Rex Mays was one of the best known American drivers never to have won the Indianapolis 500 mile race, despite twelve attempts to do so. It could even be argued that he became better known to European racing enthusiasts because he also took part in road races on America's East Coast, instead of sticking almost exclusively to the dirt tracks and paved ovals of the West as did most of his colleagues.
Born in 1915, Mays soon gravitated to the dirt tracks which abounded in California. He specialised in modified-stock-car racing, in American saloon cars, but at the age of 19 he made his first trip to Indianapolis where he qualified a Duesenberg-engined Miller special. Unfortunately, he retired from the race after 53 laps.
Pedal To The Metal
He returned in 1935 with the Gilmore Special and this time lasted 123 laps before retiring, while with the same car in 1936 he finished in 15th place. He soon established a record as a hard charger, as he knew only one way to race - with his throttle foot flat on the floor. Whatever the quality of his cars, he seemed to be able to get them into the lead, but the overstressed motors often gave way.
The Vanderbilt Cup
In addition to his annual visits to Indianapolis, he continued with dirt-track racing, notching up win after win and setting lap records which remained unbroken for many years on some of the American tracks. Road racing was not particularly popular here in America, but when the Vanderbilt Cup was run again in 1936, after an interval of 30 years, Rex Mays became interested and managed to acquire for the 1937 event the Alfa Romeo which Tazio Nuvolari used to win the 1936 race. Unfortunately, the powerful factory Mercedes and Auto Union teams came to America in 1937, and the race was won by Rosemeyer's Auto Union with Dick Seaman's Mercedes second. However, Rex Mays finished a fine third in the Alfa Romeo over the tough 300-mile course at Roosevelt Field.
The Thorne Engineering Special
For the 1937 Indianapolis race Mays drove the Bowes Seal Fast Special, but he lasted only 24 laps. In 1938, he drove the modified Alfa Romeo but lasted only 45 laps. For 1939, Rex drove the Thorne Engineering Special which only lasted 145 laps, but this was good enough to give him 15th place. Mays was fast getting a reputation as a car breaker because, although he led virtually every race he took part in at some stage or other, his cars seldom lasted the distance. Of the twelve Indianapolis races he took part in, he led nine of them but never managed to win it. He came close in 1940 when he drove the Bowes Seal Fast Special into second place only 14 seconds behind the equally hard-charging Wilbur Shaw in the Boyle Special which was, in fact, a Grand Prix Maserati.
Rex Mays poses with the Bowes Seal Fast Special prior to the 1948 Indianapolis 500. He lasted only 128 of the scheduled 200 laps. In spite of many efforts to win the Indy 500, Mays never succeeded....
The Bowes Seal Fast Special
In 1941, Mays repeated the performance in the Bowes Seal Fast Special by finishing second again, this time to the luridly named Noc-Out Hose Clamp Special shared by Floyd Davis and Mauri Rose. His performances in 1940 and 1941 earned him the American National Driving Championship in both years. These were based on performances in various categories of racing. When the US entered World War 2 in 1941, racing stopped. Indianapolis re-started in 1946 and Rex Mays was back with the Bowes Seal Fast Special. The car lasted a mere 26 laps this time.
The Supercharged Novi V8 Mobil Special
In 1947, with a new car, Rex finished in 6th place, but in 1948 he was out of the race after 128 of the scheduled 200 laps. His last Indianapolis was the 1949 race where he drove one of the fabulous supercharged Novi V8 Mobil specials, but the machine only lasted for 48 laps of the race. Mays continued his dirt-track racing through - out the West coast, racing as hard as ever, but at Del Mar, California, in the autumn of 1949, he crashed and was killed. Although he had achieved little in the way of outright success in major races, his colleagues knew that he was one of the fastest, if not the fastest driver of the 1930s in the USA. In memory of the great driver, the United States Automobile Club named one of the qualifying rounds of the USAC Championship after him - The Rex Mays 300.