Sunday, May 29, 2016

Crawford County Native Won the First Indy 500

Ray Harroun 1879-1968
The winner of the first Indianapolis 500, Ray Harroun was born on January 12, 1879 in Spartansburg, Pennsylvania in northern Crawford County. Harroun was the youngest of Russell and Lucy Harroun’s four children, and as he grew up, it was clear Harroun had no use for school work. Eventually he dropped out early, but despite the lack of a formal education, Ray demonstrated a natural understanding of cars and engineering, later earning the nickname, “Little Professor” for his work in designing race cars and his almost scientific approach to racing strategy.

Racing Career

Harroun’s interest in automobiles lead to his early career in racing, and by 1905, he had built his first racing car. Among his initial races, Harroun participated in the original distance race from Chicago to New York in 1903, during which Ray and four others drove in shifts non-stop to establish the record of 76 hours at the end of September, 1903. That time was bested by another team nearly a year later, but Harroun and his team would re-take the title again with a time of 58 hrs, 35 min—a record that would stand for nearly two years.

From 1909 to 1911, Harroun drove primarily for the team operated by Indianapolis-based auto maker, Marmon. However, at least one 1909 race result have him behind a Buick. Statistics from 1905 through 1908 also show him driving cars described as "Harroun Custom" and "Harroun Sneezer." Over this same period is known to have started at least 60 American Automobile Association-sanctioned races (statistics on shorter races document only the top three finishers, so some starts resulting in lower finishes may not be known). Harroun won a total of 8 races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway alone, the second-most of any driver in the 100-year history of the track.

The Marmon Wasp. Note the rear-view mirror mounted in the center
In the 1910-11 season, Harroun earned race wins in 1910 at the 100-mile Atlanta Motordrome race; the the 200-mile Wheeler-Schebler Trophy Race(at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS)); the May 1910, 50-mile Remy Grand Brassard Race (also at IMS); three races at Churchill Downs (home of the Kentucky Derby); three races at the original Latonia Race Track; and races at tracks in New Orleans, Los Angeles, Long Island and Memphis.

In that season, Harroun accepted an offer from Howard C. Marmon to design and build a racing car to be driven by him at the speedway at Indianapolis. Conventional cars at the time were constructed with two bucket-type seats. Harroun's car had a streamlined body, with only one seat for the driver. Since he would not have a riding mechanic to watch for overtaking vehicles, Harroun constructed a bracket to support a rear view mirror. Use of what we today call the rear-view mirror, rather than the riding mechanic as specified in the rules, did create controversy, but was ultimately allowed. (As a result, the automobile industry started equipping their cars standard with rear view mirrors.) Painted bright yellow, Harroun named his car, the Marmon Wasp.

The 1911 Indianapolis 500

#32 The Marmon Wasp with Harroun behind the wheel
The starting positions were determined by the order of entry, putting Harroun on the outside of row seven in the 28th starting position far behind the pole position. At 10 am, Tuesday May 30, 1911, the Stoddard-Dayton pace car pulled off onto the pit apron, Fred Wagner the official starter waved the green flag, the starting bomb detonated, and the race was on.

John Aitken reached the southwest turn first, followed by Ralph DePalma. By the fourth lap Spencer Wishart nosed into the lead. By the eighth lap the leaders held their position, but during all this maneuvering ahead of him, Harroun moved his yellow Marmon Wasp up to seventh. He did so not by a reckless charge, but by knowing his car so well, he could push it to the ragged edge and still be able to conserve his engine, fuel, and tires.

Harroun was a meticulous strategist in his races. “A driver to drive a conservative race must be a perfect judege of distance and pace,” he told one reporter at a race just prior to the Indianapolis championship. “He must be able to judge the speed of his car to the smallest fraction of a second to the mile. He must also have a perfect knowledge of his motor.” In Harroun’s estimation, “A driver must win with his skill as well as with his car. A good driver without a good car will never win, a good car with a poor driver also suffers.”

