500 facts: from the Marmon Wasp to WW1 

The early days of the 500

click to enlarge 500facts_webheaders8.jpg

177. The Indianapolis 500 is older than the Masters and the Final Four.

In fact, the race — first run in 1911 — has been around longer than the World Cup (1930) and much longer than the Daytona 500 (1959). The Masters began in 1934 and the NCAA Men's Hoops Tourney wasn't a thing until 1939.

178. The Indy 500 wasn't always run on Sunday (rain delays not included). 

From 1911-1970 the race was always scheduled for May 30, UNLESS it fell on a Sunday. In those cases, it was scheduled for May 31.

In 1968, the Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which moved four holidays, including Memorial Day, from their traditional dates to a specified Monday in order to create a three-day weekend. After some initial confusion and unwillingness to comply, all 50 states adopted Congress' change of date within a few years and the law took effect at the federal level in 1971. 

The change moved Memorial Day from its traditional May 30 date to the last Monday in May. 

In 1971 and 1972 the race was scheduled for the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend. In 1973 it was scheduled for Monday, Memorial Day itself. Since then it has been scheduled for the day before Memorial Day.

— Nora Spitznogle

179. The 500 initially had a slightly longer name.

The race was initially known as the "International 500-mile Sweepstakes Race." The "International Sweepstakes" moniker would remain on tickets and other ephemera until 1981.

180. The 500-mile length was chosen for the time the race would last.

The "four fathers" probably figure they could sell a LOT of tenderloins over seven hours.

181. In 1911 the starting grid was determined by the order that entries were received by mail.

Nora Spitznogle:

To qualify for the race, entrants had to average 75 miles per hour along a 'flying' quarter-mile measured segment of the track. Each car was given three attempts and speeds were not recorded. In 1912, all cars were required to complete one timed lap (2.5 miles) at a minimum speed, but the grid order was still determined by the order the entries were received.

182. Carl Fisher drove the first pace car.

According to ims.com: 

While a pace vehicle is believed to have been used at a program for electric-powered cars at Narragansett Park, Rhode Island, in 1896, it is believed that the 1911 500 was the first major event anywhere in the world at which a pace vehicle was employed for a start.

click to enlarge The Marmon "Wasp" — note the rear-view mirrir just in front of the cockpit. - WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
  • The Marmon "Wasp" — note the rear-view mirrir just in front of the cockpit.
  • Wikimedia Commons

183. Ray Harroun won the inaugural 500.

On May 30, 1911 — Memorial Day — 40 drivers ran in front of a crowd that was estimated to number more than 85,000. Nearly seven hours later, Ray Harroun was awarded the victory in his yellow "Marmon Wasp."

184. Ray Harroun didn't win the inaugural 500.

According to Harroun, "Marmon won it." As Donald Davidson points out, the early races were about the cars, not the drivers: "They were like jockeys."

185. And there was controversy about the first race almost immediately.

A crash at around the completion of the first third of the 1911 race may have distracted the official scorers. There's conflicting reports about whether or not a judge's stand was involved in an accident, which certainly would've made for problematic officiating. Additionally, as Lori Lovely wrote in a May, 2015 issue of NUVO: "Complaints were also lodged against the timing device, a complex electric timing apparatus ..."

Here's what's known, as near as yours truly can divine: Ralph Mulford had one hell of a pace during the 1911 500, and led the race as late as lap 181. To really muddy the waters several days later, Carl Fisher had all of the scoring records destroyed after revising the finishing order several times. In each revision, however, track officials had scored Harroun as the winner.

Mulford was never really convinced. Lori Lovely:

Russ Caitlin quoted Mulford at age 85 in Automobile Quarterly: "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. They have publicly credited me with leading the race and each year send me something as a remembrance to let me know I have not been forgotten."

186. Clessie Cummins was in the pits for the first 500.

Yes, of THAT Cummins family. Clessie was part of the crew for Harroun's Marmon.

