Indy 500: What a Spectacle It Would Be If Ray Harroun Could See Sunday's Race

No NameAnalyst IMay 26, 2011

Ray Harroun
Ray Harroun

Things can change dramatically in two or three years. Imagine how things evolve over an entire century.

Many people have often wondered, what would James Naismith think of the sport of basketball today? It would be interesting to see him watching an NBA game, or even a great college rivalry game. What would Vince Lombardi think of the sport of football? Imagine if you could sit and watch a Super Bowl with him. What would Babe Ruth say about the game of baseball today? Just the thought of watching an afternoon MLB game with him today can send chills down your spine.

Taking that same perspective towards auto racing, we too can go back and ponder the same question about one particular driver. Ray Harroun won the inaugural auto race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1911. While he may not be the most popular driver to ever get behind the wheel, he went on to win the very first Indianapolis 500 mile race, then promptly announced his retirement.

If we could have Ray back here for the running of Sunday's Indianapolis 500, what would he think about it all?

Imagine watching his face as he laid eyes on the spectacular 2.5 mile speedway. His mind would be racing at the speed of sound at the sight of the cars and the roar of the engines. The thought of putting him in the two-seater car with Mario Andretti and taking him for a few laps around the track at over 200mph makes me smile.

While Ray doesn't have four Indianapolis 500 trophies like Foyt, Unser or Mears, he does have the distinct honor of being the first driver to ever win the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing." Perhaps no other driver has had a winning car that is more famous than his Marmon Wasp.

Ray Harroun was born on January 12, 1879 in Spartansburg, Pennsylvania. He built his first car in 1905, and would race anyone he could. In 1910, Harroun accepted an offer from Howard C. Marmon to design and build a racing car to be driven by him in the first big event at the new speedway at Indianapolis.

In the inaugural race at Indianapolis, starting positions were determined by the order of entry. Harroun was on the outside of row seven, starting in the 28th position. After just eight laps, he had worked his way up to seventh place. He was able to push his car to the limit because he knew it so well. He was able to conserve his fuel and tires much better than the other drivers.

It has been well documented that Ray did not build a standard two-seater car like most everyone else. Instead of taking up the extra room for a spotter/mechanic, he decided to put a piece of reflective glass on a bracket at the top of his steering wheel. This was the first instance of a rearview mirror being used on an automobile.

After six hours, 42 minutes and eight seconds, Ray took the checkered flag in the first Indianapolis 500 mile race. His average speed during the race was 74.6mph.

In 1911, the purse for the race was $27,550 for the winner. Harroun earned $14,000 of this amount, and was also given a bonus from the Marmon Company. On the very same day the award was given to him, Ray made the announcement that he was going to retire from driving. He went on to design and develop more cars, but he would never race again. During World War I, Ray was given a contract by the United States Government for production of military equipment.

Prior to his historic 1911 Indy 500 win, Ray competed in over 60 races, never finishing out of the top three. He actually won eight major races at Indianapolis before the very first 500 mile race.

Ray Harroun died in Anderson, Indiana on January 19, 1968, just days after his 89th birthday.

What Ray did as a designer and engineer is probably more important than his driving and winning the first Indy 500 in 1911. That is quite a compliment though, seeing as he was arguably the best at both building and driving race cars during his time.

While Ray never got to see the amazing races at IMS in the '70s, '80s and '90s, he was able to watch the event grow in the 1960s. Ray was there for the 50th anniversary of the race in 1961, in which AJ Foyt won the first of his record four Indianapolis 500 races. Foyt's front-engined Offenhauser-powered "roadster" was put on the front row with Harroun's Marmon Wasp (and Franchitti's Ganassi car) for the Speedway's Centennial Era poster.

Oddly enough, the last race Harroun was able to see was the 1967 race, in which Foyt won his third 500. While he didn't make it another 10 years to see AJ get his fourth win, he had a feeling that this race was becoming something big.

He wasn't able to see the amazing races with guys like Bobby Unser, Mario Andretti, Al Unser, Al Unser Jr., Johnny Rutherford, Rick Mears, and Helio Castroneves. He wasn't around for Danny Sullivan's "Spin and Win" in 1985. What would he think about all of those drivers and those famous races today? Knowing that he started something so special and so unique, it would have to be the most precious feeling in the world.

The 50th anniversary of the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing" was fortunate enough to have Ray Harroun there as a part of the events. The 100th anniversary should be another tribute to Ray and all he did to make this event what it has been.

As part of the 50th anniversary, on November 6, 1961, Harroun and Tony Hulman placed a gold alloy brick at the Speedway's start/finish line. Earlier that year, the entire front straightaway (the last part of the track with original bricks from 1909) was paved with asphalt except for this portion, to be known as the Yard of Bricks.

Every driver wants to win here, most are just thankful to be a part of the race. Drivers will tell you they would rather win the Indianapolis 500 than the season Championship. They all want to taste the milk in Victory lane, and get their face put on the Borg Warner trophy. Winning the 100-year anniversary of the Indy 500 is something many of these drivers have all dreamed about over the last few years.

After the race on Sunday, there will be another victory celebrated in this epic event, yet none will have the same significance and importance as Ray Harroun, and his yellow Marmon Wasp.