Friday, May 23, 2014

Indy 500 - The Mystery of #49

On one of my trawls through the internet, searching for Indy 500 imagery to share with you during race season, I came across this little gem. It's a nineteen-teens era car, obviously in sad shape, sitting in the middle of what appears to be a field, but the information that came with the information was (to say the least) sketchy. The image came from the archives of the Indiana Historical Society, usually a very reputable resource with detailed notes on the photographs in their digital archives. In this case, though, the only information available was the title "Car 49, Wrecked" and the date of the photograph listed as 1919.

Undaunted by the challenge, I started digging through the resource for all things factual - Wikipedia - and I made a discovery. There was no car number 49 in the 1919 Indy 500. From 1915 through 1919 starting position was determined by car speed during a single qualifying lap, so it is possible that the driver of number 49 wrecked during this lap, so I made a check.

Details on the 1919 race are spare, but they do exist. I can tell you that Howdy Wilcox won the 1919 race, that it was the last year for single lap qualifying, and that supposedly a band played Back Home Again in Indiana as Wilcox (a Hoosier) made his final lap thus cementing the song's association with the 500, but there is no record of there being a wreck during qualification. It seems unlikely that something as dramatic as a car wiping out would be left out of the historical record, so I'm doubting the Car 49 wrecks before qualifying scenario.

Next I decided I'd go back through history to find the first instance of a car with the number 49 participating in the 500. We know that there was no Indy 500 in 1917 and 1918 due to World War I. In 1915 and 1916 there was no number 49 in the race. In fact you have to go all the way back to 1914 to find a car number 49 involved with the Indy 500.

That car was driven by a one-time Indy driver named Ray Gilhooley. Ray drove the Isotta entry for that year's race, starting in 20th position and wrecking in lap 41 and finishing in 27th position out of 30 entries. He never led, didn't sit on the pole, and never raced in another Indy 500. Interesting note, in the article to the right (clipped from the May 1919 issue of Automotive Industry magazine) a 500 entry couldn't even be backed by a woman because "women have no standing with the contest board of the AAA).

It'd be another 15 years before another car number 49 would compete, but the 1929 entry (driven by Wesley Crawford) went out due to carburetor problems, not a wreck. There's also the small fact that by the late 20's, Indy cars looked like the Stutz Black Hawk shown at the left. Gone was the ride-along mechanic and the Beverly Hillbillies squared-off grill so definitely no match.

In the end our mystery car is Gilhooley's Isotta from the 1914 race. It's doubtful this is an image from the back straight where Gilhooley's racing career seems to have ended. Initially I thought even the infield of the track would have been better groomed than what's pictured here, but then I recognized the banked track in the background (initially it just looked like a cloud bank). The image had to have been taken on Saturday, May 30th, the day of the 4th Indy 500 documenting the final resting place of Gilhooley's number 49.

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