In 1951, it was considered a victory just to finish the Indianapolis 500. The cars, as technologically advanced as they were for their time, weren’t prepared for the rigorous and grueling tests of driving a car 500 miles in the searing heat of a summer day on 16th street.
A true test of a car in that time, in other words, wasn’t all in the sheer speed of the vehicle, but in its toughness and endurance.
Case in point, the winner of that year’s Indianapolis 500 crossed the now brick-laden finish line with no brakes, a damaged exhaust pipe, and a busted shock absorber.
But it didn’t matter, it was built in The Region, it could handle a few bumps and a little heat.
Forged in Northwest Indiana, a region built on steel and hard work, the Belanger Special was the model of what a racing car should be. It was sleek, it was beautiful, and it was built for punishment. Owned by Lowell via Crown Point native, Murrell Belanger, and manned by experienced driver, Lee Wallard in 1951, the Belanger was as fast as it was tough, but it was not without its flaws.
Two years earlier, the car equipped with the traditional 270 cubic inch Offenhauser engine, spun out on the Speedway causing Belanger and crew to go back to the drawing board.
In 1950, after a quick cameo in Clark Gable’s To Please a Lady, the Belanger switched to a smaller, quicker 3.0 Liter, 176 cubic inch engine for the Indianapolis 500. The experiment only lasted that season after the car finished 13th in that year’s race, but it was a sign of the vision Belanger had for racing.
Belanger and his crew weren’t wrong for switching to a smaller engine, they were just ahead of the times and technology at that point. And as the years went on and the science of mechanics grew, the trend for car engines shifted in a smaller and quicker direction.
In 1951, with a new driver (Wallard, who replaced Duane Carter from 1950) and their old engine (with a few new adjustments), and seemingly the entire town of Lowell behind Belanger, everything came together. The “Region Racer,” as many call it now, cruised to victory while shattering speed records in its path. Its 126.224 MPH average was an Indianapolis 500 speed record and the first time any car had broken the 125 MPH barrier.
The 1951 Indianapolis 500 was a new era of racing. It was a race that inspired owners and mechanics to shift from power to speed and aerodynamics. Cars began to change, engines began to change, and the sport of racing began to change as well.
All because of one little car from Lowell.