The records show Ray Harroun as the first 500 winner, but that doesn’t tell the whole story
Those who study motor racing history will know that the first BRDC 500-mile race was won by Jack Barclay and Frank Clement’s Bentley, and American enthusiasts will be aware that their opening 500-mile event at Indianapolis was a victory for Ray Harroun in a Marmon, whose factory was conveniently close to the new race track.
But this fails to take into consideration the very unfortunate incident that occurred at the initial 500 in 1911. The large number of starters was led off by Indy president Carl G Fisher’s Stoddard-Dayton, which set a precedent for the makers of top cars to vie for the honour of leading the racing cars out to the line-up.
The race, watched by an estimated 80,000 spectators, was sadly marred by a fatality and then a multiple accident. At around half-distance the steering failed on Joe Jagersberger’s Case and it went into the judges’ stand, then down the open-ended pitlane and back onto the track. The mechanic fell, or jumped, out and was seen lying on the bricks. Some of the judges had run to safety, others rushed onto the track to help amid the confusion, made horrific because Harry Knight in the Westcott swerved to miss the unmoving mechanic, demolished some of the pit wall, overturned and crashed into a stationary car, which sent this into the wall. In all the mayhem Ralph Mulford’s Lozier and the giant Fiat driven by David Bruce-Brown both got through a small gap, followed by the rest.
No more calamities happened, and a photo finish looked likely until the Fiat stopped with ignition problems. So the Lozier was flagged as having won, and did an extra lap to make certain. But subsequently the Marmon was declared the winner.
Protests from the onlookers were profound and the AAA referee declared that a final decision would be announced at six the next morning. Even then there were so many protests that the race officials convened again, with testimonies from the drivers. The complaints included that as all the judges were not present during the accident, laps were not recorded, that ‘caution’ laps were given as race times, and that the timing wires broke twice, with repairs taking a considerable time. Eventually the Marmon was declared the winner.
Details of the laps during the accident when the Lozier and the Fiat were leading went missing and were never seen again. No answers were ever given as to why the lap and scoring charts were destroyed before audit, or how lap times were calculated with the timing wires broken. And as inexperienced persons admitted to fouling up the timing of cars doing ‘caution’ laps, could they not have committed earlier errors?
One source went so far as to suggest that since race results sell cars, perhaps the fact that the Marmon was made locally had an influence on the declared winner. I am told that the post-1911 Indy programmes included the cars that had dropped out of the race – except in that first race.