EVEN RIPLEY WOULDN'T BELIEVE THIS STORY
The Novi's Month of May 1948
Photographs courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway
The five Novis built from 1946-60 raced 17 times in the Indianapolis 500. But if you were to send the Novi story for May 1948 to Ripley, he would return it marked UNBELIEVABLE!
You see the first time the Novi name appeared at the Speedway, in 1946, with Ralph Hepburn at the controls, the pair set new one and four lap speed records for the Speedway in qualifying and led 44 laps in the chase before the monster stopped on the backstretch on lap 121.
Then in 1947 veteran drivers Herb Ardinger and Cliff Bergere put two of the beautiful beasts in the show with the second and fourth fastest qualifying speeds. Cliff led the race for 23 laps before burning a piston and Ardinger finished the race in fourth place, behind two Blue Crowns, driven by Mauri Rose and Bill Holland and perpetual almost winner Ted Horn.
Now it was 1948 and the "experts" all agreed with two development years behind them the two Novis entered were by far the most powerful race cars to ever appear at the Speedway, and with veterans Chet Miller and Cliff Bergere at the controls, had to be considered runaway favorites to claim Tony Hulman's pot of Gold at the end of the 500 miles.
But someone forgot to tell Dame Fortune what a sure thing the Novis were, and she sent her daughter, MisFortune, to watch over the fire breathing monsters for the month of May.
But, as usual, not all the Novi's problems during the month could be blamed on Fortune's daughter, some blame has to be laid at the feet of one Lew Welch, the owner of the magnificent marvels.
Welch had watched Lou Moore's two front wheel drive Blue Crowns finish one-two in '47 after making only one pit stop for fuel and tires.With the Novi's voracious appetite for fuel, about three miles per gallon, such a feat was impossible so Lew installed 112 gallon fuel tanks to solve the problem, but he forgot what the extra weight would do to the Novi's handling.
The Novis arrived at the Speedway on May 12 to the "ohs" and "aws" of the rail birds and were readied to begin practice runs on the 2-1/2 mile squared oval, Bergere was first out and things didn't go so well. Cliff spun a couple of times trying to figure out how to keep the brute going in a straight line and then on May 14 he spun again and this time clipped a signal light pole, smashing the Novis tail in the process. Except for his pride, Cliff wasn't hurt but ----.
Qualifying was set to start the next day and Bergere told Welch, in no uncertain terms, his cars weren't safe to drive and quit on the spot. Then the other shoe fell, Chet Miller had a bum arm, a reminder of a crash in the 1939 race, and, maybe after hearing Bergere's very unkind words, informed Lew he wished to be released from his contract to drive the second Novi.
So here were the two Novis, the crunched tail was an easy fix, but no one to drive either car. Lew picked up the telephone and called his old friend from the "46 race, Ralph Hepburn, Hep said sure he would like to drive his "baby" again. He took a few slow laps in the car and asked if it could be set up exactly as it had been for the '46 race, the adjustments were made and everyone was smiling once again.
On Sunday, May 16, Hepburn took the Novi out for a few more laps before he wanted to make a qualifying run, after warming the engine for a couple of laps Hep turned up the wisk and cut a hot one at almost 133 mph, close to his own track record.
Then tragedy struck. Going into the third turn Hepburn was a little high, as he tried to correct the screaming monster the rear end became loose and the car headed for the infield. Again Ralph corrected but for some reason he hit the throttle and the car shot across the track, into the outside retaining wall. It took 20 minutes to get Ralph Hepburn's body out of the wreckage.
Hep's loss was a tragic blow not only to the Novi crews but to all the racing fraternity for he was one of the most popular drivers in the sport, but even after this loss there was another shoe to drop, Walter Winchell, the most listened to radio talk show host in the Nation, on his Sunday night coast-to-coast radio show reported a source at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway had informed him that "an Indianapolis 500 car owner should be investigated for murder" in Ralph Hepburn's tragic death.
The next day one newspaper headline read, "Death Car Faulty Says Bergere". On the evening after the crash AAA and Speedway officials met with Lew Welch and Bud Winfield, one of the Novi designers, to discuss Bergere's charges. After a close inspection of the mangled car by the Triple A and Speedway, Welch, and the Novi, were cleared of all blame and there was one Novi still entered in the Indianapolis 500, but no driver and the last qualifying weekend just a few days away.
Ex-Novi driver Chet Miller happened to remember in 1947 a driver had stopped by the Novi garage and told Lew if a drive ever opened up he would sure like a shot at the Novi ride, he ask his good friend driver Henry Banks if he would remind Welch of the incident and talk to him about giving his friend the ride.
It took a lot of convincing, with even some more good words from Tony Bettenhausen tossed in for good measure, but finally Lew made the telephone call and Dennis (Duke) Nalon had his long sought ride in the remaining Novi.
On Wednesday, May 19th, just three days after Hepburn's fatal crash and three days before the final qualifying weekend, The Duke of Nalon took the remaining Novi out for his first ever ride in the beautiful beast. After a few warm up laps to get the feel of the 550 horses under the hood Duke finally turned them loose and promptly spun into the infield grass. There was no damage to the car or driver.
With the three practice days over it came time for Duke to attempt to qualify for the race. His first of the four lap run was at a speed of 133.274 and the second lap was quicker at 134.008, a shadow slower than Hepburn's one lap record of 134.449. Nalon's average for the four laps was 131.603 which was less one half mph slower than Hepburn's four lap record. But the Duke's qualifying run was a full mile and hour faster than pole sitter Rex Mays 130.577 so the Novi was the fastest car in the 33 car field, but it would start in the middle of the fourth row in the 11th starting spot.
The race plan was simple, with the 112 gallon of fuel on board, be a little conservative for the first half of the race then stop for fuel and tires, and in the last half go for broke.
The Duke of Nalon followed the plan perfectly, but on the 91st lap he let the Novi out a little and passed pole sitter Rex Mays for the lead. Jubilation reigned supreme in the Novi pits.
At the halfway point, 100 laps, Nalon brought the Novi in for fuel and tires right on schedule and after a 1 minute 48 second stop roared back into the fray in search of Mauri Rose, in Lou Moore's Blue Crown, who was now the leader.
Things became a little confused around the 160th lap when scoring couldn't figure out who was leading, it was either Rose or the Duke and both pit crews were flashing their drivers the P1 sign. On the 167th circuit scoring announced the Novi was the leader, which was wrong but made no difference because MisFortune had already paid the Novi crew a visit.
On lap 186, much to everyone's surprise, Nalon brought the Novi slowly down pit road out of fuel, MisFortune had helped fill the tank on the 100th lap a little bit shy of full. All doubt about who was leading the race vanished as both Rose and Bill Holland, driving the second Blue Crown, passed the Novi sitting in the pits.
A splash of fuel was quickly poured into the thirsty beast but all chances for quick stop was spoiled when the engine stalled. After 2 minutes and 18 seconds the Duke finally had the Novi roaring and under control heading out of the pits in third place. Nalon gave it the old college try but the two Blue Crowns were out of reach and the Duke took the checkered flag in third place 2 minutes and 30 seconds behind Mauri Rose and the winning Blue Crown.
The scoring hassle and the announcement that the Novi was leading at the 435 mile mark led to a piece of racing mythology that Nalon and the Novi were leading when forced to make the late stop for fuel when in reality the Novi was running third at the time.
And so the month of May 1948 came to and end, one man who almost tamed the Novi was dead, the two men set to drive the Novis didn't and yet, though no one knew it at the time, Duke Nalon, the new tamer of the beast, had just driven the monster as far up the Indianapolis Motor Speedway 500 mile mountain as it would ever get.