Region Racer Paul Russo – Always Ready to Compete …

Posted: May 21, 2010 in Uncategorized

Region Racers at the Indianapolis 500 – Paul Russo

By: Wm. LaDow
Daily Trackside Reports from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Paul Russo

Paul Russo would race anyone, anytime, anywhere. A racing gypsy.

Starting in the midget car racing ranks, Russo was one of the sport’s true pioneers.

Russo got hooked on racing early by watching his older brother Joe race in the Indianapolis 500 four consecutive times, capturing a fifth-place finish in the 1934 race. But his older brother’s success was short lived, losing his life at the notorious Langhorne Speedway in Philadelphia on June 10, 1934.

Russo remained committed to racing though and started his globetrotting career by a joining a delegation of the sport’s drivers to race in Hawaii during the winter of 1934-1935.

He returned to the U.S. and staked out a career as one of racing’s toughest drivers on the board tracks of the East Coast.

He won the first race ever held at the Nutley Velodrome in New Jersey and went on to win the AAA Eastern Midget Car Championship in 1938.

In 1940, Russo got his first in a long line of Indianapolis 500 rides in the Elgin Piston Pin Special. The following year he ran Indy again, this time for the Leader Card Race team, finishing ninth.

It was during this time that Russo joined the Highland, Indiana-based Rudy Nichels stable of midget racecar drivers and adopted the Calumet Region as his racing home. 

World War II interrupted Russo’s (and the country’s) racing, but upon his return from the service he was back behind the wheel at Indianapolis in 1946.

At Indy, he was spectacular during qualifying, ending up in the middle of the first row between pole sitter Cliff Bergere and Sam Hanks. He qualified at 126.180 mph and looked to be in great shape to run with the leaders all day. But on the 17th lap, coming out of the always tough north turn, he spun and ended up hard into the concrete retaining wall. It was a terrible accident with Russo suffering a broken knee and several broken ribs.

In 1947 and 1948, he returned for two more runs at Indy and was back racing for Rudy Nichels, teaming up with his son Ray, successfully racing the Calumet Auto Parts Special at tracks across the Midwest. Russo had now become a full-fledged member of auto racing’s revered “Chicago Gang,” that had included over the years Tony Bettenhausen, Duke Nalon, Cowboy O’Rourke, Emil Andres, Jimmy Snyder and Wally Zale.

In 1949, Russo and Ray Nichels joined the IndyCar stable of Carmen “Babe” Tuffanelli, located in Blue Island, Ill., running a “Tuffy’s Offy” at Indianapolis and along the AAA Championship Trail.

With Russo driving and Nichels as crew chief, the pair had a solid showing at Indianapolis in the Tuffanelli Kurtis-Offy, qualifying 19th and finishing eighth. It was later that season, Russo and Nichels begged Tuffanelli to buy the new smaller and sleeker  No. 99 Meyer & Drake Kurtis-Offy that had recently appeared on the race circuit.

When Tuffanelli failed to heed the warnings of Russo and Nichels as to the changing face in racecar design exhibited by the new Meyer & Drake car, the boys decided to build their own IndyCar design in the basement of Russo’s home at 6342 Van Buren in Hammond, Indiana.

Months later, Russo would drive the Russo-Nichels Special, affectionately labeled as “Basement Bessie” to a ninth-place finish in the rain-shortened 1950 Indianapolis 500. He and Nichels would campaign the car for the next few years, winning on dirt tracks in Springfield and Detroit.

Following his time racing with Ray Nichels through 1952, Russo would continue to get behind the wheel for the next 13 years. In his IndyCar career he competed in 84 races, finishing with 49 Top 10s, collecting five poles and three wins.

His most impressive statistic was starting 14 Indianapolis 500s, with Top 10 finishes in the 1941, 1949, 1950, 1954, 1957 and 1959 races, capturing fourth place in 1957.

Because of his toughness he is most fondly remembered as one of the few drivers to master the handling of the famed “Novi” powered cars at the Brickyard.

But that’s what one would expect from a stocky, bull of a man that had selected the region as his racing home.

Paul Russo died unexpectedly while attending the 1976 Daytona 500 Speedweeks.

He is buried at the Crown Hill Cemetery just four miles from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the very track that defined his racing toughness.

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