Celebrating a century of the greatest spectacle in racing
Ray Harroun, 32, needed help climbing from his 6-cylinder Marmon Wasp in 1911 before the weary driver spit out a mouthful of dust and slumped against the racecar in sheer exhaustion. The designer-builder for Marmon Motor Car Co. had just won the inaugural 500-mile race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
None of the 80,000 spectators and local press who witnessed Harroun’s feat—driving an average of 74 mph for 6 hours and 42 minutes on the brick-paved oval with the help of a relief driver—could have imagined that his victory would spark a tradition that has evolved into the most prestigious auto race in America—the Indianapolis 500.
By comparison, Scottish-born driver Dario Franchitti, 37, last year sprang from his 8-cylinder, open-wheeled Dallara/Honda in the Indy 500 winner’s circle to the cheers of more than 250,000 trackside fans, plus a worldwide television audience. After three hours and five minutes of racing, Franchitti took his second checkered flag in the 100-year-old race with an average speed of 161.6 mph, hitting nearly 227 mph with his pole-winning qualifying run.
Setting the pace
Much has changed since Harroun set the pace in auto racing a century ago, yet much remains the same with both the Indy 500 and the fabled racetrack. “It is the same two and half miles, but it doesn’t look the same two years in a row,” says Donald Davidson, the speedway’s historian.
Gone is the slew of auto manufacturers—Amplex, Apperson, Case, Fiat, Lozier, Marmon, National, Pope-Hartford and Westcott among them—that competed in the 1911 race. Today, all Indy 500 entrants are part of the IZOD IndyCar Series and are mandated to drive the same kind of car: a Dallara chassis powered by a Honda engine. Today’s Indy racecars are rear-engine vehicles, a technological advancement introduced during the 1963 Indianapolis 500 by Jim “The Flying Scot” Clark, who raced his Lotus Ford on the same track that previously had known only front-engine roadsters since Harroun’s time.
One of the few constants in the race is the 33-driver field, a fixture since 1919, though an international contingent now flavors the Memorial Day weekend race. Drivers from 13 countries qualified for last year’s starting lineup, which also included four women racers for the first time. And you won’t see the vintage two-seaters that once placed a “riding mechanic” beside the driver to watch for rear-approaching competitors.
Interestingly, Harroun reduced the weight of his car during the inaugural Indy 500 with the aid of the first automotive rearview mirror rather than a sidekick mechanic, helping him win the $14,250 first-place purse, compared to the $2.7 million prize awarded last year to Franchitti.