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First Indy 500 Won by Ray Harroun 100 Years Ago Today

100 years ago today, Ray Harroun won the first running of the Indianapolis 500 race in his Marmon “Wasp,” driving at an average speed of 74.6 miles per hour and using a controversial “rear view mirror” rather than boarding a passenger as a lookout.

Harroun’s racing career was short, lasting from 1905 to 1911, but in that time he started at least 60 AAA-recorded races, winning many. He won a total of eight races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, still one of the highest totals at that track. He was a natural competitor but also a gifted mechanical engineer, creating race cars from the ground up and helping to develop a variety of innovations in racing and touring automobiles.

After retiring, Harroun continued to work with the Marmon team as a mechanic, and then with other racing teams before retiring altogether at the age of 74.  Although he designed and built both the Marmon Wasp and the first really great Indianapolis race car – the Harroun-Maxwell – he will be forever remembered as the first winner of the fabled Indianapolis 500.

The Car

Marmon’s parent company was founded in 1851 in Indianapolis as a manufacturer of flour mill grinding equipment (whoever said you should stick to your core competencies?). The company branched into other manufacturing equipment and tooled with its first limited production, experimental automobiles was in 1902.

The first models used air-cooled, V-twin engines – much like the Harley Davidson engine of today.

The design was quickly followed by an air-cooled V-4 and then V-8, and then by in-line blocks. Wikipedia notes that the Marmon quickly gained a reputation as a reliable, speedy upscale car, capped in its day by this 1929 four-door sedan.

The Model 32 of 1909 spawned the Wasp, winner of the first Indianapolis 500 motor race. The car’s rear view mirror was the first ever.

The 1916 Model 34 used an aluminum straight-6, and made the industry’s first use of aluminum in the body and chassis to reduce overall weight to just 3295 lbs. A Model 34 was driven coast to coast as a publicity stunt, beating Erwin “Cannonball” Baker’s record to much fanfare.

New models were introduced for 1924, replacing the long-lived Model 34, but the company was facing financial trouble, and in 1926 was reorganized as the Marmon Motor Car Co.

In 1929, Marmon introduced an under-$1,000 straight-8 car, the Roosevelt, but the stock market crash of 1929 made the company’s problems worse. Howard Marmon had begun working on the world’s first V16 engine in 1927, but was unable to complete the production Sixteen until 1931. By that time, Cadillac had already introduced their V-16, designed by ex-Marmon engineer Owen Nacker. Peerless, too, was developing a V16 with help from an ex-Marmon engineer, James Bohannon.

The Marmon Sixteen was produced for just three years, with 400 examples made. Marmon discontinued automobile production in 1933, the worst year of the Great Depression.

The Driver

Ray Harroun was born on January 12, 1879 in Spartansburg, Pennsylvania. He got his elementary education there, but could not concentrate on classroom work. He built his first car in 1905, and would race anyone who would challenge him.

In 1910, Harroun accepted an offer from Howard C. Marmon to design and build a racing car to be driven by him in the first big event at the new speedway at Indianapolis.

Conventional cars at the time were constructed with two bucket-type seats. Harroun’s car had a streamlined body, with only one seat for the driver. Since he would not have a riding mechanic to watch for overtaking vehicles, Harroun constructed a bracket to support a rear view mirror – perhaps, the first. Consequently, the automobile industry started equipping their cars with rear view mirrors.

According to biographer Michael J. Kollins,  Harroun announced his retirement from driving immediately after receiving the winning purse, but as a mechanical engineer, he remained quite active in the automobile business.

Harroun designed and built three Maxwell racing cars for the 1914 and 1915 seasons. The success of the Harroun-Maxwell cars was self-evident by the number of prominent races won by drivers Willie Carlson, Teddy Tetzlaff and Hall of Famer Eddie Rickenbacker.

During 1916, Harroun rented an office and drafting room space, and proceeded to design an inexpensive, but reliable roadster. In early 1917 Harroun leased a small plant in Wayne, Michigan, formerly used by a buggy and carriage manufacturer. Approximately 500 roadsters were built in this plant during 1917.

At the onset of World War I, Harroun entered into a contract with the United States Government for the production of military equipment and munitions.

Ray Harroun stayed active the remainder of his life in the production and sales of after-market accessories. Harroun died on January 19, 1968 at Anderson, Indiana. He left a void in the industry that perhaps will never be filled.

The Race

The starting positions were determined by the order of entry. Ray Harroun was on the outside of row seven in the 28th starting position.

At 10 am, Tuesday May 30, 1911, the Stoddard-Dayton pace car pulled off onto the pit apron, Fred Wagner the official starter waved the green flag, the starting bomb detonated, and the race was on.  By the eighth lap Harroun had moved his yellow Marmon Wasp up to seventh position. He did so not by a reckless charge, but by knowing his car so well, he could push it to the ragged edge and still be able to conserve his tires, engine and fuel.

As the race progressed, the lead changed several times. Harroun knew how fast he could go, how fast he had to drive to win, and he kept that pace. There were many drivers that would charge past Harroun, only to fall back due to frequent tire changes.

A car hit the wall mid-way through the race and ejected its mechanic, as can be seen in the archived race footage below. The panic to avoid the fallen mechanic created a spectacular accident right in front of the grandstands that took out four cars. No one was seriously injured.

After 6 hours, 42 minutes, 8 seconds and averaging 74.59 miles per hour, Harroun took the first checkered flag. He finished about 5/8 mile ahead of second place driver Mulford.

The total purse for the 1911 Indianapolis 500 was $27,550, of which Harroun earned $14,000. The Marmon Company let Harroun keep it all, plus a bonus.

For fun, check out this footage of an “I’ve Got a Secret,” filmed 50 years ago next week and featuring then-recent Indianapolis 500 winner AJ Foyt and Ray Harroun together.

2 comments on “First Indy 500 Won by Ray Harroun 100 Years Ago Today

  1. Mary Jane Neville
    February 8, 2012

    Hi Dan:
    I was checking some facts concerning the purse for the 1911 500, and noticed the $250 discrepancy for Harroun’s first prize win (when I checked it against the Indy Speedway official website). I am assuming this is the bonus you mention. What was the bonus for? And how much would the winning team get of the total purse? $14,000 seems like an extraordinary amount of money for the time…for the driver.

    Thanks for your time

    • siliconcowboy
      February 8, 2012

      The bonus was paid by the company. Harroun wasn’t just the driver; he essentially designed the car, so he was considered a valuable employee.

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