Ray Harroun won the first ever Indy 500, right? Well, yes and no. In fact it was a man by the name of Ciaus Patschke who proved the sting in the tale of the Marmon Wasp. Spencer Riggs salutes a modest hero, 90 years on
Ninety years ago, on the eve of the inaugural 1911 Indianapolis 500-Mile Race, Howard C Marmon faced a dilemma. As president of the Indianapolis based Nordyke & Marmon Company, he possessed a world-beating race car. Designed by 1910 AAA National Driving Champion Ray Harroun, the Marmon ‘Wasp’ appeared to be a machine any racer worth his salt would be clamouring to drive. Even though Harroun had retired from driving, Marmon was counting on his ‘in house’ champion to drive the Wasp at Indy. But the taciturn Harroun informed the boss he wasn’t interested in piloting his own brainchild.
“I told you when the season ended last year, I was through with competitive driving,” Harroun reminded Marmon.
The argument went on for weeks. Howard insisted, cajoled and pleaded with Ray to reconsider. Finally, ‘The Bedouin’ as Harroun was known due to his Arabic ancestry, made a provision.
“In order for me to consider driving the Wasp, you’d have to sign the best relief driver in the world,” Harroun said. “Do that, and I’ll take a crack at the 500.”
A few days later, Marmon walked into Harroun’s drafting office aimed with new ammunition. “I’m now in a position to sign the ‘best relief driver in the world,”‘ Marmon stated, reminding Harroun of his promise.
“And who would that be?”
“Cyrus Patschke,” Marmon replied, waving an envelope. “I have his letter right here, offering us his services.”
“You can get Cy Patschke?” the normally stoic Harroun asked excitedly.
“What do you say?” Marmon smiled. Harroun went to work grooming the Wasp for the long grind. At 7.8-litres, the six-cylinder racer was one of the smallest displacement cars in the race. Most cars carried a riding mechanic, but the AAA (American Automobile Association) had no mandatory rules on two-seater machines. In order to save weight and tyre wear, Harroun designed the Wasp with a single-seat cockpit. Weighing in at 28651bs, the yellow and black pointtailed racer was considered a lightweight.
At age 23, Pennsylvania’s Cy Patschke was already a veteran of long distance racing. He specialised in a series of gruelling 24-hour races held at the Brighton Beach one-mile horse track in Brooklyn, New York.
In 1909 at Brighton, Patschke was teamed with ‘Smiling’ Ralph Mulford. The pair wheeled a Lozier to an outstanding victory, covering a record 1196 miles in 24 hours. The following year, ‘Patch’ and Al Poole throttled a Stems to victory in the last round the clock run at Brighton. When he arrived at Indy, Patschke’s reputation had preceded him.
During practice for the first Indy 500, Harroun soon discovered the Wasp was not the fastest car at the Brickyard. But he also learned that the faster cars peeled the tread from their tyres when averaging over 75mph. Harroun won many a race by running just off the pace, saving his car for the final finishing dash. On one run, Patschke lapped at over 80mph. But Cy agreed the average speed should not be above 75mph for the 500 miles — unless there was an emergency. Patschke was to relieve Harroun at around 150 miles. The Marmon camp considered Mulford’s Lozier and David BruceBrown’s Fiat the main competition.
Meanwhile, other drivers protested the single-seat Wasp. With no one to warn him of overtaking cars, they claimed Harroun would be a menace on the course. So Ray installed a rear view mirror above the cowling, and satisfied officials allowed the Wasp to start. Marmon also entered a conventional two-seater for Joe Dawson. Grid positions were determined by the order in which entries were received through the postal service. The sixth row, consisting of David Bruce-Brown, Lee C Frayer, Joe Dawson, Ray Harroun and .! Ralph Mulford, bristled with talent
On May 30, 1911,40 starters took the F flag in the first annual Indy 500. In the early laps, Johnny Aitken’s National, E Spencer Wishart’s Mercedes and Fred r Belcher’s Knox traded the lead. But up from 25th, Bruce-Brown and his maroonand-white Fiat rumbled into the lead.
On lap 12, Arthur Greiner crashed coming off the second turn, flipping his Amplex. His riding mechanic, Sam Dickson, was thrown against a fence and killed instantly.
Around the 20 lap mark, Bruce-Brown began pulling away from the field. Harroun had methodically moved into the top ten. By 30 laps, he had taken over fifth position. And as some of the front runners began stopping for tyres, the Wasp nosed into second. But BruceBrown continued to pull away by as much as two seconds per lap.
