The First Indy 500 Was Won At Speeds You Drive Every Day

Image: Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Image: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

This weekend we saw Scott McLaughlin run a four-lap average speed of 234.22 to win the pole position for the 2024 Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. That’s almost exactly three times as fast as 1911 race winner Ray Harroun’s average speed of 74.602 miles per hour. Technology has certainly come a long way in the last 113 years, and with it speed. Way back then Harroun called his shot, telling everyone who would listen that he would win the race because his Marmon Wasp was superior to every other car on the grid, including other Marmons.

Harroun, an engineer for Marmon, committed to racing tactics in 1911 which have become de rigueur today. His 2,220 pound Wasp was much lighter than other racers because it was a dedicated single-seat car and did not accommodate a riding mechanic. The car’s long stinger tail cowling was an, admittedly elementary, adaptation to cheat the wind. He mounted a mirror to the car so he could see what was happening behind him and mount a defense, allegedly the first time a rear-view mirror was ever installed on a car. The Wasp definitely doesn’t look like today’s low-slung rocket ships, but it was certainly a car built for the explicit purpose of racing.

Harroun’s win was the feel-good story that the Speedway wanted. He was an Indiana-native driving a car built in Indianapolis. A win for Marmon was a win for Indy. Maybe that’s why Ralph Mulford’s protest of Harroun went unheard? Racing was hectic as hell back then.


In that day there weren’t many automakers building dedicated racing cars. There were a few top speed contenders running on the beaches of Florida, and there were some unique racers built in Europe for Tours like the Prinz Heinrich Fahrt. Marmon was among the few American companies building a dedicated factory-supported squad of racers, and when it won the first Indy 500 (then called The International Sweepstakes) the company pulled out of racing altogether, in a ‘quit while you’re ahead’ kind of move. That 1911 victory spurred thousands of Marmon sales, though the company was eventually forced to stop making luxury automobiles in 1934 as a result of the Great Depression.

The 1911 race took a full six hours and 42 minutes to finish. The inaugural event was so widely advertised and promoted that it drew a crowd of 85,000 from all over the country. Reports from the era conclude that this was the first rolling-start race, employing a pace car. It was truly a revolutionary race that launched a phenomenon.

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