As we continue to count down to the 100th anniversary running of the Indianapolis 500 on May 29, 2011, this week we take a look at three story lines from the very first Indy 500, held May 30, 1911. The world was a very different place a century ago, but they demonstrate how innovation – and controversy – has always played a significant role at the Brickyard.
The pace car cometh
Even before the starting flag fell, the 1911 Indianapolis 500 had introduced two long-lasting innovations into top-level motorsports – the pace car and the rolling start.
Until the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race, all events at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway had used a standing start, with the cars lined up eight or nine wide. But the 40 machines set to take on the “500” were twice the number of any previous field. Feeling that the massed getaway could result in chaos, founding partner Carl Fisher decided a passenger car would pace and hold the field at a steady speed for one untimed lap, before pulling into the pits and letting it loose.
On May 29, the day before the race, Fisher and fellow partner James Allison experimented with groups of cars running behind a road car, varying the speed of the pace lap and the number of cars per row until satisfied the plan would work.
They decided the pace lap would be run at 40mph, with the pace car running in the pole position slot of a five-car front row. Behind would be seven other rows of five cars, with the 40th and final starter in a row all its own.
And choice of pace car? Surprise, surprise, a Stoddard-Dayton (RIGHT on the far right of the front row, being cranked into life prior to the start) – which Fisher just happened to be the local agent for…
After leading the field away at a little after 10 a.m, the Stoddard-Dayton peeled into the pits, the 80,000-strong crowd rose to its feet and the dust-churning pack of racecars passed the red starting flag (the color of choice until green replaced it in 1930) and accelerated toward the first turn with no major incidents.
Rolling starts had entered the racing lexicon.
Mirror, mirror on the Wasp
Ray Harroun, the winner of the first Indianapolis 500, didn't invent the rear-view mirror, but it's a near certainty that he was the first to use it in racing – and maybe the first to use it on an automobile, period.
Harroun is said to have gotten the idea while working as a chauffeur in Chicago in 1904. The driver of a horse-drawn cab had fitted a mirror on a pole to make sure he wasn't about to hit cyclists or pedestrians in the bustle of downtown, and the idea lodged itself in Harroun's engineering brain.
The Marmon Wasp which Harroun was to drive at Indy had been built as a single-seater and raced in 1910 with some success. For the “500,” fitted with a more streamlined body and still a one-man machine, it drew protests from several of his competitors, who argued that racing the car without a riding mechanic on board to keep a watch out for cars behind was a safety hazard. It hadn't raised concerns the previous year, but that was with smaller fields and shorter races. With 40 cars and 500 miles ahead of them, they probably had a valid point.
Since a riding mechanic wasn't mandated in the rules, Harroun got to thinking – and remembered the cab driver's rear-view mirror. Soon, he'd fitted four posts to the rear of the engine cowling and fixed a 3in.-by-8in. mirror on top (pictured on the car LEFT).
At speed, the brick surface caused so much vibration that Harroun couldn't see anything much through it anyway, but Harroun wasn't letting on and the complaints subsided.
Racing being racing, one would have expected many more rear-view mirrors to appear the following year, but the American Automobile Association (the de facto governing body of racing in the U.S.) put a stop to that idea when it made a riding mechanic a requirement in all races longer than 100 miles.
Did Harroun actually win?
One theory that refuses to go away, however circumstantial the evidence, is that Ralph Mulford, and not Ray Harroun, was the winner of the first Indianapolis 500.
While Harroun kept to his carefully crafted plan of running at 75mph to reduce the number of time-consuming tire stops he'd need, Mulford's Lozier (BELOW) was setting faster lap speeds, but suffered with greater tire wear and more pit stops.
Timing and scoring had Mulford leading as late as lap 181 of the 200, until another tire change – his 14th of the race, according to one account – put Harroun into a winning position.
Afterward, there were rumblings that timing and scoring errors had handed Harroun's Marmon Wasp the win, with incompetent scorers (mostly friends and acquaintances of the founding partners), malfunctioning machinery and the confusion of a multi-car accident around one-third distance all cited as factors.
With Fisher ordering the scoring records destroyed just days after the race, and Harroun's perfectly paced performance resulting in just four stops for the Wasp (three to change the right-rear tire), it's difficult to make a truly compelling case for Mulford, but it's also impossible to dismiss it outright.
Sunday school teacher Mulford was a man of dignity and great politeness, and chose not to enter an official protest, but he remained adamant for the rest of his life that he'd indeed been the winner.
• For tickets to the 100th Anniversary Indianapolis 500 on May 29, 2011, CLICK HERE.
For more insight on the history and heritage of the Indianapolis 500, check out legendary Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian Donald Davidson's blog HERE on Indianapolismotorspeedway.com.
To get up close to racing history, visit the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's Hall of Fame Museum. Find out more HERE
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