The 97th running of the Indianapolis 500 is only a few days away, so this seems like a good time to take a cinematic look back at the early years of the world's most famous auto race. The Big Wheel is a feature film from 1949, telling the story of young racer Billy Coy (Mickey Rooney) and his journey to The Brickyard.
I first saw this film on late-night PBS over a decade ago. I remembered only a few snippets of dialog, but that was enough to set me on the trail that led to the full-length, public domain download hosted here on the Internet Archive. The Big Wheel carries many of the tropes of the era, including a brassy soundtrack, dialog that feels more like Broadway than real life, a slick-haired villain, and one (blessedly short) stereotypical depiction of an ethnic minority. It seems the director, like almost all of his contemporaries, was also unable to resist the urge to include a musical number. The aforementioned are more zeitgeist than shortcomings, though, and the film tells a good story. It even pulls off a particularly heart-wrenching accident scene with limited special effects.
The real joy of watching The Big Wheel in 2013, and my reason for this post, is the great vintage racing footage. Most of the racing footage in the film is from actual period events, including the Indy 500. The film even opens with a ride-along view, which must have come from a suitcase-sized 1940s GoPro. There is no shortage of vintage racing machinery due to numerous garage scenes, and there's a fair bit of history, too. This film depicts an Indy 500 very different from the one running this weekend, when grassroots racers on razor-thin budgets were still experimenting with all manner of configurations to find the winning set up. Even though the cars of 1949 barely crack half the speed of current qualifiers, they look even more exciting as they slide around the turns with no safety equipment worth mentioning. The racing in this film is real, and for that, it's better than any modern CGI.
The Big Wheel can be downloaded in many popular formats here.