Tag Archives: Ray Harroun

The Speedway as an automotive proving ground

How many are aware that one of the motives behind building the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was as an automotive proving ground?

Carl Fisher
Carl G. Fisher
Courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway

In late 1908, Carl G. Fisher, after being a competitor and spectator at numerous auto races across the nation since 1905, had the inspiration to build an automotive proving ground “to establish American automobile supremacy.”

The idea formed while Fisher and his real estate associate Lem Trotter were returning to Indianapolis on a trip from Dayton, Ohio. Their car overheated twice and just inside the Indiana state line the vehicle blew the third tire of the day. The projected one-day journey had turned into a fiasco. Fisher kept grumbling to Trotter about how unreliable American cars were and that the nation really needed a huge test track. Trotter challenged Fisher to stop griping and start acting. “You’ve been talking about a racetrack ever since you got back from Europe,” Trotter bluntly said. “If you think it would make money, why don’t you build it yourself.” Trotter later claimed “I just kept nagging Fisher and his three partners.”

Trotter’s words ignited Fisher. From then on during the business trip, Fisher talked of little else. He grilled Trotter to think of a spot where he might build. Trotter had the “perfect” spot in mind. It was a 320-acre plot known as the old Presley farm located about five-miles northwest of downtown Indianapolis. By the time they got home, Fisher had commissioned Trotter to inquire about purchasing the site. Trotter sounded out the owners, who confided that they might be persuaded to part with it for $80,000.

Fisher consulted James A. Allison, his racing associate and Prest-O-Lite partner. Allison was excited by the notion as was Fisher, and readily agreed to the plan. These two speculators approached three other mutual friends: longtime racing chum and president of Diamond Chain Company, Arthur C. Newby; carburetor manufacturer Frank H. Wheeler; and Indianapolis banker Stoughton Fletcher.

All but Fletcher joined in. Fisher soon figured this section of land would not be large enough for the track they envisioned. They soon purchased adjacent land and controlled 539 acres. On February 8, 1909, they filed incorporation papers under the name of Indianapolis Motor Speedway Company, capitalized at $250,000. Fisher and Allison each subscribed at $75,000; Newby and Wheeler $50,000 each.

The first auto races were in August 1909 on the macadam track, with the first Indianapolis 500 on Memorial Day 1911 on the track paved track with 3.2 million 10-pound paving bricks. Automotive innovation began with Ray Harroun inventing the first rear-view mirror for his winning Marmon Wasp.

1911 Marmon Wasp
Ray Harroun with the 1911 Marmon Wasp
Courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Early on company founder, Howard C. Marmon recognized that weight was the enemy in car design. His early automobiles featured cast aluminum bodies, which weighed substantially less than other makes.

His engineer and driver, Ray Harroun had designed the number 32 Marmon Wasp with the rear-view mirror to replace the need for a riding mechanic to warn him of cars approaching from the rear. Eliminating the mechanic provided an aerodynamic and weight-saving advantage to his Marmon racer. He won the 500 in six hours and 42 minutes at an average speed of 74.6 miles an hour.

This was the first notable innovation made at the Speedway as an automotive proving ground. It all began with Carl G. Fisher’s foresight and continues today.

For more information on our automotive heritage follow this link.

A book for all Indianapolis 500 fans

Blood and Smoke
Blood and Smoke

This week I would like to share with you a book for all Indianapolis 500 fans. That book is Blood and Smoke: A True Tale of Mystery Mayhem and the Birth of the Indy 500 by Charles Leerhsen.

Before I go further, I have to disclose that Charles talked to me as a resource in his research, and he mentioned our interviews in his book. With that being said, I want to share why I think this book is of interest to Indy race fans.

When I met Charles a few years ago, I was not aware of the controversy surrounding the running of the first 500. I accepted as fact that Ray Harroun won the race.

One of the items that drew Charles to write Blood and Smoke was the controversy around the publishing the first 500’s final results. He uses this as a springboard to write a compelling tale of the people and events that shaped that race and events that make the 500 the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

Charles takes us back to the coming-of-age of automobile racing in the American entertainment industry. Some race fans might remember that Carl G. Fisher, James A. Allison, Arthur C. Newby and Frank H. Wheeler hosted the first auto races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in August 1909. The track’s attendance was over 75,000 for the three days and numerous records were set. By the time the three days of racing were over, one driver, two riding mechanics, and two spectators were dead. To make the track safer, the owners decided to repave the track with 3,200,000 ten-pound paving bricks “The Brickyard” was born.

Shortly after the 1910 events, the Speedway founders announced plans for a automobile race with a purse of $25,000 in cash prizes for a single day of racing. The date for the first Indianapolis 500 was finally set for May 30, 1911.

Leerhsen does an incredible job of describing the story as the event unfolded. As the race progressed, the race standings of the 40 race cars became more and more confused. The Speedway’s four manual scoreboards were usually not in agreement, and at mid-race the pit timing stand was unattended for about 10 minutes due to a nearby accident. Other problems with the official timing system further muddled the race results. Ray Harroun was awarded the first place winnings of $14,250 in purse and accessory prizes.

Charles Leerhsen’s incredible research, writing, and character studies of the story’s key figures, like Carl Fisher, Barney Oldfield, Ralph Mulford, Ray Harroun, Howard Marmon, and their riding mechanics weave you into the story. His familiarity with the times of the era create a riveting tale of the birth of the Indianapolis 500.

Peruse Blood and Smoke: A True Tale of Mystery Mayhem and the Birth of the Indy 500 at Amazon.com

For more information on Indiana auto pioneers follow this link.

First auto races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Thursday, August 19, 1909, was opening day of the first auto racing program at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Louis Schwitzer of Indianapolis, driving a Stoddard-Dayton won the first event, a five-mile dash for cars of less-than 230 cubic-inch displacement. Louis Chevrolet, driving a Buick won the first 10-mile event, and Ray Harroun, won another 10-miler, with a four-cylinder Marmon. Bob Burman won the featured 250-mile Prest-O-Lite trophy race with an average speed of 53.77 miles an hour, in his Buick.

Louis Chevrolet in his Buick
Louis Chevrolet in his Buick

Louis Strang won Friday’s 100-mile G and J Trophy Race with a speed of 64.74 miles an hour.

Eddie Hearne, Barney Oldfield, and Ralph DePlama scored victories in Saturday’s preliminary events

The program’s grand finale was Saturday’s 300-mileWheeler Schebler Trophy Race. Seventeen cars in the 450-600 cubic-inch displacement class vied for the huge seven-foot cup created by Tiffany’s of New York. Lee Lynch, driving a Jackson, was awarded first place, with an average speed of 55.61 miles an hour. Trailing in order were DePlama in a Fiat, Stillman in a Marmon, Harroun in another Marmon, Oldfield in a National, and Harry Stutz in an Indianapolis-built Marion.