Marmom Wasp at 1911 Indy 500

History of the Indianapolis 500 – Part One

The First Indianapolis 500

The distance of the 1911 Memorial Day race was proposed for as long as 1,000 miles, or a duration as long as 24-hours. Both found early favor with manufacturers as a true test and demonstration of their automobiles.

The partners chose the distance of 500 miles, however. A 500-mile race would still provide a significant test of machines and drivers, and would allow spectators to return home in time to enjoy their dinners. The race would take more than six hours to complete.

The first entry for the 1911 Indianapolis Motor Speedway International Sweepstakes 500-Mile Race—as the event was to be called—was received in October 1910 from the J. I. Case Threshing Machine Company of Racine, Wisconsin. Case also produced automobiles from 1911-1925, and earned the coveted first starting position for the 1911 500 by virtue of posting the first entry received by the Speedway.

Entries were received from U.S. and prominent European auto manufacturers giving the race a legitimate claim to the ‘International Sweepstakes’ title. Indianapolis automakers were well represented by Marmon, National, Cole and the Ideal Motor Car Company, which was soon to be re-named after the firm’s founder—Harry Stutz. Entries from other Indiana-based manufacturers included Amplex, Apperson, McFarlan and Westcott.

Joe Dawson Marmon #31 5th 1911 Indianapolis 500
Joe Dawson Marmon #31 5th 1911 Indianapolis 500
Johnny Aitken National #4 1911 Indianapolis 500
Johnny Aitken National #4 1911 Indianapolis 500
Herb Lytle Apperson #35 1911 Indianapolis 500
Herb Lytle Apperson #35 1911 Indianapolis 500
W H Turner Amplex #12 1911 Indianpolis 500
W.H. Turner Amplex #12 1911 Indianpolis 500

Entries of European-built automobiles were received with nominations for top American drivers who were more familiar with American-style circle track racing. A Benz was entered for 1909 IMS Prest-O-Lite trophy-winner and 1911 Land Speed Record-holder Bob Burman, and a Mercedes for Philadelphia native Spencer Wishart. A trio of Grand Prix Fiats was entered for Americans David Bruce-Brown, Eddie Hearne and Caleb Bragg.

Bob Burman Benz #45 1911 Indianapolis 500
Bob Burman Benz #45 1911 Indianapolis 500
Spencer Wishart Mercedes #11 1911 Indianapolis 500
Spencer Wishart Mercedes #11 1911 Indianapolis 500
David Bruce-Brown, Fiat 1911 Indianapolis 500
David Bruce-Brown, Fiat 1911 Indianapolis 500
Eddie Hearne Fiat #18 1911 Indianapolis 500
Eddie Hearne Fiat #18 1911 Indianapolis 500

Marmon entered two cars in the 1911 500-mile race, for Ray Harroun and teammate Joe Dawson. While Dawson’s 4-cylinder car had previously raced at the Speedway, Harroun’s was a new 6-cylinder car designed and built by Harroun working with chief engineer Howard Marmon. The car’s narrow, single seat bodywork ended in a pointed tail; with its yellow paint, the car was quickly dubbed the ‘Marmon Wasp’.

Marmon Wasp, 1911 Indianapolis 500
Marmon Wasp, 1911 Indianapolis 500

The Speedway opened for practice on May 1, which became a Brickyard tradition that lasted for generations. Activities filled the entire month of May.

A total of 46 entries were received. Two of those were not completed in time, and four failed to meet the rudimentary qualifying requirement to hold a speed of 75mph for a quarter mile from a flying start. Trial runs requiring one full lap of the Speedway at over 75mph did not begin until the following year and later evolved into a four lap qualifying procedure.

Ray Harroun
Ray Harroun
During practice, competitors soon complained that Harroun would not be able to see other cars overtaking without a riding mechanic and would present a hazard on the track. Although he often denied that he deserved credit for ‘inventing’ the rear view mirror, Harroun did mount a 3” x 8” mirror to metal rods affixed to the cowl of the Marmon Wasp. He later admitted, according to Donald Davidson, “It shook so badly at speed on the bricked surface that (I) was unable to see anything anyway.”

With the large field of 40 cars remaining, Fisher created another innovation for the first 500—the first use of a pace car. Races in the day typically began from a standing start. Recognizing the need to keep 40 cars in line, Fisher and Allison lined up a Stoddard-Dayton touring car on the ‘pole’ position, with the first row of starters lined up beside the pace car.

1911 Indianapolis 500 front row with Stoddard-Dayton pace car
1911 Indianapolis 500 front row with Stoddard-Dayton pace car

The race would be 200 laps of the 2.5-mile Speedway—500 miles. The forty starters were lined up in four cars abreast in ten rows.

Finally, at 10:00am on May 30, 1911 an aerial bomb announced to all who were present that it was time to start of the race. The Stoddard-Dayton pace car led the field away from the starting grid and toward—a red flag! In another interesting part of Speedway lore, a red flag was used to start the race presumably because it was thought to be more easily seen by the swarm of speeding cars. Use of a green flag to start the race was not adopted until the 1930s.

As soon as the race started, the partners’ expectations were met. Five different drivers had led the race by lap 20. Johnny Aitken on his National became the first driver to lead the Indianapolis 500, starting from the outside of the front row and leading the first ten miles. Spencer Wishart led the next five laps on the Grand Prix Mercedes, only to be passed by the relatively unknown Fred Belcher on a Knox, who gave up the lead to David Bruce-Brown on one of the Grand Prix Fiats just four laps later. On lap 20, popular Ralph de Palma took over the lead on his New York-built Simplex.

Johnny Aitken 1911 Indianapolis 500
Johnny Aitken 1911 Indianapolis 500
Spectators at 1911 Indianapolis 500
Spectators at 1911 Indianapolis 500
Start at 1911 Indianapolis 500
Start at 1911 Indianapolis 500
Racing at 1911 Indianapolis 500
Racing at 1911 Indianapolis 500
Press car at 1911 Indianapolis 500
Press car at 1911 Indianapolis 500

But it was Ray Harroun’s race to lose. Harroun is unfortunately often thought to be a ‘one-time wonder’ as the winner of the first 500. But, as we have seen, he was in fact a wizened veteran sometimes called ‘The Little Professor’, who was as interested in developing racing cars as in driving them. Harroun’s multiple starts and victories in 1909-1910 Speedway races of lengths from five miles to 200 miles gave him a wealth of experience, which he put to good use.

Donald Davidson, again, explained how in previous races at the Speedway and practice throughout May 1911, “Harroun was literally running tire tests in order to determine the best compromise between speed and wear.” By reducing his lap speeds to the minimum qualifying speed of 75mph, Harroun found he could double the distance between tire changes. A relief driver, Cyrus Patschke, was provided to give Harroun a rest during the punishing 500-mile race. But after Harroun returned to the Marmon, he led all but ten laps in the second half of the race.

At the finish, it was Indianapolis’ own Ray Harroun who won the first 500, finishing the 200 laps in six hours and forty-two minutes and averaging 74.60mph for the distance while faster competitors fell by the wayside.

Ray Harroun wins the 1911 Indianapolis 500 on the Marmon Wasp
Ray Harroun wins the first Indianapolis 500 on the Marmon Wasp

[Source: Leigh Dorrington]

Next: History of the Indianapolis 500 – Part Two

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  1. Excellent history, including both the significant and the (supposedly) trivial. The later makes even better reading than the former. For me, anyway.
    I had to check.
    Carl Fisher was not one of the Fisher Body brothers.
    But James Allison’s original hot rod firm, after his death, was bought by those Fisher brothers. The Fishers soon sold it to GM, where the Allison Division built and designed the V-1710 12-cyl. engine used in the WWII P-38, P-39, P-40, and P-51A. After WWII, their turbojet and turboprop engines were widely used, many still.
    GM sold Allison Gas Turbine Division to Rolls-Royce in 1995. They sold Allison Transmission Division in 2007.

  2. Are there any period automobile experts out there?

    That photo above of “Carl Fisher racing in Chicago” gives me a problem about the caption … there’s traffic in the road behind him going the other way and Fisher’s car has no visible brakes; there’s something a bit incomplete about that engine, too, or did they have air cooled straight eights in those days? With zero exhaust stubs? To me, the picture is not a a racing photo but a pose taken while the car was being built up.

    This is a really interesting history, and gives an insight into all the ideas and the work that go into the launch of such a project.

    1. The car is on a racetrack.It shares it with a 1904 expensive auto and another race car.There are
      enough levers on the car to support brakes(probably acting on the driveline).The picture is proof that
      such a race car existed(though we can question at what level). Premier of Indianapolis(1902-1925),
      raced air-cooled cars during the picture’s time frame.Could this be one?I can’t imagine what more would
      be needed to fire this one up.Minimal was the creed of the day.Premier was big on driveshafts and this
      car has one(most racers had chain-drive at the time).

  3. Carl Fisher’s Prest-O-Lite company did not manufacture acetylene headlamps.Many companies
    such as Gray & Davis,Solar,E % J, Castle,Rushmore,and others,competed for manufacturers
    business. The Prest-O-Lite Co. had a corner on tanks containing compressed acetylene.They
    were commonly mounted on running boards,but could be placed elsewhere.Most of the applications
    were after-market.They were not commonly found on inexpensive autos.I’m a little fuzzy about
    which autos offered them for standard equipment(not too many items were,as tops and windshields
    were extras on most to 1912).It’s rare to see an acetylene generator on a luxury car after 1908.Cars
    switched to electric headlamps the year he sold his company.Anybody who had to clean the caked
    carbide out of their acetylene generator(like a miner’s lamp he attached to his helmet generated its own
    gas and had to be cleaned),would have been thankful to Carl Fisher for his easy to use,trade it in for
    a filled one,acetylene tank!

  4. Text refers to “hot air balloons”, but photograph is of sealed gasbags filled with gas less dense than air at same temperature, I.e. of lower average molecular weight, e.g. H & He. Thanks for excellent magazine from a humble Alfa, MG, Triumph & Jag owner.