answer.

“Can I leave my name and number in case you decide it’s worth a story?” he asked.

The editor grabbed a piece of paper and said, “Sure.”

“My name is Duke Nalon, and my number is …”

I rolled out of my chair like it had just burst into flames and injected myself into the conversation. I knew that name – Duke Nalon. To the sports editor, who was a stick-and-ball guy, it meant nothing. But to me, a 28-year-old who had been infatuated with the Indianapolis 500 since I was little and gladly covered motorsports for the newspaper because nobody else wanted that beat, the name was royalty.

Duke Nalon, two-time Indy 500 pole winner. Driver of the famed Novi. The Duke Nalon!

“I’ll take it from here,” I told the editor.

I brought Duke to my desk, grabbed a chair for him, turned on a tape recorder and spent the next hour amazed at every word he said.

Duke had been named pace car driver for the 1983 Indy 500, and he had been on a one-man barnstorming tour of newspapers, TV and radio stations as he drove a replica Buick Rivera pace car to Indianapolis from his home in Phoenix. No news releases to announce his arrival or PR people to schedule his time; just a guy with a story to tell if anyone was willing to listen.

I learned that Duke was so much more than a well-known former racer, or the proud pace-car driver touting the marvel of the 450-horsepower twin-turbocharged V-6 Buick. He was an ambassador for the sport like nobody I’d met, and a genuinely charming person who invited me into his world not just that day, but for weeks to come.

He told stories of his victories and losses, of the front-drive Novi at Indy, of the extreme danger and friends he lost on an almost monthly basis. And he emphasized that despite the advances in money and, especially, safety in the 1980s, he wouldn’t have traded his era for any other.

“They were rough days,” he told me. “But there’s no way I would have it any different.”

He also said he had raced an open-wheel “big car” at the Springfield Fairgrounds on Oct. 13, 1937, and that it became a milestone date in his career. Duke had been sidelined with a leg injury earlier that season in a crash at Nashville that killed close friend Howdy Cox, and he wasn’t certain he wanted to race again. But he set fast time on the half-mile dirt oval in Springfield and finished fourth in the race, and he credited that performance with renewing his racing spirit. The following May, he qualified for the first of his 10 Indy 500s.

As Duke told that story, I had an idea: Wouldn’t it be cool if he could go back to that Springfield Fairgrounds oval – which since had been paved – nearly 46 years after that “big car” race? I called the promoter, who met us at the track and unlocked the gates. As we took photos of Duke with the 1983 pace car, his eyes scanned the race track as if to re-imagine the place five decades earlier.

When the photo shoot was over and we said good-bye, something marvelous happened as Duke climbed into the Buick and got ready for the 10-hour drive to Indianapolis.

“Instead of driving a few hundred feet to the pit exit,” I wrote in the next day’s newspaper, “he sailed toward the first turn, leaned heavily through the second turn and charged down the back straight. After 46 years, the thrill of zipping around a race track hasn’t diminished.”

Before he waved goodbye, Duke stopped and said something that cemented my love of Indy car racing and, especially, the 500. He asked if I would be in Indianapolis in May; I said I’d be there on Thursday of the first practice week.

"See me at the pace car room (under the old Tower Terrace outside Gasoline Alley) about 7 that morning,” he said, adding he wanted to show me a few things.

Athletes have made promises like that and then acted like they’d never met me, so I knew not to expect much. But not Duke Nalon. I was there at 7, and so was Duke in a Buick Indy 500 festival car.

“Get in,” he said, and then over the next few hours showed me a side of the speedway and its heroes that few get to see.

We stopped at the old Speedway Motel restaurant outside Turn 2 and everywhere I looked was a racing legend. I could only imagine the race strategy, or BS, that took place in that room over the decades.

From there, we walked into a small building on speedway property and met famed race car restorer Bill Spoerle, whose masterpieces are spread across the IMS Hall of Fame Museum, and then drove to Jackie Howerton’s race shop, where we met the talented racer/fabricator himself who had been elbows-deep into a modern-day Indy car when we walked in.

Duke then drove us to a motorcycle shop in Indianapolis, which puzzled me because, lacking a deep knowledge of his race career, I couldn’t figure the connection between motorcycles and Duke’s midget/big car/Indy car life. It all came together when Duke introduced me to a little man who was a giant in racing – Floyd “Pop” Dreyer. Pop was a champion motorcycle racer before getting hurt, then became a legendary builder of open-wheel cars.

In a corner of the shop was a shrine not only to Pop’s work as a builder, but also Duke’s fame as a driver. Surrounded by photos and trophies was the yellow sprinter that Duke drove for Pop to the AAA Eastern championship in 1938.

Duke Nalon and Floyd "Pop" DreyerI asked Duke if he could still fit in that car, and he didn’t hesitate trying to find out. Duke wasn’t a small man even in his youth, but at age 70 he wedged himself back into that car and grabbed the steering wheel like he was ready to broadslide into Turn 1. I’m sure I didn’t grasp the full importance of the moment at the time, but thinking back on the look in Duke’s eyes and the smile on his face, he probably felt like a 25-year-old again.

We drove back to the speedway and Duke dropped me off outside Gasoline Alley, but not without one more order: “Meet me at the pace car as soon as practice is over today.”

Rain had stopped Indy 500 practice late that afternoon, and the track was wet when I reported to the pace car on pit road. “Get in,” Duke said. “We’re going for another ride.”

This time he didn’t drive through the tunnel. He accelerated down pit road and eased the car onto the nine-degree banking in Turn 1. Nearly speechless, I muttered something about my only lap around the track being in a tour bus a few years earlier.

“Fasten that seat belt,” he said. “You’re in Duke Nalon’s tour bus now.”

The car shimmied across the wet surface through Turn 1. But Duke kept his foot to the accelerator and guided the front-wheel-drive Buick through the groove, much the way he drove the powerful Novi in his racing days.

“You set the nose and use the throttle to carry you through (the corner) in a front-wheel-drive car like this,” he said. “That’s what I enjoyed driving the Novi. You could go out wide, let the nose down and pull yourself around the race course.”

We made four, maybe five, laps around the track before pulling back onto pit road and if there was anything bigger than the smile on my face, it was the smile on Duke’s. It had been 30 years since he drove competitively but it was clear he still loved going fast.

“I still have the bug,” Duke said. “It’s nice to get out and do just what I’m doing here now.”

I returned Indianapolis this past May feeling exactly the same, thanks to the generosity of a man who didn’t need to be that nice and accommodating to a young sports writer 36 years ago.

The day Duke Nalon died in 2001 was a sad moment for everyone in the Indy car fraternity. A legend, and ambassador, was gone. But if he touched everyone else like he did me during those few days in 1983, the sport has been forever blessed.