It’s a shame Damon Runyon wasted his best stuff on James J. Braddock.
A reporter for the New York American, Runyon used the term “Cinderella Man” to describe the rags-to-riches story of Braddock, a longshoreman who became boxing’s heavyweight champion in 1935.
Runyon would have loved Lee Wallard.
Wallard, who will be inducted into the Schenectady City School District Athletic Hall of Fame on Monday night, etched his name in the history of auto racing when he won the Memorial Day 500 — now known as the Indianapolis 500 — in 1951. Almost overnight, he went from being a hard-working guy who was born in Schenectady and grew up in Altamont to being one of the world’s biggest celebrities.
And, almost overnight, the fame was gone.
Wallard began his racing career in 1935, on the dirt track at fairgrounds around the Northeast, including the Altamont Fairgrounds, but even in the early days of his career, nothing came easy. He spent most of 1941 recovering from a broken pelvis after flipping into the grandstands during a race in New Jersey.
A heavy equipment operator, Wallard served with the Navy SeaBees during World War II, and when he returned to the states, became more serious about racing. He began following the AAA Eastern Sprint circuit and started to race against the best drivers in the country.
His dream was to race at Indianapolis, so in 1948, at the age of 37, he borrowed 40 dollars and went to the Brickyard, looking for a ride.
With a gregarious personality and a mechanical background, Wallard befriended Henry Meyers, who put Wallard in the Iddings Special for the 1948 Memorial Day 500. The Iddings Special was essentially a dirt car that was converted to run on asphalt at Indianapolis. and Wallard was the perfect driver.
Although he started 28th, Wallard finished seventh, setting the racing world on its ear by using a groove that, until that time, had never been used before. Showing his dirt track background, Wallard passed cars in the corners rather than run single-file through the turns. Racing at Indy would never be the same.
Wallard returned to Indianapolis in 1949 and raced for owners Chet Miller and Hal Robson in the Shaw Maserati, but a mechanical problem ended his day on the 55th lap, when he was leading the race. But he still earned $4,000.
The next season, driving Lou Moore’s Blue Crown Special — a car that had been built specifically for him — Wallard started 23rd and finished sixth in a race that was stopped after 345 miles because of rain.
Between the stops at Indianapolis, Wallard kept running the fairground circuit, but without a lot of success. According to the Ultimate Racing website, Wallard ran 64 AAA Sprint/Indy car races from 1941 until 1951, and only won six times.
“He wasn’t always a winner,” said Chuck Wallard, a nephew who lives in Colonie. “After the war, he had some tough times.”
But that all changed on May 29, 1951.
One of the people who wanted to win the 500 as badly as Wallard did was Murrell Belanger, a auto and farm implement dealer from Crown Point, Ind., who had been entering cars in the Memorial Day 500 since 1935. Belanger wanted Tony Bettenhausen to drive his car in 1951, but a disagreement between the two prompted Bettenhausen to take another ride, opening up the seat in the Belanger Special — a 1,340-pound converted sprint car powered by a supercharged Offenhauser engine — for Wallard.
Wallard qualified in the middle of the front row, despite giving up horsepower to most of the other top cars in the field, and when the green flag dropped, one of the most grueling 500s ever was under way.
From the start, Wallard was locked in a battle with polesitter Duke Nalon and Jack McGrath, In an interview with the Schenectady Gazette after his victory, Wallard said, “It was pretty tough out there. Seemed there was never a time when somebody wasn’t pressing me hard.”
McGrath suffered muscle spasms, and had to pull out for a relief driver. “They’re crazy,” McGrath said after getting out of his car. “They’re running it like it was a dirt track race.”
Which is just what Wallard wanted.
When the checkered flag well, only eight cars of the original field of 33 were still running. Wallard, who became the first winner to complete the 500 miles in less than four hours (3:57.38), made his way to victory lane, where he was greeted by his wife, Esther, and movie star Loretta Young.
In victory lane, Wallard thanked Balenger and chief mechanic George Saleh, but also remembered the friends who had helped him out in the lean years.
“When I came out here for my first ride in 1948, I was one hungry fellow,” Wallard said, later repeating his victory lane statement in an interview with the Schenectady Gazette. “If Freddy Carpenter hadn’t loaned me 40 dollars, I’d have missed plenty of meals.”
