A top-flight driver for seven decades, Len Duncan (July 25, 1911 – August 1, 1998) of Lansdale, Pennsylvania, could always be counted upon to drive with skill and daring. One of the most popular campaigners in winged and wingless Midgets, Duncan also devoted a good deal of his time to helping young drivers develop and no less than fellow EMPA Hall of Fame driver Mario Andretti has credited him with having a great influence on his career.
Known as “The Dean of Midget Racing,” Duncan – who sported a pencil-thin moustache – began racing in 1928 on the West Coast and gravitated to the Midgets in the early 1930s when they became all the rage. But he was also a first-rate driver in late 1930s Big Car (Sprint Car) racing in the unique No. 73 Della Torre Thunderbird Hisso. In the 1954 Indianapolis 500 he started 26th in Ray Brady’s cream, black and red No. 33 Offenhauser and was credited for finishing 31st when he dropped out after 101 laps with brake problems.
However, it was in the Mighty Midgets where Duncan was most successful and he raced not only on the nation’s outdoor short tracks of dirt and asphalt configuration but also on the indoor circuits that were quite popular during the winter months in the late 1940s and 1950s at major arenas and armories throughout the East.
Duncan drove a variety of first-class Offy-powered Midgets such as Mike Caruso’s black No. 3 and Jerry Willetts white and blue No. 31 “Sugar Blues.” He also drove for fellow EMPA Hall of Fame members Ken Hickey (No. 19), Ken Brenn Sr. (No. 24) and Ed Darrell (No. 83). When he retired from driving in the 1980s he had more than 500 feature-race victories, including an impressive 58 in American Racing Driver’s Club competition.
These victories, of course, also helped Duncan to win several Midget titles and in this regard he was the American Automobile Association’s three-time (1953-1955) Eastern Midget Champion and he was the ARDC Champion eight times (1955, 1958-1959, 1961-1964 & 1967).
But of all of these things that Duncan was most proud of it was his assignment during World War II to be the personal driver for President Harry S. Truman when he made a trip to occupied Potsdam, Germany, in late July 1945 to meet with British Prime Ministers Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee, and Russian Communist Party General Secretary Joseph Stalin.
A Sergeant in the U.S. Army, Duncan was recruited for this duty as it was known that he was more than capable in handling the duties behind a steering wheel, which made great deal of sense to the American military and U.S. Secret Service should Truman need to be quickly taken to a safe location in the event of wartime difficulties during the Potsdam Conference.
Then, after the war, Duncan took up right where he left off as a race-car driver as he won the American Automobile Association’s 100-mile Midget race in 1946 on the old one-mile dirt Trenton (N.J.) Fairgrounds track in Hickey’s Ford V-8 60 “rail job.”
Duncan is also remembered for being the subject of a famous accident photograph that was taken in 1972 at the old five-eighths-mile dirt Flemington (N.J.) Speedway.
While racing between the first and second turns, the 60-year-old driver’s roll-cage-equipped No. 83 Darrell-owned Midget flipped wildly into the air. On the scene that day was fellow EMPA Hall of Famer Walt Chernokal whose photographs of Duncan high in flight were printed in “Area Auto Racing News” as well as in hundreds of newspapers throughout the United States and internationally, including in one of German’s major magazines.
Len Duncan’s full Midget career ended in 1982 in Hickey’s No. 19 Offy. And his last years as a driver were spent with the American Three-Quarter Midget Racing Association that recognizes his overall accomplishments with its annual Len Duncan Memorial race.