The Indy 500: Early Start in Racing

The Indianapolis 500 started in 1911. That’s only three years after Henry Ford introduced the Model T (1908). The cars in these races were early, and the sport of racing was new.

Auto Racing in the Early 20th Century

Automobile racing was becoming very popular in Europe at the turn of the century, and as the idea gravitated to the United States, the interested parties fell into two camps: Car manufacturers who were eager to showcase their creations to what was primarily a non-driving public, and wealthy men who saw automobile racing as an exciting new adventure.

Early auto races in this country were either held on horse racing tracks or on streets. Point-to-point street racing, as it was known, moved to the “official race” category when William K. Vanderbilt Jr. put up prize money in 1903 for what became known as the Vanderbilt Cup. That first race, to be held on October 8, was to cover a 30.24-mile course on winding dirt roads in Nassau County, Long Island.

A huge public outcry about safety followed Vanderbilt’s announcement. The race went ahead as planned, but soon after, Vanderbilt responded to the public concern about safety by forming a company to build a motor parkway that would be one of the country’s first modern paved parkways. He intended it to be used for the race but he noted that building the Long Island Motor Parkway, stretching from Queens to Lake Ronkonkoma, would also open up Long Island for economic development.

Construction on the parkway began in 1907 and by 1908 parts of the motorway could be used for the Vanderbilt Cup race that year. The race got another popularity boost when a local man from Garden City was the winner; the driver averaged 64.3 miles per hour, the fastest speed on record for a street race up to that time.

Safety was still a major issue in the public’s mind so in 1910 manufacturers formed a Manufacturers’ Contest Association to oversee point-to-point street competitions as well as those run on race tracks. As The New York Times put it (10-16-1910), [it will…] “put racing on a basis that will protect the public, which pays money to witness the contests, and also protect contestants, who pay entrance fees, by seeing that all rules are rigidly enforced.”

Despite their good intentions, safety of the drivers was hard to assure in a day when the automobiles had no tops, no windshields, no roll bars, and no seat belts. For protection, the drivers wore goggles and soft hats. No doubt about it; it was a high-risk sport.

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway

So it was into this climate that four Indianapolis businessmen decided their city needed a raceway. Led by Carl G. Fisher and three other investors, James Allison, Arthur Newby and Frank Wheeler, the building of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway got underway.

The explanation to the public was that Indianapolis, a city that at the time rivaled Detroit in the manufacture of automobiles, would benefit from a track where new automobiles could be tested. The roads around Indianapolis (and most other parts of the country) were so rutted and uneven that the roads themselves were obstacles; a test track would bring more car manufacturers to the area as it would give them a safe place to test new cars. As it happened, the track was the first built specifically for automobiles.

Like all investors, the men were looking to begin earning back their investment as quickly as possible, and in 1909 before the motorway was completed, they used the area for a balloon race. Later that summer a few auto races were held, with devastating results. The track surface proved unstable and there were two serious accidents that summer that involved fatalities.

By the following summer, the speedway was open for auto racing, but the investors found that the crowds lost interest after the first weekend or two. One of the men must have had an “inner Barnum” in him, as the men came up with the concept of one long spectacular race, say 500 miles, that could be held on Memorial Day. They felt that if they could turn that into a major event it would put the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on the map from that day forward.

Preparing for the 1911 Race

At that time, the car manufacturers were the ones who put up the cars they wanted to race, and author Charles Leerhsen, author of Blood and Smoke: A True Tale of Mystery, Mayhem and the Birth of the Indy 500, said in a phone interview that even before the race began there were some oddities about the requirements for the qualifying cars.

Customarily, race cars at that time had space for a driver and a mechanic; the responsibilities of the mechanic were to add oil as needed and to keep a look out for other cars on the track. The representatives entering the Marmon, a car manufactured in Indianapolis, received permission to remove the mechanic’s seat to make the car lighter and faster. When others protested that it would be unsafe not to have a mechanic to watch out for traffic, driver Ray Harroun, took the car back into the garage and soon emerged with a mirror affixed to the

Mulford car 1911

dashboard, thereby inventing the first rearview mirror used for an automobile. (Harroun credited the idea for his invention to a horse-drawn buggy he had seen with a rearview mirror.)

According to Charles Leerhsen, Marmon also was the only manufacturer permitted to choose its own entry number. The automobile the company entered was called the Marmon Wasp and was a souped-up version of Model 32 in the Marmon line; Marmon wanted spectators to see the Wasp, love the Wasp, and think “32” when they went to the showroom to look at cars.

All signs were that this Memorial Day race was going to be everything the promoters hoped it would be. Sports reporters from all over the country came in to write all types of stories about the area for the week prior to the race, and when the pace car started the 40 qualifying cars, there were 90,000 spectators in the stand.

The race got underway but as Charles Leerhsen describes it in a phone interview in 2011: “After the first 30 miles or so, spectator interest flagged. With 40 cars racing, it did not take long for the lead cars to make it around the track to catch and pass the laggards, so it quickly became impossible to tell who was leading.”

In addition, the Warner Horograph, a time clock invented specifically to keep track of the cars and their times for this race, failed to work for at least an hour.

At Mile 240 there was additional chaos. Continues Leerhsen: “One of the cars went out of control and veered toward the judges’ and timers’ stand; everyone in the area bolted so there was no accurate account of what happened during that time.”

At the end of the race, Ralph Mulford, the driver of another luxury car, a Lozier, remembered being in the lead and seeing the flag that indicated “final lap.” Mulford, then took what was customarily done — an “insurance” lap to be certain the distance was covered. When he finished, he returned from the extra lap to find Harroun, driver of the locally-built Marmon, in the winner’s circle. Track officials later came out with Revised Results but it didn’t affect the front-runner; they then had all documents relating to the race destroyed.

In his book, Blood and Smoke, Charles Leerhsen uses many contemporary reports of the race to piece together what probably happened during the running of that first Indy 500. It is a fascinating and complex story and well worth checking out in his book.

To read about another type of race held in the United States at this time see “Auto Sales Stimulus: 1909,” about a cross-country endurance contest begun by Robert Guggenheim.

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2 thoughts on “The Indy 500: Early Start in Racing”

  1. I wish my Mother was still alive to read this. She was born in 1911 and loved her cars. In WWII she lived in England (where she was born) and drove an ambulance & “duce & half truck.” She met my Army Air Corp dad & came to America to marry him. She loved to drive & loved all her cars. When we went on trips she would often comment when she heard a trick “double clutch” or make some other movement.

  2. What a lovely memory. Thank you for posting it. She must have been a very brave, good woman.

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