17. The "Chargers" Take Command

Preparations for 1950 included a sizable addition to Grandstand E, the double-decked steel-and-concrete structure erected on the No. 1 turn the previous year.

Harry McQuinn and Earl Cooper, two former drivers whose combined experience covered 17 Indianapolis 500-mile events, accepted invitations to fill important posts on the staff of officials headed again by Tom Milton.

Perennial car owners, impressed by the performance of Johnnie Parsons' Kurtis-Kraft creation of 1949, ordered new chassis of similar design. And the outstanding drivers produced on the midget tracks of California during the early post-war days converged on the Speedway with the hope of equaling or surpassing Parsons' achievements.44

Milton and his associates were a busy group as they guided 21 ambitious young newcomers—including Walt Faulkner, Bill Vukovich, and Bob Sweikert—through the four stages of the 100-mile driver's test for rookies. Vukovich and Sweikert failed to qualify for starting positions with the "tired iron" at their disposal. But Faulkner rewarded the dyed-in-the-wool race fans on the first day of time trials with one of the most unexpected record-breaking performances of all time.

Faulkner's run began late, and the sun was low in the western sky. Only a few cars were on the track for practice laps, and most of the spectators were moving toward the exits.

J. C. Agajanian, owner of the car which Frank Kurtis had built for Faulkner to drive, was standing at the starting line, stop watch in hand, with Kurtis at his side. Together, they were clocking the 122-pound five-foot-four-inch "Little Dynamo" as he worked his way up to racing speed. Their watches caught him at 130 miles an hour on one lap and at 132 on the next trip around the course.

"It looks as if he's found all of the speed he needs," said Kurtis. "Why don't you bring him in, so he can qualify today?"

"Aggie" gave the signal with a wave of his ten-gallon hat and informed the officials his car was ready. But before Faulkner was able to complete the lap and report at the starting line, Tony Bettenhausen pulled into position ahead of him. It was doubtful if time remained for both official attempts. But Tony took only two warm-up laps before qualifying at 130.947 miles an hour, and Faulkner managed to get under way a couple of seconds before Chester Ricker45 fired the 6 o'clock gun.

Exerting extra pressure on the throttle in the turns, so the rear end broke loose just enough for him to negotiate the corners in an almost imperceptible controlled slide, Faulkner thundered through the first lap in 67.80 seconds. The time for the next one was even better, and veteran clockers questioned the accuracy of their watches. Two more quick laps followed, and Faulkner was the new holder of the one-lap and four-lap records: 136.013 and 134.343, respectively.

In a lighter and smaller car—with fewer horses under the hood—he had shattered the Novi's most prized records and at the same time sounded the death knell for all cars of front-drive design.

Faulkner didn't win that rain-shortened 1950 Memorial Day Classic which many writers described as a "helmet dash" because of the leaders' sustained speed. But Parsons gave his more experienced rivals a convincing demonstration of the driving style he had learned in midget competition. He did it, too, with the knowledge that a tiny crack in his cylinder block, discovered only an hour before the start of the race, might send him to the side lines at any instant.

Because of this condition, Johnnie decided to go all out from the drop of the green flag: he'd try to win lap prize money and hope that the engine would stay together long enough for him to go the distance.

Jack McGrath and Rose, at the wheel of a new front-drive car after severing relations with Moore because of what mutual acquaintances described as a "personality clash," waged a spectacular battle for the lead with Parsons during the early laps. But Johnnie took command on the 34th trip around the course and increased his advantage to 25 seconds at the 250-mile mark.

The usual shuffling of positions occurred as the leaders made their pit stops on schedule during the next few minutes. Overflowing fuel from the tank of Rose's car drenched the trousers of a crew member and flashed into flame as it splashed on the hot exhaust pipe. As fire fighters moved in to smother the blaze, Rose remained in the cockpit, unwilling to lose a single extra second by leaping to safety. But heat from the fire increased in intensity, and he finally heeded the pleas of officials to climb out.

He stood near the front wheel of the car while the men with tanks of carbon dioxide finished their dangerous task. Then, clambering back behind the wheel, he resumed his pursuit of Parsons.

What might have happened if rain had not interfered is a subject that race fans debated for many weeks. But the records show that Parsons continued to pull away from his rivals steadily under threatening skies. He was 38 seconds ahead of Holland and 109 seconds ahead of Rose when the rain clouds burst on the northeast turn.

With the safety of the driver uppermost in his mind, Milton had no alternative. He called for the caution lights instantly and ordered Seth Klein to wave the red and checkered flags simultaneously, ending the event with all cars being given finishing positions according to the order in which they were running at the time.

Barbara Stanwyck, on location at the Speedway with Clark Gable for the MGM race film To Please A Lady, presented Parsons with the Borg-Warner trophy. Sports writers pressed forward to interview him in Victory Lane. Remembering the pre-race statements of some drivers, who indicated they would hang up their helmet and goggles if they finally succeeded in winning "the big one," a wire service representative asked Johnnie if he planned to retire.

"Are you kidding? I just got here," replied the jubilant champion, who now had a first and a second to show for his only two Indianapolis appearances.