Meanwhile, Patschke was intently watching the race, learning its rhythm and pace. He also realised that, barring any unforseen problems, the Wasp would never catch the Fiat.
At 70 laps, Harroun pitted, handing over to Patschke. As the pitcrew completed their work, Harroun urged his co-driver to stay the pace.
“I’ll give it back to you in first place,” Cy promised, accelerating away with a stab of blue flame jetting from the exhaust. Not only had Bruce-Brown lapped the stationary Wasp, Ralph De Palma, Aitken and Mulford had relegated it to fifth place. But Patschke was on the move. No one had to tell the knowledgeable spectators someone else had taken over the yellow Marmon. The rumbling exhaust note was noticeably higher, as the racer roared by the competition like an express train passing tramps. Patschke was soon running second and started reeling in Bruce-Brown. Many up and down the pidane clocked the Wasp in excess of 80 mph.
After the race, Harroun was quoted as telling Patschke to “go get Bruce-Brown”. But long after the bloom was off the rose, the Wasp’s chief mechanic Harry ‘Billy’ Goetz, had a slightly different version.
“Ray may have told Cy to go after the Fiat, but he never thought he’d go that far beyond the agreed pace of 75. Ray paced around the pit area muttering to himself, watching every move the Wasp made.”
Bruce-Brown was ordered to speed up, but Patschke kept gaining. Suddenly, Cy spotted the Fiat, limping along on a blown tyre. Patschke got the lap back And before the Fiat crew could replace all four tyres, the Wasp thundered into the lead.
What happened next even though all scoring showed Patschke in the lead is educated guesswork. A four-car pileup on the main straight near the timing and scoring stand caused so much confusion, no one is sure whether Patschke handed the car back to Harroun in first or second place. Some scorers had him pitting on lap 102, others said 105.
After a drink of water and a little rest, Patschke was asked by Howard Marmon to relieve Dawson in the two-seater. Cy was soon off and running in sixth or seventh place. Again, the scoring debacle makes it unclear. By lap 176, Bruce-Brown was falling back with ignition trouble, leaving Harroun and Mulford to fight it out. So when Mulford’s tyre exploded, it was plain sailing for Harroun right to the end.
Meanwhile, the Dawson-Patschke Marmon was running a solid fourth and was crowding Bruce-Brown for third. But after running perfectly for 497 miles, a piece of metal kicked up by another car went through the radiator.
As Harroun was taking the flag of victory, the Dawson-Patschke Marmon was enveloped in a cloud of steam in the pit area. Howard Marmon sent the twoseater back out It completed the 200 laps and was taking an insurance lap to gain fifth place, when the engine seized. To this day, no one is sure who was at the wheel. Mulford was second, BruceBrown third, and Spencer Wishart fourth.
Harroun’s average speed of 74.602 mph was exactly the pace he’d planned. He was heralded a master of strategy, which is true. But had it not been for Cy Patschke’s burst of speed forcing BruceBrown to attempt the impossible, had Cy not handed the car back to Harroun in a contending position, who is there to say the Marmon Wasp would have won?
Even though relief drivers were in vogue well into the 1950s, only three other relievers placed two cars in the top ten at Indy. None were in winning efforts.
In 1924, relief driver Joe Boyer was given equal billing with L L Comm, when their Duesenberg won the 500. In 1941, Mauri Rose took over for Floyd Davis, sharing in the spoils of Indy’s victory lane. But in Patschke’s day, the primary driver got all the credit. Harroun received plaudits from motor enthusiasts around the globe. A telegram from a Mr Wright of Dallas informed the 1911 winner that the Texan’s newborn would be named Ray Harroun Wright
In the next two years, Cy Patschke won his share of minor events, but he never rode Indy’s bricks again. In 1914, after taking a third place in a 300-mile championship race at Sioux City, Iowa, he retired from racing.
Never claiming to be a professional driver, the quiet, modest Pennsylvanian took part in 11 major events, co-drove to three victories, and finished in the top three no less than six times.
Returning to Lebanon, Pennsylvania, Patschke eventually opened an auto agency. He was often honoured by local organisations, but his great Indy effort remained largely unknown to the sporting world. He died on May 6, 1951. “Back in 1911, no one was naming children after Cy Patschke,” Harry Goetz once remarked. “He really deserved more credit. He was a fine racer.”