Wednesday, January 16, 2013

History of the 500: George C. Babcock

Most folks remember the 1915 Indianapolis 500 as the year Ralph DePalma overcame his famous 1912 loss and finally won the 500-Mile Sweepstakes Race in his own right. Less remembered, perhaps, is the driver who finished 17th that year.

His name was George Carlos Babcock (often referred to as G.C. Babcock), and he would race at Indianapolis only that once, but it was far from his only moment of glory. In today's History of the 500, we take a look at a little-known racer, and his time both at and away from Indianapolis.

To start with, Babcock was no spring chicken when he contested Indianapolis. Just shy of age 39 at the time of his Brickyard experience, the Hartford, Connecticut native had already lived a life more exciting than most. He apparently spent some time as a test pilot, though the particulars are scarce. In 1911, he served as riding mechanic to Harry Grant in the Elgin National Trophy Race. Their entry? None other than the famed, monstrous Alco "Black Beast", which seemed unbeatable in the racing campaigns of the years prior. It would finish 2nd in that year's Elgin tilt.

Babcock (R) with Harry Grant, 1911
(Image courtesy Vanderbilt Cup Races)
In 1914, Babcock got his first taste of Indy, as he again played riding mechanic to Grant, this time in a Sunbeam. The duo finished all 200 laps on their way to finishing P7.

As a driver, his 1914-1915 pre-Indy campaign was brief, consisting of a Did Not Start at Sioux City, followed by an early finish at Corona. Both races were contested using Sunbeams. His last AAA race before Indy was at Ascot, where he contested the event in an Isotta.

His car in the 1915 Indianapolis 500 was a Peugeot, and he completed 117 laps before retiring with a cylinder issues. It would also be the only Indy appearance for his riding mechanic, one Mr. J.E. Wicker. Curiously, several websites refer to him as having finished 12th, but this is not the case. Instead, you'll find him behind names like Mulford, but just ahead of Klein, Rickenbacker, and Chevrolet. His Peugeot entry is also interesting, since it was the last of three Peugeots allowed into the field--at the time, the 500 only allowed three cars per manufacturer in the race. With Bob Burman's car judged to be a Peugeot as well, Jack Le Cain ended up as the odd man out of the Peugeot entrants.

An interesting sidenote to Babcock's brief Indy career: he is listed as having been saved in a practice crash by a newly-installed retaining wall at the track, the first recorded entrant to be afforded that salvation.

Babcock did not race again in recorded AAA competition, and passed away in his hometown of Hartford on October 28, 1921 after an illness. His hometown paper called him onetime "King of the Racetrack" in his funeral notice, and perhaps in a sense, he was for a time. Getting to run around in an Alco "Black Beast" and contesting Indianapolis are not privileges that come to everyone, after all.

That's the short story of George Carlos Babcock, one of the drivers featured in those first few formative Indianapolis 500s. Of course, any driver, no matter how well-known or obscure, that had the guts to contest Indy, is worthy of respect and memory on that account alone. Babcock isn't a household racing name, but he  definitely remains a part of the history of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

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