Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Ray Harroun won the first Indy 500 in a Marmon Wasp. (IMS Speedway)
Ray Harroun won the first Indy 500 in a Marmon Wasp. (IMS Speedway)

Classic Cars

Indy 500: A century of pounding the Brickyard Add to ...

When the field takes the flag to begin the 100th anniversary Indianapolis 500 mile race this Sunday, it will pass over a strip of bricks inset in the asphalt, a nod to the iconic event's history and its first winner Ray Harroun.

Harroun pounded his bright-yellow Marmon Wasp racer over those same bricks and a few million more, to win the inaugural 500-miler held in 1911 at the track that is still known as "The Brickyard."

Racing had begun at Indy in 1909, on a tar and chip surface that soon broke up with lethal consequences for some drivers, but by the time track management had decided to stage just one big 500-mile race a year, it had been paved with 3.2 million bricks.

Competitors in the Izod IndyCar Series premier event this U.S. Memorial Day Weekend - the 95th Indy 500 - will complete the race distance in a little more than three hours at an average of around 160 mph, hitting speeds of more than 230 mph over that yard-wide start/finish-line brick stripe.

It took Harroun six hours, 42 minutes and eight seconds, averaging 74.59 mph, to win the first one, during which he (theoretically at least) never once looked over his shoulder.

Not because his Marmon Wasp was the dominant vehicle in the race, but because it was fitted with likely the first rear-view mirror mounted on an automobile. This allowed him in the eyes of race organizers to run safely without a riding mechanic - who also served as spotter - as appeared to be required by the rules.

The cowl-mounted mirror wasn't the only innovation in the Marmon racer, which Harroun himself had a major role in creating.

Harroun, born in 1879, was one of those natural mechanical types and, although trained as a dental technician, by 1905 he had designed and built a car of his own. He was also a pretty useful racer, competing in some 60 events (never placing lower than third) and winning eight at the Indianapolis track.

In 1910, he was named American Automobile Association Champion, coming out of retirement a year later to take his now-legendary win in the International Sweepstake as the first 500 was called. He raced Buicks initially, then a couple of self-built racers called the Sneezer and Custom.

Ray Harroun.

Based on this solid reputation, Harroun was hired by Howard C. Marmon, founder of the car company bearing his name, to create a race-winning version of his just-launched Model 32 and generate some publicity.

Many of the racers of the day were production-car-based and simply stripped of most of their bodywork with a pair of bucket seats and drum fuel tank bolted to the frame rails. Harroun, who must have harboured early notions of aerodynamics - and had interpreted the rules in a unique fashion - gave the Marmon racer full bodywork that enclosed just a single seat and featured a prominently pointy tail and wheel discs. He also tweaked the 447-cubic-inch, six-cylinder, T-head engine to produce more power.

Cars take first turn at the 1911 Indy 500.

Starting positions for the 40 competitors, entered by 24 different makes including Benz and Fiat, were based on entry date, which meant Harroun was in the 28th spot on the grid when starter Fred Wagner flapped the flag and a "bomb" was let off to start the race before a crowd of 100,000. But within a few laps, he and the yellow Wasp were up to seventh and remained in touch with the leaders as the race settled in.

Conditions were dry, which meant driving through clouds of dust and oil smoke. And with speeds on the straight-aways in the 100-mph range, it must have required unimaginable courage for crews to race these stiffly sprung, exceedingly loud, ineffectively braked monsters, on tires that can only be described as fragile, for almost seven hours.

Newsreel footage of the race (on YouTube) shows one car atop a trackside berm, a tire peeling off another, and a riding mechanic falling off onto the track, with following cars crashing after trying to avoid him.

There were faster cars than the Marmon but Harroun - with what today would be described as a better aero package and minus the weight of a riding mechanic - maintained a pace that conserved fuel and tires, which others needed to stop more frequently to replace. One of those was Ralph Mulford driving a faster Lozier, but when the finishing flag finally flew, Harroun was ahead of him by better than half a mile and his subsequent protest was disallowed.

However, the following year the rules more explicitly demanded employment of riding mechanics with single-seaters not appearing again until the 1930s.

The purse for the first Indy 500 was $27,550, of which Harroun won $14,000, to which was added a bonus by Marmon. That first Indy 500 was Harroun's last drive in competition as he hung up gloves, goggles and leather helmet to continue design work for Marmon, then set himself up as a consulting engineer. In 1917, he launched the Harroun automobile and built 500 or so before switching the plant to war work. He was still active in the Second World War, designing bomb-loading equipment for aircraft.

In 1961 he helped celebrate the Indy 500's 50th anniversary by driving the Wasp around the track and died in 1968 at the age of 89.

Back in 1911

The National Hockey Association - made up of five teams that played 16 games each in late 1910 and early 1911 - sees the Ottawa Senators emerge as Stanley Cup champs.

Popular songs are Irving Berlin's somewhat out-there Alexander's Rag Time Band and more traditional tunes I Want A Girl, Just Like the Girl, That Married Dear Old Dad and Down By The Old Mill Stream.

The Automobile Club de Monaco creates the Rally Automobile Monte Carlo under the auspices of Prince Albert, and it becomes one of the most challenging car rallies on the international calendar.

American Eugene Ely - early car salesman, racer and aviator - tops his 1910 take-off in a Curtiss biplane from a U.S. navy light cruiser by landing on a platform on the anchored heavy cruiser USS Pennsylvania early in 1911, the first time this had been accomplished. He is killed in a crash later in the year.

Italy goes to war with the Ottoman Empire and Giulio Gavotti, an Italian lieutenant, becomes the world's first bomber pilot after tossing some small bombs over the side on to enemy positions in Libya.


Report Typo/Error

Follow us on Twitter: @GlobeDrive

Next story




Most popular videos »

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular