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Art Malone Bridged The Gap From Drag Strip To Super Speedway

HAMMOND, IN: These days, it’s almost impossible to believe the versatility
that many of our old racing heroes possessed. Art Malone, who passed away
this week at the age of 76, was just such a man.

Malone was first bitten by the racing bug as a hot rodder in his native
Tampa, FLA, when he began hanging out with the man who was to become the
A.J. Foyt of drag racing, “Big Daddy” Don Garlits. The two school buddies
became immersed in the world of fast cars; Garlits on the local drag strips
and Malone racing stock cars on the ovals around Tampa.

Then in 1959, Malone’s world changed forever when “Big Daddy” suffered
burns in a racing mishap and asked Art Malone to fill in while he
recovered. The combination of the Garlits “Swamp Rat” slingshot dragster
and Art Malone was an immediate success and propelled the young 1/4 mile
rookie to national prominence. He immediately set a new all-time record for
the 1/4 mile; 183.66 MPH; breaking the previous national record held by,
you guessed it, Don Garlits! A legendary drag racing career had been
launched.

Two years later, Art Malone’s racing life would change again; this time in
a direction that no-one could have predicted!

In 1961, Bill France’s Daytona Speedway announced it would award $10,000 to
the first racer to turn a lap in excess of 180 MPH around the big oval and
a rather strange fellow named Bob Osiecki rose to the challenge. Almost any
type of vehicle was eligible to try for the Big Prize, and Osiecki chose
an old Kurtis Indy roadster formerly used by Ray Nichels as a Firestone
tire test car. The car was equipped with short, stubby wings, presumably to
keep it on the ground(!); a blown Chrysler Hemi was shoe-horned into the
engine bay, and the monster was named, “Mad Dog” (an obvious choice!).

At first, the only driver Osiecki could find to even sit in Mad Dog was
NASCAR vet Larry Frank. And, after a shake-down run in the mid-160MPH
range, Frank reportedly pulled the monster in, jumped from the cockpit as
if it were on fire, and left the pit area; never to return.

Just how Art Malone was next inserted into the cockpit of Mad Dog at
Daytona is unclear but, amazingly, it turned out to be a wise move.
Somehow, Malone was able to tame the beast long enough to claim Mr.
France’s $10,000 prize by turning a lap of 181.561. And, even though the
“Daytona 180MPH Challenge” can only be described as a freak show, many
people in motorsports were paying attention.

One in particular.

Chicago’s Andy Granatelli, auto racing’s version of P.T. Barnum, had
purchased the legendary but unlucky NOVI team in 1961 in an attempt to
finally conquer the Indianapolis 500. During the first two years of NOVI
ownership, the team was unable to even qualify for the “500” as the NOVI’s
rotten luck continued. Finally, by 1963, most of the bugs had been worked
out, and the two newer cars on the team qualified easily for the Race,
driven by Jim Hurtubise and rookie Bobby Unser. The big surprise came when
Granatelli named drag racer and Daytona Speedway record-holder Art Malone
to drive the older, high tail-finned NOVI as a Speedway rookie.

Many were surprised that Malone, with virtually no Indy Car experience
other than Mad Dog at Daytona, was even allowed to take the rookie test at
Indy. But pass the test he did, later qualifying easily for his first
“500”. Sadly, clutch failure on the pace lap prevented Malone from enjoying
his first Speedway experience.

Malone ran a handfull of Indy Car during the summer of 1963, and was again
a member of the NOVI team at Indianapolis in 1964. After qualifying the
overpowered V-8 easily for the “500”, Malone avoided the deadly
Sachs-McDonald crash on lap two and soldiered on to score an eleventh place
finish, which turned out to be the best finish ever recorded for the
Granatelli STP NOVI team.

Art Malone returned to Indianapolis the following two years, but was unable
make the starting field. He qualified for his last Indy Car event Aug. 22,
1965 at Milwaukee.

Following a final unsuccessful attempt to qualify at the Speedway in 1966,
Art slid comfortably back into the world of drag racing. In 1985 and 1986
Malone reunited with buddie and mentor Don Garlits to win the NHRA
Championship and, in 1997, Art Malone was inducted into the Drag Racing
Hall of Fame.

Art Malone was badly injured in an airboat accident several years ago, and
apparently never fully recovered. Even so, it was a real treat and honor to
meet Mr. Malone two years ago when he traveled back to the Indianapolis
Motor Speedway to join more than 100 former Speedway vets on the occasion
of the 100 year anniversary of the first “500”. And, from the twinkle in
his eye that day, it was obvious that Art Malone was more than ready for
his next challenge.

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