- The Washington Times - Monday, May 30, 2005

“Let me sit down,” Ray Harroun gasped as he emerged from his Marmon Wasp racing car into the bright Indiana sunshine. There was no convenient resting place nearby, so he climbed back into the car — and nearly fainted from exhaustion.

The 32-year-old driver had good reason to be weary. The date was May30, 1911, 94 years ago today, and he had just won the first Indianapolis 500 at the astounding average speed of 74.602 mph over six hours, 42 minutes and eight seconds.

Today the Indy 500 is a staple of America’s sporting calendar, even though it no longer is held on Memorial Day proper. But even at the inception, it was a very big deal in a nation where people were starting to fall in love with automobiles and what they could do.

Nearly a century later, the Indy 500 produces speeds more than twice as fast as Harroun’s; yesterday’s 89th renewal was won by Dan Wheldon at 157.603 mph. And still we are fascinated by the specter and spectacle of cars going much faster than we would dare drive, even on the Beltway.

Auto races began to sputter alive in the mid-1890s, but the sport didn’t approach major status until the fall of 1909, when Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Carl Fisher replaced the crushed-stone surface of his track with one of brick and offered the biggest purse in racing history to the winner of a 500-mile marathon.

With road races banned in Europe, the Indy 500 immediately became America’s premier auto event, wailing its siren song to the best drivers and to myriad manufacturers eager to publicize their products at what speedily — pun intended — became known as the Brickyard.

In those days, most racing machines were built off the chassis of big luxury cars with huge four-cylinder engines. It would be another decade before all cars at Indy would be constructed solely for racing and be totally unlike anything available in a dealer’s showroom.

Harroun and his car literally were ahead of the curve. In 1910, he accepted an offer from Howard Marmon to design and build a car to be driven at Indy the following year. Harroun had built and driven race cars since 1905, but this clearly would be his biggest challenge.

Virtually all race cars at the time had two bucket seats, but Harroun’s Wasp featured just one inside a streamlined body. Because he would not have a mechanic riding alongside to watch for vehicles behind him, Harroun constructed a bracket to support a rearview mirror. Soon all automakers would add this logical accessory to passenger cars, but then it was something totally new in a new industry.

At 10 a.m. on what then was called Decoration Day, a Stoddard-Dayton pace car pulled off the Brickyard’s track, starter Fred Wagner waved the green flag and 40 autos roared off in a collective cloud of smoke.

Eight laps into the race, Spencer Wishart, John Aiken and Ralph DePalma were the leaders, with Harroun maneuvering the yellow Wasp with the oversized donut wheels into seventh place. Harroun knew his car so well he was able to push it to the max and still conserve tires, engine and fuel.

As the long race wore on, the lead changed several times. An especially dangerous rival was Ralph Mulford, who gunned his more powerful Lozier past Harroun repeatedly. However, frequent pit stops to change tires cost Mulford considerable time.

On and on the two men battled before Harroun and the Wasp prevailed, finishing about 5/8 of a mile ahead of Mulford and the Lozier. The purse amounted to a whopping $27,550, of which Harroun kept $14,000, plus a well-deserved bonus from Marmon.

As with all sports, the financial figures back then seem like pocket change today. For winning the rain-shortened 2004 Indy 500, Buddy Rice collected $1.76 million in total award money. By the standards of 1911, however, Harroun was practically rich.

Mulford proved a sore loser, perhaps with good reason. After both drivers pitted for new tires about 350 miles into the race, Harroun was scored nearly two minutes ahead when they returned — an advantage he never lost. Mulford protested the order of finish, claiming he had lapped Harroun when the Marmon’s tire went flat, but race officials ignored his claim.

Surprisingly, Harroun then announced his retirement as a competitive driver. He remained with Marmon for several years as a consulting engineer, designing and building three Maxwell cars (shades of Jack Benny’s old radio show!) for the 1914 and 1915 seasons. The success of his cars was reflected by the number of races won by such drivers as Willie Carlson, Teddy Tetzlaff and future World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker.

By 1916, Harroun was designing and building passenger cars on his own. When the United States entered the war the following year, he signed a contract with the government to produce military equipment and munitions.

For the rest of his life, Harroun remained active in the production and sales of automobile accessories, but the triumph at Indy remained his claim to fame. In 1961, seven years before his death at age 89, he was hailed at the Brickyard in ceremonies marking the 50th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500.

The nation’s most famous auto race now reeks with tradition involving bricks, incredible speeds and sips of milk in the winner’s circle. Multiple winners in recent decades have included Bill Vukovich, Al Unser Sr. and Jr., Helio Castroneves, Emerson Fittipaldi, A.J. Foyt and Rodger Ward.

Ray Harroun took a crack at the Brickyard only once, but more than anyone else he established the glory that was and is Indy.

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