After the ceremonies, Wallard went to an infield hospital for treatment. Not only had he lost 15 pounds, but his skin was severely chafed. He had worn a homemade firesuit, created by dipping the uniform in a mixture of borax crystals and water. Because of the high temperatures, he hadn’t worn an undershirt, and the firesuit had created serious friction burns.
The winner’s share of the purse that year was $63,612, and although it’s not known just how much Wallard received, he was already making plans to build a new house in Altamont.
Wallard had finally made it to the top — and four days later, his career was over.
On June 3, competing in a race at Reading, Pa., he was severely burned when his car caught fire on the final lap. In those days, the Indianapolis winners usually stopped at Reading Speedway, where they received a sizable appearance fee.
Driving with just a T-shirt on, Wallard guided the burning car past the grandstand, pulled over, jumped out and began rolling on the ground in an attempt to extinguish the flames. Fans came out of the grandstands, some with blankets, and helped smother the flames.
Wallard had known he was in danger. A broken carburetor float had been spraying fuel into the cockpit of the car, and Wallard was just trying to finish the race when a spark ignited the fire.
“I remember going to the hospital to see him, and asking him, ‘Why didn’t you stop?’ ” said Chuck Wallard. “He said, ‘Don’t you remember what they did to [Johnny] Parsons last year? He didn’t try hard, and they booed him. I didn’t want to be booed.‘
“He was a proud man.”
Wallard spent 10 days in the Reading Hospital and returned to Albany on June 11, just one day prior to a planned Lee Wallard Day celebration in Schenectady. But instead of a hero’s welcome, only a handful of people met his plane at Albany Airport.
Wallard then spent 121 days in the hospital, enduring 35 skin grafts, before finally returning home on Oct. 1, 1951.
Larger than life
To say Lee Wallard was just a race car driver would not do the man justice. He was the fun-loving uncle that everyone wanted to have.
“Anytime Uncle Lee showed up, we had a great time,” said Evelyn Taylor, a niece who still lives in the old Wallard neighborhood in Altamont.
Taylor, who is now 86, was sitting in the stands in Indianapolis on that May day in 1951. “It was the thrill of a lifetime,” she said. “For some reason, my brother, Don, and I picked that year to go. Some of the other cousins had gone before, but they didn’t like it because they said it made them too nervous to watch.”
And then there is the smile.
It’s hard to find a photo of Lee Wallard when he isn’t smiling. There was a photo in the Reading (Pa.) Eagle, taken in the Reading Hospital, showing Wallard with his arms in traction and covered in bandages, with black burn marks pocking his face — and he’s still smiling.
According to the reporter’s account that accompanied the photo, Wallard complained of being hot and asked the nurse for ginger ale. When the nurse left, he confided to the reporter that he’d rather have a beer.
“He was so good to all of us,” said Taylor. “He would give you the shirt off his back.”
Wallard returned to Indianapolis for the 1952 500, but the injuries had taken a toll on his body, and he didn’t have the strength to manhandle a car around the Brickyard.
“He was tough,” said Chuck Wallard. “He had made up his mind that he was going to come out of it.”
But this time, the mind couldn’t win the battle with the body.
“You have to go into that race in good condition, mentally and physically, because it’s a real tough grind,” Lee Wallard said in an interview in 1952. “You can’t drive in that one if you’re just half a man, which is the way I feel at the moment.”
Wallard did make one more attempt at Indianapolis, in 1954, again driving for Belanger, but after pushing the car up 135 miles an hour during practice, Wallard abruptly announced his retirement on the eve of qualifying.
He and his family moved to Tampa, Fla., where he worked as a representative for Champion Spark Plugs. But he began to have health problems, the result of the burns and all the skin grafts, and died of a heart attack on Nov. 29, 1963, at the age of 52.
They say that tall tales are stories of unbelievable elements, passed down as if they are true and factual. If that’s the case, Lee Wallard belongs in the same class as Paul Bunyon, John Henry and Casey Jones.
The only difference is, the facts about auto racing’s “Cinderella Man” are all true.