Consult any compendium of race results and you’ll find that Louis Meyer, then 28, won the Indianapolis 500 that year. Historically, his win was significant on a number of counts. He set an average speed record of more than 104 mph; it was his second win on the way to becoming the first three-time winner of the race; and he started the post-race milk tradition for Indy 500 winners.
Oh, and he also lost the race to a guy named Will Overhead. Though only in one small Colorado mining town.
By the 1930s, Walsenburg, Colorado, was known mainly for the Colorado Fuel & Iron coal mines in the area and for the coal workers’ labor strikes, and the so-called Ten Days War that grew out of the strikes. To serve its population of 5,000 or so people, Walsenburg had one newspaper, the daily World-Independent, and like many newspaper editors across the country, the World-Independent‘s wanted the Indy 500 results in the Monday paper.
Except, as the Associated Press pointed out 50 years later, the then-editor of the World-Independent relied on the AP to send him the results of the race. But he was green. And he was on a deadline. And he was working over the short-staffed holiday weekend. And he was evidently not a racing fan.
He reportedly got updates from the AP until about halfway through the five-hour race, when telephone updates from the AP came to an end for the day, as per the newspaper’s contract with the AP. Worried he wouldn’t be able to finish his report on the race, the editor sent a telegraph to the Denver bureau of the AP, asking them to let him know the identity of the winner the moment they had it.
The Denver bureau responded with another telegraph. Tersely worded, it read “WILL OVERHEAD 500 WINNER.” The editor, who reportedly didn’t realize that “overhead” was jargon at the time for the verb form of “telegraph,” went ahead with his story naming one Will Overhead as the winner of the race after Babe Stapp led at the halfway mark.
“Everybody was in such a hurry,” said George Zannon, the copy editor who set the headline in type for the to-date unnamed editor. “We were going to beat everybody on the story.”
Nevermind that nobody had entered the race under that name or that, to the best of our knowledge, nobody by that name raced at the time period. The editor and Zannon probably were out the door before the actual overheaded winner’s name arrived in the World-Independent‘s offices.
The editor did at least get the not-Babe-Stappe part right, albeit unintentionally. Meyer, driving the Tydol Special, took the lead on the 129th lap when Stappe ran out of gas and held the lead for the rest of the race, finishing four laps ahead of the rest of the field.
According to the 2007 book Breaking News: How the Associated Press Has Covered War, Peace and Everything Else, in 1934 the AP sent out a reminder to its wire customers (the World-Independent included, presumably) that Will Overhead was not entered in that year’s Kentucky Derby. The city of Walsenburg has also made hay of its notoriety with an annual Will Overhead Day in the month of May.