Brian Wilcox always has been aware of his family’s tie to the Indianapolis 500.
But the full weight of the connection didn’t sink in until he was a young adult serving in the U.S. Army.
“It really wasn’t the big focus growing up,” said Wilcox, a Greenwood resident. “But as I got older, I realized the significance of it, and it’s really been cool.”
For all kinds of reasons.
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In 1919, Wilcox’s great grandfather, Howdy Wilcox, did a really cool thing: He won the Indy 500.
Cool, because it was the Indy 500. Cool, because Howdy was one of its early stars.
Cool, because the win was historical on a number of fronts.
A native of Crawfordsville, Howard “Howdy” Samuel Wilcox was — at the dawn of the sport — a professional racecar driver. He competed in the first 11 Indy 500s, had five top-five finishes, earned one pole and, after a succession of foreign-born winners, was the first American to win the race after World War I.
Moreover, as he was winding down his final laps, a band reportedly struck up a particular tune for the first time in Speedway history that would become a hallowed tradition.
“His (race) was the first time they played ‘Back Home Again in Indiana,'” Brian Wilcox said. “It was a neat thing.”
So is the entire family tradition.
A Beech Grove native who has lived in Greenwood since 2009, Brian Wilcox, 38, is quite proud of the family’s racing legacy — and not just that of his great-grandfather.
Brian’s late grandfather, who also went by Howard “Howdy” Samuel Wilcox., was a U.S. Army veteran who served in World War II and later became a major general in the Indiana National Guard.
In 1951, the younger Howdy Wilcox founded the Little 500 bicycle race at Indiana University. The largest and most famous college bike race in the United States, he created the Little 500 as a tribute to his Indy 500 champion father, who died in a crash at Altoona Speedway in 1923.
Clearly, there is a lot in the Wilcox tradition for the family to be proud of, even though it was not always a focal point of discussion.
“The family didn’t always say a whole lot. I don’t know the reason why,” Brian said. “It was just something we never really talked a lot about.
“I don’t know if it’s because he died in racing, but I just started taking an interest when I was in the military.”
It’s easy to understand why. The 1919 race was significant in several ways.
Special place in history
Because of America’s involvement in World War I, the Indy 500 went on hiatus in 1917 and 1918 — with no guarantee it would ever resume.
But in 1919, it did.
Christened the “7th Liberty 500-Mile Sweepstakes,” the race was notable for a number of reasons: speed, tragedy and a Hoosier winner.
Frenchman Rene Thomas, the 1914 winner, earned the pole with a record qualifying time of 104.7 mph. Wilcox started second with a time of 100.0 mph.
Ran on May 31 before an estimated crowd of 120,000, the race was marred early by three deaths. Drivers Arthur Thurman and Louis LeCocq, and LeCocq’s riding mechanic Robert Bandini, were killed in separate crashes.
But racing resumed after the track was cleared, and Wilcox — with riding mechanic Leo Bank — led the final 98 laps en route to victory.
In the process, Wilcox became the second Indiana-born driver to win the race (Joe Dawson was the first in 1912) and was the first American to win since Dawson.
Hence, the playing of “Back Home Again in Indiana” as Wilcox closed in on the finish line.
“That was a pretty dramatic race,” Brian Wilcox said. “There were fatalities during the race. The one thing that was tough for me growing up was that we really didn’t know a whole lot about it.”
That’s because Howdy Wilcox personally passed down no information to his own son.
Although he would go on to race in four more Indy 500s, the elder Howdy Wilcox was killed at Altoona Speedway in Tyrone, Pennsylvania at age 34. His son was only three years old.
The younger Howdy Wilcox, who Brian was close to, established the Little 500 in memory of his father.
As a youngster, Brian regularly attended the Little 500 until his grandfather died in 2002. He’s been to only one Little 500 since.
“It was very hard. I just didn’t want to go back to the races after he passed away,” Brian said. “It’s not that I don’t want to go back and celebrate it, I just haven’t. As my kids get older, I will definitely encourage them to go.
“My (oldest) son loves biking, so I’m going to try to encourage him to get into the Little 500 himself.”
Brian’s oldest son, Hayden, is 14. Father and son have tickets for this month’s historic 100th running of the Indy 500 — an event that is of no small significance to the Wilcox family.
Brian, who works for AAA Motor Club, has an original program from the 1919 race that has been passed down by family members. He is well-versed on his great grandfather’s Indy legacy, which began with the inaugural 1911 race.
Howdy Wilcox started 19th and finished 14th after completing 126 of the 500 laps.
“I’ve imagined what it must have been like to be there from the very beginning, how neat it would have been being involved with the first 11 races,” Brian said. “I thought that was a really neat thing that it was (the first race) after World War in ended that he won.
“It’s unique. It’s a legacy-in-the-family thing. It’s something I’ve always cherished.”
Name: Howdy Wilcox
Born: June 24, 1889
Died: Sept. 4, 1923; was killed in crash at Altoona Speedway in Tyrone, Pennsylvania
Buried: Crown Hill Cemetery, Indianapolis
Indianapolis 500 career
Year;Starting position;Finish;Laps;Laps led
Name: Brian Wilcox
Works: AAA Motor Club
Indy 500 connection: Great-grandfather Howdy Wilcox won the 1919 race
Little 500 connection: Grandfather Howdy Wilcox Jr. founded the Little 500 bicycle race at Indiana University in 1951
Personal: Is married to Carrie Lynne Wilcox; children, Hayden, Abigail, Lucas and Samuel