These days, when you see Ronnie Duman’s name, it is almost always associated with the tragic 1968 Rex Mays Classic that claimed the driver’s life. We prefer to remember Ronnie Duman, on the date of his birth, February 12, 1929.
Duman’s mother died during childbirth leaving the young man to be raised in the St. Francis Home for Orphan Boys in Detroit, Michigan. As did many young men in post-war America, Duman joined the Army, looking for an occupation.
Just before the hostilities of the Korean War, Duman was discharged in 1950, returning to Detroit where the found work as a test driver for Ford Motor Company. It was only natural that the driver would discover racing from his love of driving test cars.
He built his own jalopy race car and struggled to learn as much as he could. While early success eluded him, the blue-collar driver kept at it, and soon he was winning at the local track.
Making It A Profession
Duman kept racing his Jalopy and started to pick up other rides in Midgets and Roadsters. After winning some races, he decided to make racing his career. His determination and work ethic earned him a solid reputation among the local racers, car owners, and fans. This kept him in demand as a driver but solidified his goal to race at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
He was a popular driver in the Midwest by the middle of the 1950s, which led the maturing driver to take on the more challenging and dangerous, high-banked tracks in the area. In 1957, Duman entered the famous Little 500 at Anderson Speedway and was leading the event in what should have been an easy victory when mechanical failure sidelined the effort.
Major Open-Wheel Events
100 and 500 laps races were the top events in the open-wheel circuits. Duman won a couple of major Sprint Car races in 1957, then went back to the Little 500 the following year, finishing Second. He picked up a few more Sprint Car wins then won the Little 500 in 1958 and 1959, an incredible feat at the time.
Only Sprint Car Hall of Famer Tom Cherry had accomplished back-to-back wins in the annual Little 500 before Duman, and it would be 22 years before anyone else achieved that feat again.
Despite all the success in Sprints and Midgets, Duman still desired to race at Indy. Behind the wheel of Ray Brady’s Kurtis Offy in 1961, Duman passed his rookie test at Indy but failed to make the field. Another attempt in 1962 resulted in the same failure to qualify for the great race.
Known as a hard-worker, he continued to race Sprint Cars and Midgets in the biggest races, honing his skills for the ultimate goal of racing in the Indianapolis 500.
With another disappointment in 1963 when he crashed during practice for Indy qualifying but had another great year in the various open-wheel series.
1964 Indianapolis 500
The hard work paid off for Duman when he was picked to drive the #64 Trevis Offy at Indy. He qualified the roadster in 16th position but was caught up in the infamous Eddie Sachs/Dave MacDonald fiery crash on the second lap. While he survived the crash, Duman suffered severe burns that took months to heal. By August, the determined racer was back in a Champ Car where he finished 6th at Milwaukee and won the legendary Hut 100 at Terre Haute in a midget.
As the Indy cars were evolving from front to rear-engine machines, Duman found himself searching for a quality ride for the race. He took the only open rides available, setting for a cars that struggled to make the starting field. His car was retired during the race for rear end mechanical issues. in 1966 was again collected on the opening lap when Bolly Foster’s car spun and caused a huge pile-up.
J. C. Agajanian tabbed Duman to drive his REV 500 Special for the 1967 Indianapolis 500. Weather prevented the race from starting on the scheduled day, but the race was able to get underway on Tuesday, May 30, with rain threatening. On lap 18, rain began to fall, forcing the race to be halted.
The race was continued the following day and Duman was proving to be a dependable driver under difficult conditions before experiencing fuel issues that forced the team to retire from the race in 23rd.
In 1968, he was rewarded with a real contending race car. On his final Indy start, Duman recorded his best finish as he experienced a blown engine coming out of turn four and coasting across the finish line in 6th. Ten days later, he perished in a crash at the 1968 Rex Mays 150.
Duman’s grandson, Ronnie Gardner, picked up the torch and has been racing in open-wheel classes since 2008. Most notably, Gardner has won 7 Championships in the USAC Western States Midget Series including the Overall Championship in 2013 and 2014 – the series was held on dirt and asphalt tracks from 2012 through 2014 – and five Series Championships (2013 through 2017). Late in 2018, Gardner relocated to Indiana to focus on Sprint Cars.