A successful businessman in the Region, Murrell Belanger was the winning car owner at the 1951 Indianapolis 500.
A resident of Crown Point, Belanger saw Lee Wallard, of Altamont, New York. wheel the Belanger Motors Special No. 99 to victory in the annual classic, averaging a then-record speed of 126.244 miles per hour after starting second in the 33-car field.
The deep blue colored racing machine, with gold leaf numbers and bright yellow magnesium wheels, took the checkered flag with no brakes, a cracked exhaust pipe and a broken shock absorber mount. Standing up and sitting on the tail of the car, a worn out, but smiling, Wallard guided the car down the main straightway, waving to the crowd on his cool-down lap after setting a blistering pace.
At the time, Wallard was a 40-year-old “journeyman” race car driver and scored the 500-mile win in only his fourth attempt. Part of the winner’s awards was a new Chrysler convertible and a hug from movie star, Loretta Young. Wallard pretty much dominated the race and took home over $63,000 in prize money. Ironically, only days later, Wallard was seriously burned in a Pennsylvania dirt track race, which pretty much ended his racing career.
Car owner Belanger was a race driver himself until a serious wreck stopped him from racing. Belanger first appeared as an Indianapolis 500 car owner in 1936, and with the exception of only a few years, Belanger’s cars were in the lineup through 1956.
The winning car was a lightweight Kurtis Kraft chassis with a smaller-than-normal Offenhauser engine it. The “Offy” engine was the standard for winning cars for many years. Californian George Salih was the chief mechanic with the crew consisting of northwest Indiana locals Earl “Frenchy” Sirois, Harold Brownell, Howard Meeker and Ralph Colins.
Belanger owned a Chrysler dealership in Crown Point and was a John Deere dealer in Crown Point and Lowell. On the second floor of the John Deere building on Mill Street in Lowell was a special, clean-as-can-be, racecar shop with a special elevator to handle the racing machines.
Estimated to be worth about $45,000, Belanger’s winning car was loaded on a four-wheel, open trailer and brought back to Belanger’s Lowell shop a day or so after the ’51 race.
Wallard died in 1963 and Belanger in 1977.