Competition was fierce in this first race and several accidents occurred; eight people were injured and a mechanic thrown from a car was killed. As the race progressed, The lead changed several times over the course of the race. Leaders see-sawed back and forth. Harroun’s attention to every detail, however, meant he knew how fast he could go, how fast he had to drive to win, and just what pace he needed to keep when he took the lead. Many drivers would whiz past Harroun at various points throughout the race, especially Ralph Mulford who was driving a more powerful Lozier car. Mulford used this power to retake the lead, charging past Harroun, but frequent tire changes would cost him time and ultimately the race. Harroun, by contrast only changed his Firestone tires out 4 times—but only the back set, not the front.

After 6 hours, 42 minutes, 8 seconds and averaging 74.59 miles per hour; Harroun took America's most historic checkered flag, finishing almost 5/8 mile ahead of Mulford. The popularity of the first Indy 500 race garnered international interest, and congratulations arrived via telegram from cities such as Liverpool, England, and Havana, Cuba.

Harroun after his landmark win
Within the country, many celebrated Harroun’s victory. One devoted fan from Dallas, Texas, even named his son for the winning driver. Ray received a wire addressed with only: "Ray Harroun, care Nordyke & Marmon Company," with the message "Ray Harroun Wright, 2 months old today, joins me in congratulations on your wonderful victory, here is hoping you will again head the team and gather into the Marmon camp what few trophies still remain on the outside. J.O. WRIGHT"

Ray Harroun won the May 30, 1911, race with an average of 74.59 miles per hour, and while today’s race speeds average around 220 miles per hour, Harroun yellow Wasp must have seemed like a rocket back then. The prize for such a feat at the 1911 Indianapolis "500" amounted to $27,550, of which Harroun earned $14,000 along with a bonus from the Marmon Company.

During the years that Harroun was driving, the American Automobile Association designated various races each year as "championship" events. However, there was no actual year-long championship as opposed to today, and a point system was non-existent. This changed in 1927, when points were assigned retroactively, and champions were designated for those previous years. Under this new system Harroun was officially designated the champion for the 1910-11 season.

Later Career

Ray Harroun - Hall of Fame Racer
On the day the award was given, Harroun, age 32, announced his retirement from driving but not from the automobile business. Harroun continued engineering work for Marmon, where he would develop the Harroun carburetor for the 1913 Marmon "48". A year later he switched to the Maxwell racing team, designing and building three Maxwell racing cars for the 1914 and 1915 seasons. These Harroun-Maxwell cars were highly regarded by top drivers of the day such as Willie Carlson, Teddy Tetzlaff and Hall of Famer (later World War 1 flying ace), Eddie Rickenbacker all of whom won prominent races behind the wheel of a Harroun-built machine.

In 1916, Harroun began working on a concept for an affordable, yet reliable roadster for commercial use. Leasing a former buggy and carriage plant in Wayne, Michigan, Harroun along with his cousin Alvin Harroun, started the Harroun Motor Company which by the end of 1917 manufactured 500 such roadsters. Production halted after the country entered World War I, however, as the government contracted the Harrouns to use their plant for producing munitions.

Following the war, Harroun went to work for Chrysler and later for Lincoln in 1927, before rejoining his cousin to run the Saginaw Stamping and Tool Company in Saginaw, Michigan, He continued to work in the automotive industry until his retirement at age 79.

Ray first married Edotj Francis Gulliford and later Helen (Lacy) Cron. He would have two sons, Raymond LaFayette Harroun, who sadly died when he was 10, and Richard Ray Harroun. On January 19, 1968 the automotive racing legend from Crawford County, died at the of 89 at his farm in Anderson, Indiana. In 1975, Ray Harroun was inducted into the American Auto Racing Hall of Fame along with World War 1 flying ace, Eddie Rickenbacker.

Watch Ray Harroun's appearance on the gameshow, "I've Got A Secret."

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