From the moment Ray Harroun was declared as winner of the inaugural Indianapolis 500, his place in motor racing history was assured. But that result had been in doubt for a few hours.
Family background and early racing debut
He was a descendant of Scottish Presbyterians who found refuge in Massachusetts after being driven out of Ireland during the early 1700s. Harroun served with the United States Navy during the Spanish-American War and later trained as a dentist.
But he began to race on Chicago’s Harlem dirt track in 1905 and joined Marmon as an engineer/driver three years later. He always considered himself primarily an engineer and his racing career was merely a sideline. That said he won three AAA-sanctioned events during 1910, including two at the newly brick-paved Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Inaugural Indianapolis 500 winner
Harroun intended to retire from racing at the end of 1910 but Howard Marmon persuaded him to race just once more when a 500-mile event was announced by the Speedway for 1911. He started 28th on the grid – still no driver has won the race from further back on the grid – but he beat Ralph Mulford by 1min 43sec when aided by relief driver Cyrus Patschke. Officially at least. It was originally believed that Mulford had won but after much debate and recalculation Harroun was declared the winner and $10,000 richer as a result.
The six-cylinder Marmon Wasp that he drove (and designed) is one of the most recognisable racing cars in history. It featured a rear-view mirror so Harroun was the only competitor without the need of a riding mechanic that day.
Harroun immediately retired from racing once more and continued as Chief Engineer at Marmon before moving to Maxwell in 1914. He formed the Harroun Motor Company four years later and was a munitions supplier during World War I. Harroun worked as a consultant to the motor industry throughout his life but it was his 1911 victory that ensured immortality.
Another accolade followed in 1927 when AAA Contest Board secretary Val Haresnape retrospectively announced champions for its events during the early years. Harroun was declared 1910 National Champion some 17 years after the fact.