Blog post by Randi Richardson
A century ago, in May 1919, racing fans throughout the world eagerly awaited the upcoming 500-mile race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The race at that time was still in its infancy.
Carl G. Fisher, an ex-race car driver and one of the first car dealers in Indianapolis, conceived the idea of the track sometime before 1908 when he and his partners, James Allison, Frank Wheeler and Arthur Newby purchased a 328-acre tract of farmland northwest of Indianapolis. His dream became a reality in 1909.
The first auto race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, not yet 500 miles in length, was staged in August 1909 on a crushed stone-and-tar track that quickly proved to be disastrous. One driver, two mechanics and two spectators lost their lives at that event.
By May 1911, the surface of the track had been replaced with 3.2 million street-paving bricks and a decision had been made to hold a single, long race each year as opposed to several smaller races. The inaugural Indianapolis 500-mile race took place on Memorial Day that year with 40 cars at the starting line and a purse of $14,250 for the winner who clocked average speed of 74.59 mph during his run time of 6 hours and 42 minutes.
Foreign drivers first entered the race in 1913 and events at the Indy Motor Speedway proceeded as usual until 1916. American was then at war. As a consequence, in support of the war effort, the 500-mile race was reduced to only 300 miles, the first and only time that ever happened. Additionally, a decision was made to eliminate the race during 1917 and 1918. After the Armistice was signed in November 1918, plans immediately were made to go forward with 500-mile race in 1919.
At Bloomington, in the two months leading up to the 1919 event, community interest in the race seemed minimal as evidenced by the lack of mention in local newspapers. There were five brief articles in the Bloomington Evening World during that period and none mentioned the winner. University students seemed a bit more enthusiastic. Eleven articles pertaining to the race, some a bit lengthier than those noted in Bloomington newspapers, appeared in the Indiana Daily Student.
Howard S. “Howdy” Wilcox was one of the participants in the upcoming race. He was a native born Hoosier born in Crawfordsville in 1889 one week after the death of his father. Given his love of racing, he had run in every 500-mile race since the very first one. In spite of his repeated efforts, however, he had never won.
He had good reason to be optimistic about his chances in 1919. During the time trials he qualified with a speed of 100.0 mph and was assigned to Row 1, inside center on the starting grid. Rene Thomas, a French racing-car champion, shattered the track record with a lap of 104.7 to secure the pole position.
On the day of the race, May 31, Howdy was among the top five contenders during the first 65 laps. On lap 45, one of the drivers crashed and was thrown 25 feet from his car. He died 10 minutes later as he was being taken to the hospital. Another driver lost control of his car on the 96th lap. It turned over rupturing the fuel tank. The car burst into flame and both the driver and his riding mechanic were burned to death. Howdy took the lead on lap 103 and led the rest of the way to become not only the first Indiana native, but first American to win when competing against European cars and drivers. His average speed was 88.05 mph. His portion of the $55,275 winner’s purse was $20,000. (In 2019, a century later, the winner’s purse is $363,008,779 and $65,006,997 will go to the first-place winner.)
Howdy continued to compete on race tracks throughout the country. After his win at the Indianapolis 500 in 1919, he ran there again at least twice, once coming in next to last and another time dead last.
In 1923, Howdy entered a 200-mile race in Altoona, Pennsylvania. At the time he was 35 years of age, widowed and considered one of the best known drivers in the game. On the Lap 117, while in second place, his car crashed and he died almost instantly. His death was front-page news in a number of Pennsylvania and Indiana papers including Bloomington’s Daily Student on September 5. It was reported that he was survived by his mother and two toddlers, Howard and Marian.
Howdy’s son, Howard, enrolled as a student at IU-Bloomington in the fall of 1938. After graduating with his bachelor’s in 1942, he took over as executive director of the Indiana University Foundation in 1949. In the fall of 1950, he conceived the idea of a unique bicycle event to be put on by the Student Foundation Committee as a means of raising money for working students and building Foundation followers. The idea was easily sold to the committee, and the first Little 500 was held at Memorial Stadium in May 1951. It is known today the largest collegiate bike race in the United States and billed as “The World’s Greatest College Weekend.”