Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The Lee Wallard Story 

A smiling Lee Wallard poses for a photograph 
at Funk's Speedway (today known as Winchester Speedway)
on July 25 1948 

Leland R. “Lee” Wallard was born on September 7, 1910 in Altamont New York a small village west of Albany. Not much is known of Lee’s early life, but he began his racing career in the mid-1930’s at the ½- mile dirt track Altamont-Schenectady Fairgrounds Speedway racing midgets and ‘big cars.’  Lee told an interviewer that he had suffered a broken leg twice during 1947, a broken pelvis in 1941, a broken collarbone in 1940, and back injuries several times.
Lee made his first American Automobile Association (AAA) championship appearance September 1, 1941 at the Syracuse “Moody Mile” driving the #38 ‘Kimmel Special’ that featured an Voelker all-aluminum double overhead camshaft (DOHC) V-12 engine in a 1935 Miller-Ford chassis. Lee qualified twelfth but the ‘Kimmel Special’ dropped out after just 43 of the 100 laps.    

Lee Wallard poses with his car and crew at Funk's Speedway July 25 1948
Cheif Mechanic Henry Meyer stands behind and to the right of Wallard

How we confirmed that this photo was taken at Funk's Speedway
Thanks to the enlargement skills of Bart Stevens

Just over three months later Wallard’s racing career was interrupted by the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, as Lee enlisted in the U.S. Navy and spent the war years working in Alaska as a bulldozer operator and helped build airfields and roads. After the war, Lee drove several different cars through the 1946 and 1947 season before his regular ride for the next three years on the tough AAA Midwestern ‘big car’ circuit became the ‘Iddings Special,’ built by National Sprint Car Hall of Fame chief mechanic Henry Meyer and owned by John and Howard Iddings, who ran an auto glass shop in Greenville Ohio. 

The restored Iddings Special
owned by Bob Pavlovich 

Lee passed his Indianapolis Motor Speedway rookie test in 1948 in the ancient G&M Duesenberg entry, then on the final day of qualifying May 28, the 35-year old rookie bumped his way into the field with the fifth fastest time in the field. Wallard was the fastest rookie in the 33-car starting field behind the wheel of the #91 ‘Iddings Special,’ Meyers’ stretched wheelbase sprint car fitted with a 232 cubic inch Offenhauser engine. Wallard started from the 28th position and finished in seventh place; with his completion of the full race distance at 109.77 miles per hour (MPH), he earned admittance into the revered Champion Spark Plug 100-mile per hour club. 

Wallard followed up his fine ‘500’ finish with top ten finishes in the ‘Iddings Special’ in the next two races at Langhorne, Pennsylvania and the ‘Milwaukee Mile,’ and then he was victorious in the Labor Day 100-mile race at DuQuoin, Illinois. By finishing in the top ten in seven of the nine championship races he ran on the 1948 AAA schedule, Wallard finished sixth in the standings. In the 1949 AAA championship season, Lee Wallard, Henry Meyer and the Iddings team competed in eleven events, with six top ten finishes to finish eighth in the standings. 

For the 1950 International 500-mile Sweepstakes, Lee Wallard received the opportunity of a lifetime, a ride in the Belanger ’99,’ known on the AAA circuit as the “Little Jewel.” The #99 Belanger machine had started life in 1949 as a stretched wheelbase Kurtis midget chassis fitted with an experimental 107-cubic inch supercharged engine owned by Meyer & Drake Inc. who the suppliers of Offenhauser engines and parts 

After Tony Bettenhausen qualified the Meyer & Drake ‘house car’ on the front row and won two races in easy fashion at DuQuoin Illinois and Detroit Michigan, other car owners, Offenhauser engine customers, revolted and demanded that Lou Meyer and Dale Drake sell the car. The little Kurtis was subsequently sold to Crown Point Indiana car and tractor dealer Murrell Belanger, who repainted the red car his trademark racing colors of dark blue with gold trim.

At the Speedway in 1950, neither Kenny Eaton nor Emil Andres were able to qualify the ‘baby’ Belanger car for the starting field; then Duane Carter missed the field at Milwaukee, and Harry Turner was too slow at Langhorne. After crashes by Carter at Springfield, Illinois and Chuck Stevenson in the second Milwaukee race, Belanger’s chief mechanic, George Salih, assisted by ‘Frenchy’ Sirois removed the experimental supercharged Offenhauser engine, replaced it with an undersized 241-cubic inch Offenhauser engine and reinforced the chassis.  

Tony Bettenhausen re-took the controls of the Belanger #99 at the Syracuse race and won the pole position but finished 12th. After a rear end failure eliminated the car early at Detroit, Tony started first and won the second Springfield 100-mile race, then qualified and finished second at Phoenix. Tony added his second win of the 1950 AAA season in the “‘Little Gem” at the Bay Meadows thoroughbred track near San Francisco, California.

In 1951 both Tony Bettenhausen and Duane Carter had turned down the chance to race the “Little Jewel” in the ‘500,’ and Lee Wallard got the chance of a lifetime to drive Murrell Belanger’s #99 at the Speedway.  Both Tony and Duane instead chose to race the Blue Crown Spark Plug Deidt front-wheel drive machines. Given the fact that Tony Bettenhausen had won four races wins two seasons in the stretched Kurtis midget, it is reasonable to question why both Tony and Duane Carter would pass on driving it in the ‘500.’ 

