On This Day

Ray Harroun, Indy 500, first indy 500
Associated Press
Ray Harroun wheels his No. 32 Marmon Wasp racecar to victory in the inaugural Indy 500.

On This Day: First Indianapolis 500 Is Held

May 30, 2011 05:00 AM
by Emily Coakley
On May 30, 1911, Ray Harroun won the first ever Indianapolis 500, beating 39 other cars.

Ray Harroun Wins First Indy 500

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway was built in 1909 as a place where the automobile industry could conduct research. Carl Fisher, Jim Allison, Arthur Newby and Frank Wheeler formed a partnership to build the 2.5-mile oval track on 328 acres northwest of Indianapolis.

In August 1909, the first race, which lasted five miles, turned into a “disaster,” according to The Indianapolis Star. “The track surface broke up, causing the deaths of two drivers, two mechanics and two spectators.” Bricks were brought in to pave the track, which is how it got its nickname, “the Brickyard.”

Fisher and his partners struggled with motorcycle and auto races until they hit on the idea of one big race. They decided that the race should last about seven hours and chose the 500-mile distance based on the desired time.

Forty entrants started the inaugural race, which was marked by controversy. Midway through the race, an accident occurred near a table where people were scoring the race; as the scorers ran for the cover, the race continued for several laps with no one scoring it. The eventual winner, Ray Harroun, may have been in the pits during this time while the leader, Ralph Mulford, made unscored laps.

At the end of the race, Mulford was flagged as the winner as he crossed the finish line. However, as he made three additional laps around the track, officials named Harroun, who had stopped driving, the winner. Mulford, “went to his grave believing he had been the first ‘500’ winner,” wrote the Star.

It took Harroun 6 hours, 42 minutes, to finish the race. He averaged nearly 75 mph in his self-designed car, called a Marmon Wasp. Instead of having a mechanic ride with him as others did, Harroun used a rearview mirror, which was an innovation at the time, though the racer later said it was useless because it vibrated.

Later History of the Indy 500

The Indianapolis 500 has been held annually since 1911, except for 1917-8 and 1942-5 due to the World Wars. “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” as term coined by track owner Anton Hulman Jr. in 1945, is traditionally scheduled for the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, though rain has sometimes forced the race to be run on Monday or even later.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway is an enormous place, with 250,000 permanent seats. The area inside the speedway’s oval, at 253 acres, is large enough to contain Vatican City, Yankee Stadium, the Roman Coliseum, the track at Churchill Downs, the Rose Bowl and the Wimbledon campus simultaneously.

The 500 is has evolved into multi-week event that draws thousands of people to Indianapolis and includes a number of events on and off the track. Besides qualifying and practice days, the track has “Carb Day” the Friday before the race, which “historically gave teams a chance to calibrate their carburetors for race-day conditions,” explains Mental Floss. Cars today use fuel injection systems, which don’t require the same calibration, but the name has stuck. The pit crews also have their own competition that day.

The Indy 500 has a number of traditions. For example, winners drink milk in the winner’s circle, a tradition that started in 1933 when Louis Meyer asked for buttermilk after his third consecutive victory. According to Yahoo Sports, the head honcho of a dairy company saw a picture of Meyer drinking out of a milk bottle, and immediately saw the marketing potential. Milk was available at the winner’s circle the next year, and has been a tradition, except for an eight-year drought that ended in 1955, ever since.

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