187. Tickets for the first 500 went for as little as a buck.

"There was grandstand admission, but general admission was a dollar," says Davidson.

188. Harroun rode alone.

While it was common for "riding mechanics" to sit in a passenger seat in a race car — often to spot other drivers on the track — Harroun used what may have been the world's first rear-view mirror to see traffic.

189. But Harroun always scoffed at the idea that he "invented" the mirror.

Harroun said he'd seen a horse-cabbie use a similar setup in Chicago.

Harroun in 1911. - WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
  • Harroun in 1911.
  • Wikimedia Commons

190. Windshields and roll bars weren't standard equipment.

Both of those developments came later.

191. Harroun would drive the "Wasp" twice more.

Ray ran the Wasp around the track at IMS prior to the '37 race (the 25th running) and again in '61, fifty years after 1911. Harroun was 82 that last time.

192. Riding mechanics were required for the next ten years.

Apparently the whole rear-view mirror thing didn't catch on until after the 1922 race.

193. The first race was clocked at 6:42:08.

That's a blazin' average speed of 74.59 mph.

194. Sam Dickson was the first 500 fatality.

Dickson was the riding mechanic for Arthur Greiner, and died when he was thrown from the vehicle during a single-car wreck on lap 12. Greiner's American Simplex (made in Mishawaka) lost its front wheels, which may at least partially explain why the company folded four years later.

195. Early newsreels show crowds running toward accidents.

Spectator safety was not exactly a huge priority early on. The other thing that's notable about footage from the era: sand was spread on parts of the track to absorb motor oil.

196. 1912 saw an entry finish under literal manpower.

Ralph DePalma's Mercedes threw a rod on lap 197, and the race leader saw his engine's output drop to 15 mph a lap later before dying altogether. Undeterred, DePalma and his mechanic got out and pushed the car across the finish line. DePalma lost to Joe Dawson, but would return to win in 1915.

197. DePalma was the first to lead more than 100 laps.

In fact, DePalma led all but the last four laps — right up until his engine went south.

198. The 1913 grid was set by a blind draw.

Spitznogle again:

In 1913 and 1914, all cars completed one timed lap at a minimum speed to qualify. Overseas competitors complained about their entries arriving in the mail later than local entrants, and thus starting deeper in the grid. A compromise was made — the grid was determined by a blind draw a few days before the race.

199. The third Indy winner used champagne as a PED.

Jules Goux, a Frenchman, drank the sparkly stuff at pit stops — and allegedly may have drunk as many as four half-pint bottles during his 1913 championship run. Hydration plus a little chemical courage? Seems legit: "Without the good wine, I would not have won," Goux said afterward. His margin of victory was a whopping 13 minutes.

200. Not surprisingly, the consumption of alcohol by drivers was banned in 1914.

Spectators, not so much.

201. Goux also set two early "500 firsts."

Goux became the first non-American to win the race, and the first rookie (if, of course, you exclude the inaugural race) to win the 500.

202. The 1913 purse broke six figures.

Total prize money crossed the $100,000 mark the year Goux won.

203. Tony Hulman saw his first 500 in 1914.

The future Speedway owner was 13 at the time.

204. The 1916 race saw actual grid positions based on speed.

Says Nora:

In 1916, the first day qualifiers were lined up in order by speed. The second day qualifiers would line up behind the first day qualifiers, and so on, even if subsequent days drivers were faster than earlier qualifiers. With a few tweaks, that general grid alignment rule was used through the 2000s.

205. The race took a break during World War I.

The 500 wasn't run in 1917 and 1918.

206. The infield became a refueling and maintenance station for aircraft during the war.

Military aviation battalions were stationed at IMS to fuel aircraft on their runs between Ohio and Illinois.

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About The Author

Ed Wenck

Ed Wenck

Ed Wenck has been writing for NUVO (as well as several other Indiana publications) for nearly 20 years while moonlighting as a radio host. He became Managing Editor of NUVO in 2013. He's authored four books and also reports for WISH-TV's Boomer TV program.

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