‘Doing a Gilhooley’

As a boy I remember reading that a ‘Gilhooley’ was a motor racing term for a bad spin and I rather assumed that some namesake had suffered a fatal accident.

Ray Gilhooly (1887-1973)[1] was a New York car salesman and sometime racing driver. He was a ‘tall, husky… man with twinkling blue eyes.’[2]

Ray Gilhooly at the wheel of the Isotta Touring Car[3]

In March 1913 Ray Gilhooly and his mechanic Steinbolt drove the ‘largest and highest powered stock touring car in the world’ from Chicago to Indianapolis ‘despite the exceedingly severe conditions of the road’.[3] The car was a 1912 Isotta Fraschini Tipo KM manufactured by Fabrica Automobili Isotta Fraschini, Milano, Italy. Capacity was a huge 10.681 litres in a four-cylinder, overhead cam engine with four valves per cylinder, developing 120hp at 1600rpm and mated to a four-speed gearbox and chain drive.[4] Fraschini’s great innovation was to fit front wheel brakes, controlled by a hand lever, to help slow the 4,500 lb (2 tonne) car. The rear brakes were controlled by a pedal, with another pedal acting on the water-cooled ‘emergency’ transmission brakes. The independent controls made the car challenging to drive. These were also very expensive cars, sold on Broadway and Fifth Avenue in New York for $8,400.[5]
Postcard of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, looking south

Indianapolis was the location of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, since 1911 home of the famous Indy 500, a banked-track race running to 500 miles. Gilhooly made several laps of the 2.5 mile brickyard oval in excess of 70mph, one in 1 minute 52 seconds or 80mph, in full road trim and with four passengers.

IMS today (Google Earth), looking south

Gilhooly planned next to go to Milan to prepare three Tipo IM for the Indy 500 of 1913. Six cars were built at the behest of Isotta, New York and these were listed in the catalogue, as the 100-110hp “Special” Tipo IM selling for the same price as the tourer.[5] The cars were racing versions of the KM with modified bore and stroke reducing the capacity to 7.2 litres (the race was limited to 7.4 litres), and rated to 135hp at 2350rpm. The cars were shipped aboard the Lusitania to New York.

Isotta Fraschini Tipo IM [6]

Back in the US, Gilhooly was on the way to the Speedway in a tourer at 30mph on Crawfordsville Road when he was stopped by the police and given a speeding ticket.[7]

Two cars were initially ready, a strike at the factory delayed the third car, and these were entered into the 1913 Indy by Eugene E. Hewlett and G.M. Heckscher.[8] The American drivers were ‘Terrible’ Teddy Tetzlaff and Harry Grant, with Gilhooly as the relief driver, and later Italian Vincenzo Trucco entered the race with the third car.[9]

Tetzlaff in his IM, 1913 [Detroit Public Library]

Gilhooly rode as mechanic on Trucco’s car for part of the race. Tetzlaff’s Isotta was pushed into the pits for a new driving chain by Dave Lewis and Gilhooly, but a new ruling had been made the day before about pushing cars and the machine was disqualified.[10] All three cars failed to finish, due to Tetzlaff’s drive chain and disqualification, and both Trucco and Grant had problems with their riveted fuel tanks.

Indy 1914: As many as 125,000 spectators were present and prizes totalled $50,000, with first place winning half the prize money

The following year, on 14 May 1914, Heckscher entered Tetzlaff’s Isotta with Gilhooly as the driver in the Indy. The driver’s reputation preceded him: ‘Racers fear Ray Gilhooley when he enters a race. He is an Irishman and a fearless driver’ reported the Ogden Standard. ‘This is the pilot whom De Palma once acclaimed the only man he ever feared, stating he could never tell what he was going to do next. On two different occasions, says Ralph, he saw the mad Celt tear through a wooden fence at full tilt, taking the chance of getting killed just for the joy of passing him at a risky curve… Step on it is all he knows.’[11]

Ray Gilhooly in the Tipo IM, 1914[12], a radiator shroud and air scoops were added, and a cylindrical fuel tank fitted. It would seem the exhausts were also raised.

From 45 entrants, the fastest 30 would qualify with Harry Grant taking 30th place with a lap time of 1 minute 44.09 seconds, averaging 86mph. Gilhooly was 32nd. However Ralph De Palma, having qualified on the day before the race, withdrew as his Mercedes was suffering serious vibrations, and the next placed Eddie Pullen of the Mercer team refused the spot.[13] His place was taken by Ray Gilhooly, racing an Isotta Fraschini, numbered 49, with an onboard mechanic, variously named as Lino Bonini, Nino Zonani or Nino Zinant. A riding mechanic was compulsory, he maintained oil pressure and spotted for traffic.

