Remembering The Death Of Speedy Mike Nazaruk

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VALLEY STREAM, N.Y.
I pause every May 1 and remember a sad day 55 years ago. I was 10 years old on May 1, 1955. I was already a fan of auto racing and because of Speed Age Magazine, I was already aware of big-time racing and attending weekly races.

Coming home from school May 2, the headline blared that Mike Nazaruk had lost his life the day before at the nasty circular oval at Langhorne, Pa. Nazaruk lived in North Bellmore, N.Y., 25 minutes from my house and was the area’s best-known driver.

Nazaruk came home from World War II after serving in the Marines with distinction at Guadalcanal and Guam. He became a successful midget driver, copping the ARDC crown in 1949, displacing Bill Schindler, who had won 106 features the previous two years. As midget racing died out, Nazaruk moved to sprint cars.

“Iron” Mike drew the attention of the East’s premier wrench man Frankie DelRoy. The Indy 500 circuit was made up of mostly Midwesterners and Californians. DelRoy wanted one of “his boys” to succeed.

DelRoy convinced owner Jim Robbins to put Nazaruk in his car. What a car it was! Johnnie Parsons had finished second and first with it at the Indy 500 the last two years.

Nazaruk did Frankie proud. He finished second to fellow New Yorker Lee Wallard.

Nazaruk had a prizefighter’s build and was said never to have lost a bar fight. He cared for his family, always sending money home after a race. He took his Indy purse and built a house himself for his wife and daughter.

Nazaruk switched to the John Zink team for 1952 and suffered the indignity of missing the 500, being first alternate. Switching to Lee Elkins’s team, he won the Milwaukee 100 the next week for his only championship win.

Back with Elkins at Indianapolis in 1953, the hot afternoon saw his ride go out after 166 laps. Things improved in 1954 as Elkins supplied a new Kurtis roadster and Nazaruk finished fifth.

The 1955 season opened and Nazaruk was to drive the same car at Indy. The first race March 29 was a 30 miler for AAA sprint cars at Langhorne. Driving Ted Nyquist’s No. 29, Nazaruk romped over a strong field. It was a sad day, as 1954 Indy rookie of the year Larry Crockett died in a crash.

The sprints were back at the Horne on May 1. Once again the Nyquist No. 29 took the lead and ran away from the field. Going down the backstretch on the 17th lap, Nazaruk’s car hurtled over the fence into a tree, killing him.

It was speculated that Nazaruk was in the process of wiping his goggles when the crash occurred. Race historian Marty Himes says a wheel broke.

Nazaruk was 34 years old. The house that he built was sold by his daughter just a couple of years ago.

• I have accepted many 60-something jokes, but many of us are still doing our thing.

Kenny Brightbill won the first two features at Delaware Int’l Speedway this season. Bill Park and Wayne Anderson were in the top five at Riverhead (N.Y.) Raceway, and Dave Lape and Jack Johnson are hot at it at Fonda (N.Y.) Speedway.

• The World of Outlaws are heading East. They’ll be at Williams Grove Speedway Thursday and Friday and Virginia Motor Speedway Saturday.

• There was a time when midgets seemed dead here in the East. The ARDC has been pulling more than 30 cars a show this year as it heads for Grandview Speedway Saturday.

• Sending my gardener to Arizona at 25 Emerson Place, Valley Stream, N.Y., 11580. E-mail to [email protected]