Leon Duray

Leon Duray

30/4/1894 - 12/5/1956

For Leon Duray there was only one place to be and that was in the lead and he drove flat out until he either won, crashed or the car broke. To Leon second place was the first loser.

Other drivers called Leon Duray the "Big Egg", Hollywood would have said he was just what a leading man should look like. Unlike a movie idol leading man however Leon was exactly what he claimed to be, a race driver and a damn good one.

He started life as George Stewart but later took the name of the French race driver, Arthur Duray. Arthur's main claim to fame in US racing was a second place finish in the 1914 Indianapolis, after a race he led for 77 laps.

To Leon Duray there was only way to run an automobile race and that was in the lead, he ran flat out until he either won, crashed or broke. To Leon second place was the first loser. This philosophy meant all too many times his equipment was not equal to Leon's desire and ability.

In 1927 Duray handed Harry Miller a check for $15,000 for a brand spanking new 91 cu.in., Front drive Miller. The car was gleaming black with white numerals, white frame rails and wire wheels, when Duray got decked out in an all black driving suit he was billed as "The Black Devil".

Well right out of the box Leon took his little 91 cu.in. Miller to the 1-1/4 mile board track at Culver City, Cal., with its 45 degree banks, for a 250 mile race on the wood. A guy by the name of Frank Lockhart held the outright record for 250 miles at 116. 37 mph.

Duray promptly shattered Lockhart's 91 inch mark by more than eight miles per hour with a 250 mile run of 124.712, and claimed the victory over the likes of such standouts as Harry Hartz, 2nd, Peter DePaolo, 3rd and none other than Lockhart himself 4th.

He did some fine tuning on the beautiful little Miller during the Winter of '27-'28 and showed up at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May of 1928 loaded for bear.

Duray not only put his front-drive Miller on the pole, but he set a one lap record of 124.018 and a four lap mark of 122.391 mph. It was nine years before either of these records were broken, the longest lap records have ever stood in Speedway history.

He led 59 laps in the race but the supercharged Miller overheated after 133 laps and Leon was out of the chase with a 19th place finish.

Then on June 14, 1928 Leon decided it was time to take a crack at another of Frank Lockhart's speed marks, the World's absolute record for a closed course, regardless of engine size.

Lockhart had set the mark on the 1-1/2 mile, 45 degree board banks at Atlantic City at 147.7.

For his run at the record Leon chose the unfinished Packard Proving Grounds test track. The high banked two-mile oval had no retaining walls, but Duray said he didn't think the walls were necessary, he didn't plan on using them.

So with Norm Batten acting as a pace car, also in a 91 cu.in., Miller, but rear wheel drive, the two set out on their journey into speed record history.

Running on the brand new, and very abrasive, concrete track Duray knew his tires would be the limiting factor, When he came in after several warm up laps and one very hot lap his tires were in shreds, but the new World's Closed Course Absolute Speed Record was now 148.17 mph.

The record remained unbroken for 26 years !!

In 1929 the Packard Cable Company sponsored a team of three Miller 91's, the front drives of Leon and Ralph Hepburn and the rear drive of Tony Gulotta and after that year's Indianapolis 500 took the cars on a tour of Europe. Duray set World's Records for five and ten miles at Montlhery, France.

The Packard Cable team then went to the combined road course and high speed oval at Monza, Italy. The little Millers were not well suited for the road course and no records were set.

But Ettore Bugatti was very impressed in the Millers and wanted them badly. Bad enough he gave Leon a sum of cash and three new Bugatti 2.3-liter supercharged Targa Florio for the Millers. Duray took the Bugattis back to Hollywood and opened a Bugatti Agency, just long enough to see the three Bugattis.

Leon Duray still wasn't finished giving the spectators the thrills they paid their money to see. Those who came to the 1931 Indianapolis 500 were treated to the sound that made the later era Novis sound as though they were running with mufflers.

Never had anyone heard a race car with the wild, exciting sound of a 16-cylinder, two-cycle race engine, manufactured by Duray, running at full bore with Leon Duray behind the wheel.

But in the race it was impossible to keep the 16 cylinders cool and Leon was out of the chase after just six laps when the bellowing monster overheated.

But back to the 91 inch Millers we left in Italy, thanks to efforts of several racing people the cars were found rotting away in a Bugatti warehouse and brought back to this country in 1959, the recovery and subsequent restoration is another story.

Suffice to say the front-wheel-drive 91 cubic inch Miller driven by Leon Duray returned to Indianapolis and the 91 cubic inch front-wheel-drive driven by Ralph Hepburn now sits proudly in the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

I'm afraid this story must close on a sad note, Leon Duray passed away on May 12, 1956, one of the truly greats, but in reading down the list of great names in the Racing Hall of Fame at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway there is one name absent --- Leon Duray.

With thanks to Dick Ralstin. www.dickralstin.com

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