The fourth Indy 500 was held on Decoration Day, Saturday 30th May 1914. Places on the starting grid were drawn by lot and Gilhooly was at the back of the field, in the eighth row next to Barney Oldfield in a Stutz and Georges Boillot, who had been fastest in the elimination trials in his Peugeot.[14]

Postcard of the start of the 1914 Indy 500 with five rows formed up. The pace car is on the inside in the front row. The second row can be clearly seen with, from the inside: Billy Chandler (No.38), Billy Carlson (25), Ralph Mulford (23) and Josef Christiaens (9).

At 10 o’clock they followed the pace car for one lap as it picked up speed to 50mph before crossing the start line to commence the 200 lap race.

Gilhooly was driving in the centre of the track but was holding up other drivers. On his 22nd lap the officials signalled him to stop and told him to either speed up or keep to the inside of the track. He went back out and increased his speed.[14]

‘It was in the 105th mile,’ recalled Gilhooly ‘and I was speeding around the south turn when – bang! – there was a crack like a cannon. I knew there had been a blowout, and I felt the car going into a spin. In such a situation, a race driver will accelerate. Down went my foot. Unknown to me, when the tire blew out it had gone with such force that it blew inside out, wrapping itself securely around my chain drive and locking the rear wheels. Thus, when I accelerated the result was to spin me even more furiously. All in all, my car made six complete revolutions… I had done the first ‘Gilhooley.’’[2] It was a ‘dervish performance’ according to the New York Tribune,[13] and he was knocked out against the concrete retaining wall. His mechanic was caught under the Isotta.[14]

‘The southwest turn’ in 1910, now called Turn One [15]
Note the concrete retaining wall, 1910 [16]

The following car managed to run down onto the safety apron to avoid him. According to Gilhooly this was Eddie Rickenbacker, later the famous air ace, in his Duesenberg; but it may have been Howdy Wilcox. Joe Dawson, winner of the Indy in 1912, attempted to go higher up the track. Either he ‘didn’t allow himself enough clearance’ as Gilhooly hit the retaining wall, or seeing that he was about to run down Bonini[17] pulled to the left, misjudged the edge of the track, hit a pile of sand and rolled his Marmon car ‘two complete somersaults.’[13]

The next machine to enter the curve belonged to Louis Disbrow who had the choice of smashing into the Isotta, with five drivers close behind him, or of running over Gilhooly who lay unconscious facing down the track. ‘It was an instant that required quick thinking, and Disbrow… decided to run over Gilhooley. As by a miracle Disbrow’s car shot past Gilhooley’s body and escaped hitting it by such a short margin that the thousands who witnessed the act gasped in horror.’[14]

Gilhooly had damaged his shoulder and had at least his face cut open, Dawson was in hospital for weeks and did not race again. The mechanics are reported to have had minor injuries. Gilhooly, though he did not finish, was placed 27th. The race was won by René Thomas in a Delage (now at the IMS Hall of Fame Museum), and in fact French and Belgians occupied the first four places with Barney Oldfield coming fifth. The 13 finishers took between 6 hours 4 minutes and 7 hours 37 to complete the distance.
Isotta in the infield, note the right rear tyre [18]
Note the exhausts down the left side [21]

Earlier in the race Jean Chassagne’s Sunbeam had blown a tyre and turned over at this corner. The curve had become notorious when in 1920, at the same corner, René Thomas, Ralph De Palma and Arthur Chevrolet were caught out when Thomas’s right rear tyre blew and his Ballot car span twice. It was concluded that the start of the corner had a tendency to force a car outward and to blow tyres.[22] Turn One remains a daunting prospect in modern Indy 500s, though the lap record has come down to 38 seconds, or an average of 236mph.

Gilhooly had cemented his reputation, turning his name into a racing noun for spinning his car. ‘It’s this way:’ reported ‘Pap’[2] in his column ‘when a racing driver meets Mr. Gilhooley he generally finds himself in the middle of a ditch with what used to be a racing automobile draped around his shoulder.’

