The First Indy 500

As millions of auto racing fans shift into high gear for the 91st Indianapolis 500 race on May 27 of 2007, let’s take a moment to reflect back on the humble beginnings of this historic race.

The very first Indy 500 took place a mere 2 years after the Indianapolis Motor Speedway opened in 1909 and was the first major race hosted by race promoters led by track owner Carl G. Fisher. The idea of a 500-mile race had crossed Fisher’s mind earlier, but frequent accidents, injuries and several deaths blamed on the race track’s original tar & gravel surface prompted a major overhaul. Approximately 3.2 million bricks were set into the oval track, from which the nickname “The Brickyard” is derived. The inaugural “International 500-Mile Sweepstakes Race” took place on Memorial Day, May 30 of 1911 in front of over 80,000 race fans who paid a mere $1 each to attend.

The race itself was tremendously exciting, regardless of the fact that speeds were low by modern day standards and most cars carried both a driver AND a riding mechanic who also assisted with navigation. The one car without an on-board mechanic was #32, the Marmon “Wasp” driven by 1910 AAA season champion Ray Harroun who came out of retirement to race in the very first Indy 500. Harroun mounted an innovative new device on his bright yellow racer: a “rear view mirror” that allowed him to dispense with the riding mechanic – and a lot of extra weight. Although the official rules mandated the use of a riding mechanic, Harroun appealed and in a decision that provoked heated controversy was allowed to race solo with his dash-mounted mirror.

Flying over the bricks on Firestone tires, Harroun averaged an astounding (for the era) 74.602 miles per hour over the 500 miles. When the checkered flag was waved, Harroun was declared the first winner of a race that was shortly to become an American tradition. Notably, Harroun never raced again, nor did his yellow “Wasp” which may be viewed today in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum.

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