Both Novis had been among the cars failing to win starting positions, due to mechanical trouble. But their crews vowed to have them in perfect condition for 1951, even if they had to burn the midnight oil throughout the winter months. In addition to keeping their promise, they obtained Chet Miller's services as Nalon's teammate. Tire tests by Firestone developed a new type of rubber which made it possible for drivers to negotiate the turns faster than ever, and all indications were for a record-breaking series of time trials.

Bright, sunny weather brought a tremendous turnout of fans for the first day of qualification attempts; the early birds poured into the grounds as soon as the gates were opened and raced for choice seats in the new double-decked steel-and-concrete grandstand located across from the pit area. Car after car took the track for practice laps. Each time, however, the driver would roll to a stop after only two or three trips around the course, shaking his head to indicate he wasn't ready to make an official run against the clock.

A brisk wind was causing trouble for all of them on the turns. As the day progressed, the spectators became more and more restless, and the drivers showed signs of increasing tension. Rose finally could stand the strain no longer. He was anxious to get the job done so he could return to his regular duties with the Studebaker Corporation on Monday without worrying for another week about earning a starting position.

"Why in the hell should we wait any longer?" he said to his crew. "We've raced on days when it's been windier than this. Roll 'er up to the starting line and we'll get it over with."

Four laps at an average speed of 133.422 miles an hour convinced his rivals conditions weren't nearly as dangerous as they had thought. One after another took the track and qualified in the 132—133 bracket. The wind continued to diminish, and, five minutes before the 6 o'clock closing signal, Nalon's crew pushed his big Novi to the line—all of them hoping to regain the record from Faulkner.

Climbing into the cockpit, Nalon took a deep breath and straightened his shoulders. "Radio" Gardner removed the portable starting device as the engine roared into life, and Nalon accelerated toward the first turn with an expression of grim determination on his face.

After two warm-up laps at 130 miles an hour, he put his foot into it. And 65.67 seconds later he again was the one-lap record holder. Three more quick laps gave him the four-lap record as well—at 136.498 and 137.279, respectively.

Faulkner wasn't on hand to witness the accomplishment. He still was en route from California, towing the new car which had been built for him in recognition of his 1950 performance. He arrived two days later, apparently unconcerned about Nalon's accomplishment and showing no outward resolve to answer the challenge.

Chief mechanic Clay Smith had the car running perfectly within 24 hours. Each day, Faulkner turned a few quick practice laps without attracting much attention. Then, late one afternoon, he roared into the first turn without lifting his foot from the throttle and was clocked unofficially by stop watches at 139 miles an hour.

"The throttle stuck on me," he whimsically told sports writers.

But the throttle definitely did not stick when he made his official qualification attempt the following Saturday.

"Listen to that little devil drive those turns!" exclaimed Harlan Fengler, a former driver who had enjoyed considerable success on the board tracks during the early 1920s. "He's back on the throttle almost before you can realize he's lifted."

The first lap time made by the "Little Dynamo" was better than Nalon's best effort. The fourth was even quicker. At the completion of the 10 miles Faulkner again held the one-lap and four-lap records—138.122 and 136.872. Car owner Agajanian, waving his big hat again, was perched on Nalon's shoulders to signify and celebrate the occasion.

New mechanical ailments prevented the temperamental Novis from regaining any of their lost prestige on race day. Veterans in the cockpits of other front-drive cars also found themselves hopelessly outclassed by their younger rivals, who charged forward with the drop of the green flag to dominate the event in their newer and lighter rear-drive creations.

Lee Wallard, Jack McGrath, and Cecil Green each held the No. 1 spot briefly: it changed hands six times during the first 28 laps at sustained record-breaking speed in excess of 130 miles an hour.

Bunched on their heels came Faulkner, Parsons, Jimmy Davies, Freddie Agabashian, Mike Nazaruk, and Bill Vukovich. Never before had engines and transmissions been strained so close to the breaking point for so many consecutive laps on the Indianapolis track. Failure was inevitable, and the only question appeared to be which cars would be the first eliminated.

Vukovich rolled into the pits with his oil supply exhausted. Broken crankshafts ended the hopes of Faulkner and Green. A slipping clutch sent Agabashian to the pits, and Davies followed almost immediately with transmission trouble. Parsons retired from the battle with a faulty magneto. Bill Schindler's car overheated, and a broken connecting rod cut the engine almost in half.

Of the first 10 cars at the 100-mile mark, only three were running with 150 miles to go and Wallard—again in front after stopping for fuel and tires—enjoyed a lead of more than a lap over all of his rivals except Nazaruk. Physical exhaustion had forced McGrath to surrender the wheel of his car to a relief driver, Manuel Ayulo, who trailed by almost three laps in third place.

Wallard also appeared to be tiring. Although the engine of his car still was performing perfectly, a broken shock absorber mounting had made the car difficult to handle on the turns. Parsons headed for Wallard's pit to offer his services as a relief driver. Before he arrived, however, Nazaruk found it necessary to stop a second time for tires.

The pressure off, Wallard reduced his speed immediately without danger of a last-minute challenge. He reeled off the final laps at only 123 miles an hour. But his average for the entire race was a record-breaking 126.244, and he had accomplished that feat for car owner Murrell Bellanger with a 241-inch engine, 30 inches smaller than any other non-supercharged power plant in the starting line-up.

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