This black & white classic from 1949 tells the story of young Billy Coy. When his father, the famous racer ‘Cannonball’ Coy, dies at the Indianapolis 500, brash Billy follows in his father’s footsteps, chasing the same dream of racing glory. Billy rises from racing midget cars to driving the supercharged ‘big cars’ at the Indianapolis 500…and disaster strikes throughout the film.
This is a strange movie. The acting is so old-fashioned and hokey, like silent movie stars over-acting while delivering dialogue. Most of the plot line is sentimental and cornball, with two love-interest backstories! And the racing scenes that director Edward Ludwig included are absolutely gory.
When Billy is ‘coming up’ through midget cars, he’s over-aggressive and boasts that if he can’t get around someone, he’ll drive through them. Well, an accident finally happens when Billy crashes into the race leader under the yellow flag, and we’re forced to watch a racer burning to death while trapped in his car. Apparently nobody at this track has a fire extinguisher. Horrifying!
Despite Billy’s father having recently died at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, of course the young Coy boy wants to race there. The siren song of the speedway draws racers from around the world, but Billy believes he will not fall to the same fate as his father. The behind the scenes shots from the 1949 Indy 500 are the best part of the movie. Footage from time trials and practice were used extensively, and rear-projection shots put the actor in the action, even if it does look ridiculously fake now.
The speedway is instantly recognizable, except it’s the old six-story wooden ‘pagoda’ timing tower trackside, which was used from 1926 to 1956. The old grandstands were filled to capacity on race day, and 1940’s version of ‘safety’ is on full display with drivers racing in polo shirts, and the pit lane just along the side of a the live race track where cars travelled at breakneck speed. Despite the old-tech, there is pre-GoPro onboard footage from race cars included in the film.
One of the funniest parts of the movie is Billy’s love interest, local tomboy, Louise. Women weren’t even allowed in the garages or pit lane at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway back then, so she dresses like a man to sneak in. When she finds Billy walking through the pit lane, they greeting each other with hugs and big kisses. A cop standing nearby orders the couple “…alright, alright, break that up guys…” which seems so odd. Makes you think a 1940’s police man would have a stronger reaction to a gay couple kissing next to the garages. Who knows? Perhaps gay couples were super-common at the track back then, but displays of affection had to be kept it in the closet, not pitlane.
Billy races hard, and is even leading the race with only a lap or two to go. But sure enough, that front-engined roadster blows a gasket and starts spewing flames. Refusing to give up his dream, Coy continues to drive the final lap, losing position after position, while his hands and arms are being burned. There’s supposed to be some message here about American determination, or Billy’s single-mindedness as he cheats death and finally steps out of his father’s shadow. But viewed by modern standards, this scene is horrifying! Even Billy’s crew encourage him to keep going, through the fire, to the finish line. Jeepers creepers, Billy! Pull the car over and live to race another day, man! What were these guys thinking.
Nope. In this odd little picture, Billy is heralded as a hero. The movie ends with footage of the actual 1949 Indy 500 winner, Bill Holland, pulling into victory lane. The announcer’s voice can be heard saying that Holland has refused the trophy, and insisted that the Borg Warner Trophy be given to Billy Coy who “…may not have won the race, but won the hearts of the whole racing world with his skill, his daring, and his great courage…”
Anyhow, enough with all that negativity. The movie is a short 88 minutes long, can easily be found on YouTube, and the race footage alone is worth the price of popcorn.