In the romanticized, colorful jargon of what’s been described as America’s “Golden Age” of auto racing — the 1920s — he was given the colorful moniker the “Black Devil.”
With his dark, brooding features, pencil-thin mustache, all-black uniform and in his deep black Miller, Leon Duray played that role to the hilt. In reality the only thing devilish about him was the way he attacked the track. Always at full throttle and with a fearless disregard for anything but all out speed.
Duray qualified on the front row for the Indianapolis 500 five consecutive years — 1925-’29, twice on pole. That accomplishment wasn’t matched until Rick Mears did it in 1990.
Along with numerous track records and race-distance records he established on the high-banked board tracks of that exciting era, Duray set a track record at Indianapolis that stood for nine years and a closed-course record that stood for 26 years.
Though he carried a French name, Duray was as American as apple pie. Born in the heart of the country, in Cleveland, Ohio, on April 30, 1894, his birth name was George Stewart.
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Leon Duray came about when he raced for showman Alex Sloan’s IMCA. Sloan was an unrivaled promoter. He used railcars to haul his racers around the country, wooing standing-room-only crowds to small-town fairgrounds tracks with his hippodrome races and manufactured driver rivalries.
Sloan picked the name Leon Duray because it sounded more exotic and billed him as “The French Driving Ace,” a ruse that backfired on a trip to New Orleans. French-speaking dignitaries asked to meet Duray, who they discovered couldn’t speak a word of French. Regardless, he changed his name legally shortly thereafter.
Duray came to the forefront at a time when rapidly improving technology in championship car racing was pushing speeds to unprecedented levels. Officials tried desperately to curtail the dangerous pattern by drastically reducing engine size. Dropping it from 300 cubic inches, to 183, then to 122 and finally to 91 cubic inches over a period of six years.
Still, the speeds climbed.
Only the bravest excelled on the furiously fast board tracks, some banked as steep as 60 degrees, and at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Duray was, by all accounts, one of the bravest.
In1927, he paid Harry Miller $15,000 to build him a new car. He raced the 91-cubic-inch projectile for the first time on the 1.25-mile board track in Culver City, Calif., shattering Frank Lockhart’s 250-mile race record, which was set under the larger engine formula, by 8 mph.
Duray put the new car on the front row at Indianapolis in its maiden trip, then in 1928, after a year’s development, the car was even better. Duray grabbed the pole with a run that set one- and four-lap track records that held for nine years.
Later in 1928, Duray went after the closed-course mark at the new Packard proving grounds. Packard had invited some of the nation’s top drivers for high-speed runs with the hopes of generating publicity for its new, front-wheel-drive model.
However, the new concrete on the huge oval was so abrasive that it quickly devoured the skinny, bicycle-size tires, holding speeds in the 130-mph range.
Packard officials turned to Duray and prevailed upon him to make an all-out run for the record. Duray agreed and, after a few warm-up laps, cranked out one lap at top speed. He then rolled into the pits, his tires in tatters.
But his 148.17 mph lap was a record, eclipsing Frank Lockhart’s 147 mph standard set on the smooth Atlantic City board track. Duray’s record stood until Sam Hanks broke it with an Indianapolis roadster, powered by a huge Chrysler hemi engine, in 1954.
Known as much for his mechanical ability as he was for his skill behind the wheel, Duray was constantly experimenting with ways to improve his cars. The record-breaking Miller was built from his recommendations. For the last of his eight Indianapolis appearances in 1931, he drove a car with a monstrous, 16-cylinder, two-cycle engine of his own design and construction.
Duray continued to be a force in racing well after his retirement following the 1931 Indianapolis 500. He continued as an innovative car owner until 1941. In 1934, Mauri Rose finished second in a Leon Duray-owned car, and through the years some of racing’s best drivers sat behind the wheel of his cars — Wilbur Shaw, Sam Hanks and George Robson among them.