In the aftermath of World War II, there remained a group of survivors who eluded death on the battlefield, but whose exploits left them with an insatiable hunger for adrenalin-generating adventure.
Unable to satisfy that craving within life’s routine confines, many turned to racing with the attitude that if war couldn’t kill them, nothing could.
Even such barbarous tracks as Salem Speedway, Winchester Speedway and Langhorne Speedway paled in comparison to the apocalyptic bloodbaths of Anzio, Luzon and Guadalcanal.
One of these men was Marine Mike Nazaruk. Not yet 24 years old when he escaped hand-to-hand combat at Bougainville, Guam and Iwo Jima, he once revealed he was the only one of eight in his outfit who didn’t come home in a box.
Born in New Jersey, Nazaruk attempted to settle into an ordinary life in New York. He found a job at Gruman Aviation on Long Island and an apartment nearby.
But he couldn’t quell his restlessness. Fatefully, what Nazaruk needed was within walking distance.
Freeport Stadium filled its stands for midget racing, which boomed in popularity following the war. Nazaruk soon became part of it.
Running against the likes of Ted Tappett, Georgie Rice and one-legged legend Bill Schindler, Nazaruk garnered a reputation for toughness as he pushed relentlessly for the winner’s circle.
By 1947, he’d won a pair of track titles in New York, which pushed him to the 1949 ARDC championship.
Anxious to advance his racing endeavors, Nazaruk yearned to try his hand against the rugged AAA Midwest competition. Fortunately, his midget owner, Mike Caruso, wanted to make a similar move.
Caruso stretched one of his midgets into a sprint car and they stormed the Midwest with three wins, two seconds and a third in their first six outings.
Indianapolis was the next logical step and Nazaruk arrived in 1951. Driving the Jim Robbins Special — the same car in which Johnnie Parsons won the 1950 500 — he finished second.
Nazaruk became a fan favorite, but make no mistake, “Iron Mike” was unyielding, abrasive and intimidating.
During a confrontation with Charlie Musselman following an on-track encounter, Musselman threw the first punch, put Nazaruk on the ground and grabbed him around the throat.
Nazaruk glared at him and growled through clenched teeth, “When you let go of me, I’m going to kill you.”
Musselman let go of him, only when others restrained Nazaruk.
Nazaruk warned his competitors, “Don’t get between me and the checkered flag … you won’t like what happens.”
He told Johnny Thomson, “The trouble with you guys is when a big guy like me passes you, you back off instead of standing on that SOB!”
Nazaruk needled Eddie Sachs, “I know I got you intimidated.”
“How’s that?” Sachs asked.
“Every time I pull alongside you, you pull your elbow in,” snarled Nazaruk.
While not one to rile, much of that bravado served as a way to get into other drivers’ heads. Best friend Kenny Woods told author Denny Miller of a surprising revelation at imposing Winchester.
“With the cars lined up for the feature, Mike waved me over,” recalled Woods. “He said, ‘I want to show you something.’
“I looked in the car, and his knees were shaking. I couldn’t believe ‘Iron Mike’ had the shakes. He said, ‘Kenny, any SOB who says he ain’t scared to drive these high banks, is ready to die.’”
Nazaruk wasn’t ready to die on that fateful day at Langhorne (Pa.) Speedway in 1955. During his short time at the top echelon of the sport, he’d already won 19 AAA sprint car features, 14 AAA midget events and a champ car race. Three attempts at Indianapolis left him with second- and fifth-place finishes.
There was much more for Nazaruk to accomplish.
Ironically, he didn’t intend to run the May 1 sprint car race at Langhorne because he was recovering from the flu.
However, when the feature rolled around Nazaruk was in his new sprint car ride, Ted Nyquist’s Offy. He blasted around Musselman for the lead on lap 14 but lost control on lap 16.
The car smacked the wall three times and barrel rolled, tossing tough Mike Nazaruk aside like a rag doll. He died instantly.