by Frank Santoroski @seveng1967
The inaugural 500 miler, held in 1911 on the 2.5 mile track paved with bricks, became an instant success drawing a crowd estimated at 85,000.
Many race fans know that the race was won by American driver Ray Harroun in a car known as the Marmon Wasp. Marmon was an Indiana-based auto-maker making the win popular with the crowd.
Another widely published tidbit of trivia credits Harroun as the inventor of the rear-view mirror. By mounting a large mirror on the front cowl, Harroun was able to compete without a riding mechanic. A rear-view mirror is still found on every car produced to this day.
Let’s turn back the clock to 1911, and allow me to share with you ten things that you may not have known about the very first Indianapolis 500 mile race.
1) There were too many races at the Speedway
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway opened its gates for the first time in 1909. Originally, the facility would host several motor races a year for both automobiles and motorcycles, along with other gimmicks such as hot air balloon races.
Noticing a decline in attendance with a saturated schedule in 1910, Speedway founders Carl Fisher and James Allison came up with the idea of focusing the Speedway around one big event.
Looking at the attendance from the various events held at the track, they decided on a Memorial Day date to stage one epic race for the year 1911.
With the local Indiana economy being largely agricultural at the time, the late May date coincided with down-time among the farming community having completed the annual ritual of harvesting and baling hay.
The race was billed as The International 500-Mile Sweepstakes Race. With a purse announced in the neighborhood of $30,000 the event quickly began to gain interest from auto-makers around the world.
2) 500 Miles had more to do with time than distance
In making plans for the Speedway’s new event, a 24 hour-long endurance race, like the one being held at LeMans, was considered. A 1000 mile race distance was also mentioned as a possibility.
While an endurance event would certainly be attractive to automakers, the Speedway’s main goal was to fill the grandstands.To make the race more palatable for spectators, Fisher, Allison and Company envisioned a race where a family could arrive in the morning, and be home before the sun set.
After tossing about several possibilities, the 500 mile race distance was settled upon. With a 10:00 am starting time, the race could be completed in roughly seven hours, comprising a full day for the fans. At the same time, 500 miles was a nice, round number that sounded perfect for advertising purposes.
It is doubtful that the Speedway founders could have imagined at that time that today’s Indianapolis 500 are routinely completed in a window of three hours or less.
3) Ray Harroun was retired
Ray Harroun, as the winner of the first Indianapolis 500 mile race, has a solid place in auto-racing history. What most folks don’t realize is that his win at Indy marked the end of his career, and not the beginning.
Harroun began racing in 1903 in the AAA Contest Board, taking 19 wins over the years. A solid engineer, Harroun was instrumental is designing cars with Howard Marmon. The first Indy Winner, the Marmon-Wasp was largely Harroun’s design.
By late 1910, Harroun had hung up his helmet, preferring the engineering aspect of the profession. When Marmon entered the inaugural 500 mile race, he hired Joe Dawson as a driver.
With the lure of a large purse, and the excitement growing around Indianapolis, Marmon coaxed Harroun out of retirement to pilot the second entry.
After winning the event, Harroun went back to engineering and never raced again.
4) Qualifying had a different meaning in 1911
Race fans today understand qualifying to be a procedure to set grid positions. The fastest car starts in first place, with the rest of the field lined up behind in order of speed achieved.
In 1911, qualifying had nothing to do with grid position. The cars were lined up in the order that the entries were received at the Speedway, based on the date they were post-marked.
The car’s numbers were also assigned in the order of the entries, seeing Lewis Strang start the #1 car on the front row.
However, a car still had to qualify for the race. For the inaugural Indy 500, the qualification rules stated that the car must be able to maintain a speed of 75 mph on the front straightaway.
With a flying start, the cars were timed for 1/4 mile with a goal of 12 seconds to qualify for the race. Teams were given up to three attempts to qualify, a tradition that remains to this day.
46 cars entered, and 40 made the cut based on the qualifying procedure.
5) The pace car sat on pole
Racing fans today are used to seeing the cars lined up in tidy rows with the pace car several car lengths ahead coming to the start. The car on the inside of the front row is the fastest qualifier, sitting in pole position.
In 1911, the rolling start, prevalent in US racing today, was a rather new procedure. There is some evidence to suggest that the inaugural Indy 500 may, in fact, be the first ever rolling start.
The cars were lined up in rows of five, with the ‘Pace Maker’ (as it was called at that time) occupying the inside spot of row one.
With 40 cars starting, and the Pace Maker on row one, Billy Knipper was the lone car on row nine.
Carl Fisher drove the Pace Maker, choosing a Stoddard-Dayton as the vehicle, ostensibly because he happened to own a Stoddard dealership. Fisher brought the field to the start at a speed of 40 mph before pulling into the pit and letting them loose.
6) Ray Harroun did not drive all 500 miles
The reason for this is that these two drivers were in the car when the checkered flag flew.
Mid-race relief drivers, like Cyrus Patschke, are largely forgotten and missing from the record books.
Patschke, of Lebanon, PA, was the third driver on the Marmon team. He was not entered in the race, but he did drive the Marmon Wasp from laps 71-102 while Harroun took a break from the marathon length race.
