The man who would be Rex

He beat a works Auto Union and was offered a factory drive by Alfa. But Rex Mays preferred the intense buzz of American speedway.Joe Scalzo describes the short life of An Indy addict

Tazio Nuvolari couldn’t believe his eyes. Because he was Figlio del Diavolo — ‘The Devil’s Son’— Nuvolari knew a thing or two about getting moody with a grand prix car and sending one into impossible four-wheel drifts. Yet there ahead of him on Roosevelt Raceway’s four-mile road circuit of a dozen curves was this Alfa Romeo whose upstart American driver seemed to be giving lessons in this most European art. “Never,” Nuvolari is quoted as confessing afterwards, “have I seen a better demonstration of the four-wheel drift than that of Rex Mays.”

Thanks to those all-conquering drifts, Mays was at one point running second to Bernd Rosemeyer’s winning Auto Union in the 1937 Vanderbilt Cup. But a pathetically slow late pitstop put him better than one lap down. Even so, he still took third to Rosemeyer and Dick Seaman’s Mercedes-Benz, defeating a second works Auto Union and a factory Alfa in the process.

Later it was revealed that Rex’s chariot wasn’t one of the cutting-edge V12s — merely last year’s eight-piston spare with a huge centrifugal blower. Yet pulling peak performance out of different, difficult cars was nothing new to Mays; he seemed to spend his whole exciting career in one-of-a-kind iron and in the company of one-of-a-kind personalities. It was a heck of a way to go.

After starting out in his own Ford Model T bucket with its Rajo heads and a Winfield carb, he traded up to Paul Fromm’s `Hisso’ leviathan with its Hispano-Suiza aero-engine. He next jumped into the Harry Miller-baiting Winfield Special and then into ‘Poison Lil’, the potent wagon of Art Sparks. All these exotics were followed by beserko Joel Thome’s ballistic ‘Little Six’, and then the straight-eight Bowes Seal Fast of Pete Clark.

Still going strong and saving the best for the last, in I949, his last Indianapolis 500, Mays caught the chair in the mightiest and most hoodoo-ed monster going — mere mention of its name was apt to give everyone the heebie-jeebies — the bull Novi V8.

Mays’ beginnings were straightforward. After his parents caught the migration bug and uprooted from Tennessee to southern California, Mays grew up in Riverside, out in the citrus belt. He boxed oranges, hauled them to market by truck and eventually had enough capital to purchase his very own racing T. At the Riverside fairgrounds on Labor Day weekend of 1931, he participated in his first race, losing with a flat tyre. His next meet was at Santa Maria: he ran third until a magneto soured. He then raced at Colton, Burbank and Huntington Beach, where he finally won, and where Willie Utzman hired him to jockey his Ford in the ‘B’ division at Legion Ascot

“Legion Ascot Speedway burned down yesterday at a great saving of human life,” gleefully editorialized William Randolph Hearst, the sinister newspaper publisher who spent the 1930s fiercely campaigning against racing generally and Ascot in particular. Unfortunately, he wasn’t so far wrong: in less than a decade, Ascot had claimed 17 drivers.

A boiling bowl of Tarmacadam, the controversial facility stood on the heights behind Los Angeles. Until 1936, the season when parties unknown torched it, Ascot carried racetrack mystique second only to Indianapolis. Louis Meyer, Bill Cummings, Kelly Petillo, Wilbur Shaw and Floyd Roberts were a quintet of Ascot gladiators who went on to win the Indy 500.

Rex was inferior to none of them. He ‘arrived’ on the unforgettable 1932 Ascot evening when he quit Utzman’s Ford and Fromm sat him in the mighty Hisso. Four enormous cylinders of cut-down Hispano-Suiza fighter engine checked in at just under six litres. Mays liked it. But its fierce vibrations sometimes put his hands to sleep; so when the opportunity presented itself to jump into one of the hot Millers of the Russ Garnant stable, Rex jumped. And then, realizing the mistake he’d made, he jumped straight back into the Hisso.

He got going so fast that nothing in the ‘B’ division could hold him. Accordingly, for his crime of winning 11 of 18 features, the powers-that-be booted Mays and the Hisso into the ‘A’ ranks. Now the weekly competition that Rex was ploughing under included Ernie Triplett and Al Gordon, Ascot gods. By mid-summer, Mays was third in the standings and coming on so hard he had the whole Miller clique under attack. Had its members not connived to get Rex put on suspension for a technicality, he might have won the 1932 Pacific Coast title outright instead of finishing runner-up. For the Millers, it was only a temporary escape. In 1933, thanks to the Hisso, Mays became the youngest-ever champion at 22.

For 1934, Ascot’s Miller clique thought it was taking no prisoners. It lobbied for, and won, an engine formula change that put the Hisso out of business. Fromm, however, was harder to stop.