Contemporary thinking in 1951 suggested that a driver’s best chance at ‘500’ victory came behind the wheel of a front-wheel drive machine.  The Indianapolis Motor Speedway was one of only two paved ovals on the 1951 AAA schedule, and the only track over 1-1/4 miles in length. One of car owner Lou Moore’s ‘Blue Crown Spark Plug Special’ Deidt front-wheel drive machines had won the ‘500’ three straight times from 1947-1949 and finished second in 1950.

For the start of the 1951 ‘500’, Lee Wallard in the Belanger #99 started beside Dennis ‘Duke’ Nalon in the front wheel drive Novi-powered “Purelube Special” on the front row.  Wallard led the first lap, then the Belanger ‘99’ led five times and ran the race’s fastest lap which was just two miles an hour slower than Wallard had qualified. Despite the fact that the little car suffered a broken exhaust pipe and broken shock absorber mount, Wallard dominated the latter stages of the race as he led the final 119 laps and 158 laps total. 
Wallard won the most prestigious race in the world in just his fourth start and was the third oldest ‘500’ winner at age 39 years 264 days, as for the first time the ‘500’ race winner took the checkered flag in under four hours.  The press hailed Lee Wallard as the “Cinderella Man’ for his surprising victory in the face of adversity.   

After picking up the check for $63,212.00 the following evening at the Victory Banquet held at the downtown Indianapolis Murat Temple, Lee and his wife Esther headed east in their new white with red trim 1951 Chrysler New Yorker convertible to make some television appearances in New York, but first Wallard had a stop to make in Pennsylvania to honor a previous commitment. 
Floyd “Sam” Nunis promoted nearly all the East Coast AAA races in the days when “promotion” meant a lot of ingenuity and hard work.  Nunis, whose headquarters were in a Reading hotel, annually staged the “Sam Nunis Sweepstakes” for AAA big cars (sprint cars) at the ½-mile dirt Reading Fairgrounds Speedway and paid top Indianapolis competitors substantial appearance money to race in his eponymous event.

On June 3, 1951, in front of a crowd of over 18,000 people, Wallard timed in sixth fast at 26.92 seconds in a car borrowed from his old friend Mark Light. After he won the third heat, on the final lap of the 30-lap feature, while running fifth, the car’s fuel line broke and the car blew into flame as Wallard drove through turn four. Fearing an explosion in front of the packed grandstand, Wallard bravely stood up in the seat, leaned against the head rest and steered the car to a safe stop inside turn one. Wallard leaped from the car with his shirt and pants ablaze; he rolled on the ground and bystanders smothered him with blankets. 

Lee Wallard was burned over half his body, just four days after he won the biggest race in the world, and he was transported to the Reading Hospital for treatment, which included applications of salt-water soaks, bandages and ointment.  A local newspaper article the next day predicted Wallard would be hospitalized for “at least two weeks.” Lee remained in the Reading Hospital for 121 days and underwent 37 skin grafts before being released to return to his home in Altamont, New York where he remained for many more months.  

Following the ‘500’, Tony Bettenhausen returned to the seat of the Belanger ‘Little Gem’ for the balance of the 1951 AAA season and compiled an amazing record. He won the next two races after Indy, at Milwaukee and Langhorne, followed by two second-place finishes at Darlington and Williams Grove. Tony went on to win six of the next eight races before recording his worst finish of the year at Phoenix when a tire blew. He closed out the season with a second place finish at Bay Meadows.  He recorded four pole positions to go along with eight victories, and won the championship by 700 points over Henry Banks.   

In early 1952, Wallard had recovered enough from his injuries to work as a bartender at ‘Lee Wallard’s Restaurant & Bar’ on Route 20 in Guilderland New York, near his home, and he also spent time with an air conditioning business near his new winter home in St. Petersburg Florida.  Wallard briefly visited the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May 1952 and but racing in the ‘500’ was of course out of the question.

Lee Wallard tried out the Belanger Special
during May 1954. Photo courtesy of the
Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection in the 
Center for Digital Studies at the IUPUI
University Library 

The dark blue 1951 winning car crashed by Tony Bettenhausen in practice for the 1952 ‘500’ was rebuilt for 1954 and Murrell Belanger entered the #99 Kurtis for Lee Wallard’s triumphant comeback.  Wallard diligently trained in preparation, but after he ran practice laps at 135 MPH, he found that the combination of the loss of muscle mass in his arms and legs, his intolerance to heat, and the pain from the scar tissue was too much.  After Wallard formally retired on Monday May 18, third year driver Jerry Hoyt replaced Wallard and drove the Belanger “Little Jewel” in the 1954 ‘500.’

In retirement, Lee worked as a field service representative for the Ford Motor Company aviation engine division represented the Champion Spark Plug Highway Safety Team that toured American high schools and lectured on driving safety, and ran his bar/restaurant and air conditioner businesses.  

In early October 1963, Lee suffered a heart attack at his home in Tampa Florida. After being admitted to the Bay Pines Veterans Hospital in Saint Petersburg, he passed away on November 28, 1963, at only 53 years of age survived by his wife of nineteen years, who remarried and two teenage daughters.   The physical toll of his injuries brought his life to an end a mere 12 years after he won the Indianapolis 500, which makes Lee Wallard one of the truly tragic figures in Indianapolis Motor Speedway history.        

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