The Tipo IM was sold in 1917. Gilhooly claims to have driven one of Barney Oldfield’s famous Green Dragons for the last time. A few Peerless Green Dragon cars were built, the first in 1904 and the last in 1917 with a Miller engine, Oldfield retired in 1918.[23] This one was a 150hp machine capable of 110mph. Gilhooly lost control of it in New Jersey, went through a fence, rolled and wrote it off.[2]

Ray Gilhooley worked at various high-end car showrooms in Manhattan, New York.[24] He became racing agent for McClure ‘Mac’ Halley who had a spectacular spin himself in a Type 51 Bugatti in 1935 and chose to retire from racing.[25]

The Tetzlaff/Gilhooly Tipo IM sold for $2,645,000 in 2019 [26]

The car is always depicted in red, but one report describes it as green.

[1] Ray C. Gilhooly, 15 July 1887, New York City – 18 September 1973, New Milford, Connecticut, married Edith J Miller 21 August 1907 in Manhattan. The name is as often spelt Gilhooly as Gilhooley

The likely census return for the family in 1901 has him as son to John and Annetta Gilhooly, both born 1860, with John’s father, it seems, from Ireland. The 1930 census has him at 15 St Pauls Rd, Hempstead (house value 8500), married to Edith Gilhooly, from Pennsylvania, with a 17 year old daughter, Agnes.

[2] Sport Slants by Pap, e.g. Rushville Republican, Indiana, 19 October 1936

[3] The Horseless Age, 26 March 1913 the car is captioned as 180hp



[6] Betti, The World of Automobiles, 1974. I think this is from the same illustrator:

[7] Indianapolis Star, 28 May 1913

[8] EE Hewlett was an LA attorney much involved in motor racing and was the west coast FIAT agent until bankrupted. GMH was probably Gustave Maurice Heckscher, who also filed for bankruptcy

[9] The Horseless Age, 21 May 1913

[10] The Horseless Age, 4 June 1913

[11] The Ogden Standard, Utah, 30 May 1914

[12] W.H. Bass Photo Company Collection, Indiana Historical Society. Probably Bonini alongside.

[13] New York Tribune 31 May 1914

[14] The Horseless Age, 3 June 1914 On the instruction to keep to the inside of the track, other reports state Gilhooly was to keep to the outside

[15] Indiana Historical Society

[16] Indiana Historical Society

[17] Robert, Dick, Auto Racing Comes of Age

[18] IMS via AP

[19] Indiana Historical Society


[21] Dr Frederick Stengel (see also pictures of Dawson’s wrecked car, Marmon No. 26)

[22] Dick, Robert, Auto Racing in the Shadow of the Great War

[23] The World of Automobiles, 1974

[24] In his First World War Draft Registration of June 1917 he worked for GM Heckscher at 35 W 49th St (now Rockefeller Plaza). He lived at Nassau Place, Hempstead, Long Island, and had grey eyes, brown hair, an injured spine and poor eyesight.

For his Second World War Registration in 1942, he was at 15 St Pauls Road, Hempstead. He was self-employed at 1910 Broadway and recorded as 6’1″.

At one time he worked at a car showroom on the top floor of the Liberty Storage and Warehouse Company at 47 West 64th Street in New York (this address seems very close to 1910 Broadway) It also seems he worked at ‘Foreign Motors’ run by Ugo D’Annunzio, the Isotta representative


[26] ‘Among the Finest and Most Original Pre-WWI Racing Cars Extant
An Early Italian Masterpiece Designed by the Great Engineer Giustino Cattaneo. Official Isotta Fraschini Team Entry at the Indianapolis 500 in 1913 and 1914. Driven by Legendary American Racing Driver Teddy Tetzlaff. Formerly Owned by Noted Collectors Whitney Snyder and Willet Brown. Displayed at Pebble Beach and the Goodwood Festival of Speed’

Chassis: 0451, Engine: 0453

7,238 CC SOHC 16-Valve Inline 4-Cylinder Engine
Single Zenith Updraft Carburetor
135 HP at 2,350 RPM
4-Speed Manual Gearbox
4-Wheel Mechanical Drum Brakes
Front Solid-Axle Suspension with Semi-Elliptical Leaf Springs
Rear Live-Axle Suspension with Semi-Elliptical Leaf Springs

The cars were due at Indianapolis around 10th May 1913, but left Le Havre 29th April 1913, arrived NY 24th May 1913, and went by express train to Indianapolis to make it in time for qualifying.

Indianapolis 500, 1913, Tetzlaff, No. 27 (DNF) Indianapolis 500, 1914, Gilhooley, No. 49 (DNF)