Casting around for something new and brilliant for himself and Mays to race, he turned for aid to Ed Winfield. The breathtaking Winfield Special was cooked up as the result. Its shimmering and hand-wrought aluminum coachwork came courtesy of Clyde Adams. And all of the Winfield’s nickel and chrome-plated tie-rods, shackles, steering arms, cross springs, axles and other bric-a-brac were appropriated from various production Ford and Chrysler vehicles.

And the engine? A true surprise — apparently nothing but an innocuous rocker-arm Ford. Except that the genius Winfield built it. Mays and the noisy Winfield delivered a brutal trouncing to all opposing Millers. And having a production-line Ford smoking his expensive and sophisticated thoroughbreds was among the worst humiliations Harry Miller ever suffered.

Yet Mays hated the Winfield at first. A fault in its chassis prevented it from keeping its left-front wheel glued to Ascot’s shiny surface. So the amazing Winfield, whose strengths extended beyond engine work, corrected the geometry by running-up a new chassis. From then on it dusted the Millers, winning six feature races in succession. Even when a rocker arm snapped, Mays raced on regardless — and won. The Winfield was the only Ford that brought Henry more publicity than John Dillinger’s getaway car.

Mays’ next chair was ‘Poison Lil’ prepped by Art Sparks, an impassioned internal combustion icon equal to Miller and Winfield. His résumé additionally listed stints as movie stuntman, wing walker, bill collector, school teacher and ruthlessly outspoken man-about-racing — just the kind of oversize figure Rex attracted. Besides all his scores with Poison Lil, Mays brought Sparks victory in Ascot’s final meet, the two-man car bloodbath of 1936.

Mays’ landmark Alfa Romeo showing occurred the following year. Subsequent reports indicate that Alfa offered him a chance to come to Europe and become another Jimmy Murphy on the GP but Rex declined. Maybe after the rush of Ascot and Indy, anything else seemed tame.

Following a two-year suspension (he had mouthed off about how the governing body was ruining racing), Sparks came blasting back to Indy, gifting Mays with the most complex race wagons of their time. Unfortunately, to get the money to build his Big and Little Sixes, Sparks had had to do a crazy money-for-cars deal with none other than Joel Wolfe Thorne, racing’s maddest millionaire playboy. Typical of Thorne’s self-destructive stunts was to speed a motorcycle through the lobby and up the stairs of the Waldorf Astoria. None of the Thome-financed, Sparks-built Sixes brought Rex that elusive Indy win, but at Milwaukee he managed to give a winning ride to one of the ungainly Sixes that established new standards for rough-track manoeuvering. As for Indy, it was in Pete Clark’s Straight Eight hunk that he copped his pair of 500 second places in 1940 and ’41.

Racing took a hiatus to accommodate WWII and Mays earned his wings in the Air Force. Following the armistice he fielded his own team of ivory, black and red champ, midget and sprint cars. As with most US drivers, his fixation remained Indy; he’d won everything else. In a dozen 500s he’d landed on the Brickyard front row six times, four occasions sat on the pole. And in a nervy era when leading one lap of Indy could be life-threatening, Mays had spent better than 500 miles out front But the win proved elusive.

In the end, he fell for the siren song of the 500’s most overpowered juggernaut, the Novi, whose V8 weighed something like half a ton. Put together by Bud Winfield, Ed’s younger brother, and by the fragile Miller draftsman Leo Goossen, it amounted to a pair of Meyer-Drake/Offenhausers set in a V and hooked up to a common crankshaft. Varoom! Its runaway battle scream was an irresistible siren to the likes of Mays and other lead-foots — Ralph Hepburn and Duke Nalon — who knew just what to do with it Novi firepower was nearly twice that of Meyer-Drake Offys; Novi technology was ahead by a decade. It should have won…

But Novi seemed alive with macabre spirits rising up and swirling around it. Mays, as a matter of fact, only got his ride after Hepburn and the brute went creaming straight into the cement, annihilating ‘Hep’ on impact.

If anybody could subdue this killer car, went Gasoline Alley gossip, it was Mays. Sure enough, he parked it on the front row right next to Nalon’s sister car. But after Duke’s went flaming into the wall, Mays’s Novi broke down while leading.

Though only 36, Mays was balding and haggard. Racing was taking its toll. Those who contend he was such a natural driver that he never needed to practice are only half right. The 1930s and ’40s were two of racing’s most hard-boiled decades; Mays’ survival secret was spending as little time in a race car as possible. But unfortunately, he never repudiated his Ascot habit of refusing to wear seat-belts. On November 6, 1949, at California’s Del Mar, he was tossed out as his car rolled, and was run down by other cars.