Cliff Bergere

6/12/1876 - 18/6/1980

Record updated

Cliff Bergere
Cliff Bergere had 16 starts at Indianapolis between 1927 and 1947. Cliff's best finish was 3rd in 1932 and again in 1939. He ran a total 2,426 laps but only led 25. In the 1947 race he qualified 2nd and led for 23 laps before he burned a piston and retired. Bergere won a total of $38, 075 at The Speedway.

In 1948 the two Novis entered were by far the most powerful race cars to ever appear at the Speedway, and Cliff was one of the favorites to win.

Lew Welch, the team owner, had watched Lou Moore's two front wheel drive Blue Crowns finish one-two in '47 after making only one pit stop for fuel and tires. With the Novi's voracious appetite for fuel, about three miles per gallon, such a feat was impossible so Lew installed 112 gallon fuel tanks to solve the problem, but he forgot what the extra weight would do to the Novi's handling.

The Novis arrived at the Speedway on May 12, Bergere was first out and things didn't go so well. Cliff spun a couple of times trying to figure out how to keep the brute going in a straight line and then on May 14 he spun again and this time clipped a signal light pole, smashing the Novis tail in the process.

Qualifying was set to start the next day and Bergere told Welch, in no uncertain terms, his cars weren't safe to drive and quit on the spot.

Welch called his old friend Ralph Hepburn who agreed to drive the car again, he had driven it in 1946. He took a few slow laps and asked if it could be set up exactly as it had been for the '46 race.

On Sunday, May 16, Hepburn took the Novi out for a few more laps before making a qualifying run, after warming the engine for a couple of laps Hep put in a quick one at almost 133 mph, close to his own track record.

Then tragedy struck. Going into the third turn Hepburn was a little high, as he tried to correct the screaming monster the rear end became loose and the car headed for the infield. Again Ralph corrected but for some reason he hit the throttle and the car shot across the track, into the outside retaining wall. It took 20 minutes to get Ralph Hepburn's body out of the wreckage.

Hep's loss was a tragic blow not only to the Novi crews but to all the racing fraternity for he was one of the most popular drivers in the sport. Then on Walter Winchell's Sunday night coast-to-coast radio show, the most listened to radio talk show host in the Nation, he reported that a source at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway had informed him that "an Indianapolis 500 car owner should be investigated for murder" in Ralph Hepburn's tragic death.

The next day one newspaper headline read, "Death Car Faulty Says Bergere". On the evening after the crash AAA and Speedway officials met with Lew Welch and Bud Winfield, one of the Novi designers, to discuss Bergere's charges. After a close inspection of the mangled car Welch was cleared of all blame.

In 1940 Ab Jenkins, the "Racing Mayor" as he had been elected the mayor of Salt Lake City, made another 24 hour run at Bonneville in his Mormon Meteor. He had made 24-hour solo runs before, but now at 57 years old he opted to have help. He brought in Bergere, who was also a motion picture stunt driver. On one lap that year, Jenkins ran 189.086 mph. Over the 24-hours, Jenkins drove 14 and Bergere 10. When Bergere got out of the car after his last shift, his hands were blistered from hanging on the steering wheel to keep the car on course. He told the Salt Lake Tribune, "I'll take my hat off to Jenkins. Any man who can drive a car for six solid hours on this course at the speed that Ab got out of the machine is a marvel. I have never seen anything like it." The Mormon Meteor III broke 21 records that year. The average of 161.180 mph for a 24-hour run would not be broken for decades to come.