The Curious Case of Will Overhead

Posted by Iannucci | 5/20/2009 | 3 comments »
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(The following is a guest post from beloved Commentator Emeritus, "mmack".)

File this one under “If it’s in the paper, it must be true.”

Mine That Bird’s 50-1 long shot victory in the Kentucky Derby has inspired many to wonder if the Indianapolis 500 can have its own dark horse winner this year. The little team that could, coming out of nowhere to beat the mega-buck super teams while running on a shoestring budget and a ghost of a chance, is a staple of sports movies and fervent wishes everywhere. Well, here’s a story about the absolute darkest of dark horse winners in Indy 500 history. Not only wasn’t he entered in the race, he never even drove in it. In fact, this winner never even existed, except in Walsenburg, Colorado.

If we lament the loss of ESPN and Versus coverage of the IRL, imagine trying to follow the Indianapolis 500 in 1933. No internet or television, no radio coverage, and only day old newspaper reports for anyone not at the Speedway. At the Walsenburg World-Independent, a new employee was monitoring the Associated Press wire for the daily news on Memorial Day, including the results of the Indianapolis 500. He had the story typeset, and all he needed was the name of the winner and the paper could go to print.

Due to the terms of the World-Independent’s contract with AP, the wire service would be shut down for the day well before the race was finished. However, the World-Independent paid a fee for a special late wire service to cover the 500. An AP editor in either (depending on who tells the story) Chicago or Denver sent a telegram to the World-Independent reminding the paper to look for another telegram with the name of the race winner. Using the standard newspaper lingo of the day, the telegram read:

“Will Overhead Winner of Race”

That meant the editor would telegraph, or “overhead”, the winner’s name to the World-Independent.

Except the new employee took the telegraph and ran with it, producing the headline

Overhead Wins Indianapolis Race

And the lead:

Indianapolis, Ind. May 30 (AP) Will Overhead won the Indianapolis Memorial Day race today. At the two hundred fifty mile post, Babe Stapp was leading the string of roaring cars, but gave way to Overhead on the last half of the 500 mile grind.

Not exactly Dewey Defeats Truman, but infamous enough that AP reminded editors in 1934 that “Will Overhead is not in Kentucky Derby” and “Will Overhead is not in Indianapolis 500”.

So take heart Milka, Ryan, John, and anyone else Curt Cavin didn’t pick. If a figment of someone’s imagination can win the biggest race in the world, there’s hope for us all.


  1. Anonymous // May 20, 2009 6:44 PM  

    I've heard that story before, but as "Will Overland." Guess we need to ask Donald Davidson which one is right.

  2. Dale Nixon // May 20, 2009 7:55 PM  

    I thought this was another Paul Tracy article.+

  3. Sean // May 21, 2009 8:58 AM  

    That reminds me of when the IRL had "Test Transponder" as one of the official listed drivers who made an IRL start on their site, but omitted Paul Tracy...