Inevitably, there is always some driver, some crew member, some team owner or some fan who feels cheated of victory at the end of any given race. But on at least five occasions in Indianapolis 500 history, a legitimate grievance surfaced.
Scoring discrepancies and improperly applied (or unapplied) sanctions for rules infractions have sparked controversy — and launched one lawsuit — over race results. While officials may be embarrassed or irritated about speculation, others consider these tales part of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's heritage — and fodder for endless debates in the pub.
1911 — inaugural 500 initiates inaugural controversy
The first "500-mile International Sweepstakes" was held on Memorial Day, May 30, 1911. Forty drivers started in that race, attracted by an unprecedented purse of $25,000. They competed for 6 hours 42 minutes in front of a crowd of 85,000 spectators who paid $2 for general admission seats.
Only 39 riding mechanics started that race because Ray Harroun used what is generally considered the first rear-view mirror in his six cylinder, 477 cu.-in. single-seat Marmon, then referred to as the "Yellow Jacket." (Due to the outcry from competitors, riding mechanics were mandated from 1912-1922.)
Harroun's car accounted for just one of the day's controversies. To appease disgruntled drivers, Speedway cofounder Carl Fisher implemented the use of relief drivers. To address other safety concerns, he mandated a qualification requirement that each car must run a quarter of a mile at 75 mph. Before the race, he held the first driver's meeting. He also led the first mass rolling start, paced at 40 mph, in a Stoddard-Dayton roadster, in order to avoid the visibility-impairing cloud of smoke typical of standing starts.
Despite Fisher's careful preparations, timing and scoring problems occurred — as did fatal accidents. At the 240-mile point, on the front stretch, Joe Jagersberger's Case broke a steering knuckle and swerved. Reports differ on whether or not Jagersberger's car hit the judges' stand before spinning down pit lane and coming back onto the track, at which time riding mechanic C.L. Anderson was thrown onto the racing surface. However, there is no disputing that the judges' stand emptied as everyone either ran for cover or rushed to see the accident.
Harry Knight veered to the left to avoid Anderson, but crashed into the pits and demolished the parked Apperson of Herb Lytle, who had pitted for a tire change. The Apperson overturned, throwing Lytle 25 feet and injuring his riding mechanic. Knight's car flipped end over end, finally coming to a rest atop Caleb Bragg's Fiat, also in the pits for a new drag rod.
No one remained in the timing stand to keep track of the cars still racing.
After the race, several drivers protested that some of their laps weren't counted. Complaints were also lodged against the timing device, a complex electric timing apparatus with a one-foot-high trip wire that was out of repair more than once for as long as an hour.
On the supposedly penultimate lap, Ralph Mulford was scored as leading David Bruce-Brown and Harroun. Mulford, in a Lozier, took the checkered flag alone, followed by Harroun while Bruce-Brown pitted his Fiat for a mechanical issue.
Ralph Mulford then did three extra "safety" laps, a common practice in those days due to frequent scoring errors. Harroun drove straight to winner's circle and began celebrating.
Lozier protested. Mulford claimed that a scoring error occurred when four cars crashed on the starting line, and that he lapped Harroun when the Marmon driver pitted to replace a worn tire. The Lozier team supported his claim with a scoreboard showing Mulford ahead of Harroun.
Due to the protests, AAA — the sanctioning body—delayed posting official results until the next morning, creating a tradition. However, they told the press that Harroun had won.
Officials met at Indianapolis' Claypool Hotel, reviewing records until 3 a.m., according to contemporary Indianapolis Star reports. The next day, they confirmed the finishing order as Harroun, Mulford and Bruce-Brown. Bruce-Brown's team then protested, claiming his Fiat finished second.
The officials reconvened.
Disregarding the functional backup electric timing system, officials blamed inexperienced timers (most of whom were chosen for their social standing rather than their racing knowledge) who "fouled up" during the caution laps. The official finishing order of the leaders remained unchanged, although they did adjust the order of some of the other cars. Joe Dawson, originally not credited with even finishing the race, was awarded fifth place after a review indicated he had completed 200 laps, an important correction since the top 10 positions paid prize money.
The review also resulted in alteration of some times. Harroun's official finishing time was corrected to 6:42:08, one mile an hour slower than the unofficial time posted at the track the previous day.
After this meeting, officials destroyed all lap and scoring charts. There would be no further reviews.
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."
Thus, the record books indicate that the unusual yellow car crossed the finish line first, making Harroun the winner of the first Indy 500.