The tall, handsome, mustached Mays could have been a stand-in for Errol Flynn, and he drove race cars the way Flynn might have. He never won the Indianapolis 500, largely because his hard-charging style generally wore cars out before they could finish the race.
Rex Mays started his racing career at Legion Ascot Speedway in Los Angeles, California. In 1931, Mays' made his racing mark very quickly, defeating local heroes and terrorising West Coast midget racing before beginning his big-car career.
He entered his first Indianapolis 500 in 1934, finishing in 9th place. In 1935, he led for the first 90 laps, but left with a broken spring shackle on lap 123. He failed to finish at Indy in nine of his twelve starts but was the fastest qualifier four times and finished second ontwo occasions, 1940 and 1941.
He was the Midwestern sprint car champion in 1936 and 1937 the year he raced in the Vanderbilt Cup in New York, finishing third. Tazio Nuvolari was so impressed with Mays' talent, he reasoned the outcome might have been different had he been behind the wheel of a proper Grand Prix car instead of an old Alfa Romeo. Considering that this was the peak of the German government-sponsored Auto Union and Mercedes dominance of Grand Prix racing, May's third, the only top three finish of the year for a non-German car, spoke loudly of his talents.
Mays continued racing at Indy and though he never won he did win the AAA National Championships in 1940 and again in 1941. His racing career spanned 18 years, but four of those were as a pilot during World War II.
Mays was more than a race car driver, he was a concerned professional who put the welfare of others before himself. Two events evidence that concern. In 1947, at Wisconsin's Milwaukee Fairgrounds race track, Mays was challenging for the lead when Duke Dinsmore crashed directly in front of him and was thrown onto the track. Rex intentionally crashed into the wall to avoid Dinsmore. In the fall of 1949, at the Syracuse, NY State Fairgrounds. a dispute over prize money delayed the start of the championship 100 mile race for more than an hour, and the fans were becoming more and more upset. Mays prevented what might have developed into a major riot when without a word, he got into his car and started circling the track. One by one of the other drivers followed. He led the race until a flat sidelined him.
Paradoxically, Mays refused to wear a safety belt but was an outspoken advocate of driver safety and welfare. On November 11, 1949, at Del Mar, California, Rex Mays was killed in a race. He was battling for position on the 13th lap when a wheel caught a rut and flipped, throwing him from the car. His tragic death, just over a year after that of good friend, and fellow Hall of Famer, Ted Horn, convinced his fellow drivers that seatbelts were a vital safety feature.