The use of a relief driver in longer races was a rather common occurrence during that era. As a matter of fact, sixteen drivers in the inaugural running of the 500 utilized a relief driver at some point. Patschke also took the wheel for several laps in relief of Joe Dawson in the second Marmon entry.
To Patschke’s credit, he took over the car in fifth place, and when he handed the car back over to Harroun, he was in the race lead.
7) The race wasn’t over when Ray Harroun won
Ray Harroun completed the 500 miles in a time of 6 hours and 42 minutes. Because prize money was paid down to tenth place the race would not be flagged until at least ten cars had completed the 500 mile distance.
While Harroun was celebrating his victory, racing continued on the track to decide the finishing order. The process took roughly another 25 laps, with the race being flagged almost 45 minutes after Harroun crossed the line.
Hughie Hughes, an American driver of British descent, was the last car credited with completing the 500 miles, bringing home his Mercer machine in the 12th position.
Reportedly, after scoring had ceased, there were a few drivers that remained on-course to complete the 500 miles, running into the twilight hours.
8) Ray Harroun predicted his victory
With a car that already had a full season’s worth of racing behind it, some questioned as to why Harroun would not utilize a new car.
In an article that appeared in The Indianapolis Star on May 28,1911, Harroun explains:
“I chose the Wasp against a dozen other new cars that I was asked to drive simply because I know it to be in better shape for this race than any other new car that could be built….We overhauled it completely in the factory this spring without changing a thing. As to speed, I have never opened it up to the limit, and I think I never shall. I know that it will go just as fast as I want it to, and better yet, I feel that it will keep going at that speed. I know what it can do.”
“That is the real reason for me to get back into the racing game. Judging from what it has done, I believe the Wasp can go the 500 mile route in better time than any other car entered….There is no spirit on my part to claim a race before my car has passed the checkered flag at the finish, but I have every confidence in the Wasp.”
9) Slow and steady wins the race: A flawless strategy
Harroun and Marmon had decided on a strategy of maintaining a speed of 75 mph for the duration of the race regardless of position. This meant that if Harroun was running behind, he would not increase his pace to try and catch the leaders. Conversely, if he built a sizeable lead, he would not back off in order to save equipment. .
Harroun, having largely built the Marmon Wasp himself, knew that the car would hold up at the pace for the entire race distance. He also knew that maintaining a steady pace would be considerably easier on the tires, reducing the likelihood of a blow-out out at speed.
Changing tires was a daunting process in 1911. The thought of having spare tires pre-mounted on rims hadn’t occurred to anyone yet. Changing a tire meant removing it off of the rim, then mounting and inflating a new tire, all using hand tools. Oftentimes, the rims would have to be hammered back to round following a blowout on the course.
Harroun changed just four tires during the race. The left-rear was changed three times, and the left-front once. Second place finisher, Ralph Mulford reportedly changed as many as 14 tires during the event.
Incidentally, Harroun’s tire of choice was Firestone, beginning a long and prosperous history for the tire-maker at Indianapolis.
Harroun never varied from his strategy. With an average speed of 74.602 mph at the end of the day, his calculations had paid off with the win.
10) The finish was disputed, or was it?
Over the years, a legend began to brew that Ralph Mulford may have actually won the race, but a series of scoring errors gave the win to Harroun. Mulford was said to have protested the result, and seen his claim denied.
Official IMS historian Donald Davidson has insisted that there were no official protests filed following the results. Davidson also points to the multiple pit-stops by Mulford as solid evidence that Harroun was a lap ahead.
While it appears that there is actually little to suggest that Harroun didn’t win, it is well documented that all of the positions from 2nd place back were under scrutiny.
Indeed, the Mulford story seems to be the thing of revisionist history and conspiracy theory. However, the fact remains that the scoring system used, deemed to be state of the art at the time, had its flaws.
One of the major flaws was the placement of the scoring stand on pit lane. When Joe Jagersberger lost control of his car, it careened right into the scoring stand, resulting in the judges running for their lives abandoning their positions. In the melee that ensued, several laps were not scored.
Some drivers also reported that there were other occasions where the scoring stand was left empty when the pit lane became busy.
Additionally, the Harograph, a mechanical device used as a backup to the scoring sheets, was said to have failed twice during the race needing a wire replaced. The first time it was repaired quickly, but the second one took a bit longer to fix. Some suggest that it may have taken as long as an hour, while the Speedway maintains that it remained functional during the repair time, with a secondary input.
The official results were not posted until the following morning, leaving race officials to sort through all they had. After posting the results, there was another revision a day later. When all was said and done, Harroun remained as the winner, although there were a few positions that changed a bit further down the order.
Mulford congratulated Harroun on his win, and the matter seemed to be settled until these stories cropped up in more recent years.
When an 85 year-old Ralph Mulford was posed this question in a 1969 interview for Automotive Quarterly his reply was a bit cryptic: “Mr. Harroun was a fine gentleman, a champion driver and a very great development engineer, and I wouldn’t want him to suffer any embarrassment nor the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.”