The original Howdy Wilcox was a carefree local who is one of only seven Indiana-born winners (including relief drivers) in the history of the Indianapolis 500. It is said that his 1919 victory inspired an impromptu rendition of “Back Home in Indiana” by the resident marching band – inspiring one of the race’s enduring traditions. He was also the first man to start the race on pole position by dint of a timed qualifying run.
Early Indycar career
He began racing for the National Motor Company and first won a race on November 20 1909 – the Southern Championships in New Orleans. He made his debut in what is now considered part of the IndyCar Series at Indianapolis in 1910 – crashing his National in the July meeting but winning the Remy Grand Trophy in September. The Indianapolis 500 was first run in 1911 with Wilcox finishing 14th.
Wilcox’s Stutz finished second behind Dario Resta’s Peugeot in the American Grand Prize and W.K.Vanderbilt Cup in 1915 – both events held on the site of the Panama-Pacific Expo in the shadow of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. Timed qualifying runs were introduced at Indy that year and Wilcox won the pole position at an average speed of 98.90mph. He led for five early laps before fading to seventh at the finish.
Starting 1916 driving a Premier, he switched to an Indianapolis Motor Speedway-entered Peugeot EX5 as team-mate to Johnny Aitken. The new $14,000 AAA National Championship was to be decided between Aitken and Dario Resta in the American GP on Santa Monica’s street circuit. The former retired on the opening lap and fifth-placed Wilcox was asked to give up his car. He eventually complied after nine laps and the Wilcox/Aitken machine won by six minutes. However, it proved a futile effort for the AAA Contest Board ruled that Aitken was ineligible for points as a relief driver.
Indianapolis 500 winner
Racing was soon suspended due to World War I but Wilcox was reunited with the Peugeot as soon as the Brickyard reopened. He qualified in second position for the 1919 Indianapolis 500 with the first qualifying speed of over 100mph. Wilcox took the lead shortly after half distance and was not headed again to win by over three minutes. It was the first Indy 500 victory for Goodyear tyres.
He considered racing abroad and travelled to Cuba in 1919 “to investigate auto racing conditions” according to his passport application. Wilcox was frustrated at Indianapolis in both 1920 and 1921 although his Peugeot ran as high as third that latter year.
Relief driver in the winning car
He drove for Miller in the 1923 Indianapolis 500 and led before retiring after 60 laps with a burnt clutch. He then relieved Tommy Milton in the number one car from laps 103 to 151 – leading for another 100 miles – before Milton retook the wheel to win for a second time. With relief drivers not recognised, Wilcox is officially a one-time winner of the Indy 500.
Four months later, Wilcox punctured a tyre on the Altoona board track and was killed instantly in the resulting crash. Three years after his death AAA Secretary Val Haresnape decided to award Indycar points retrospectively and declared Wilcox to be champion for 1919.