On This Day: The Engineer Who Came Out Of Retirement To Win The First Indy 500

Ray Harroun driving his Marmon Wasp, was the first winner of the Indy Race.
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

May 30, 2019 — On this day, exactly 118 years ago in 1911, Ray Harroun took home $14,250 as the winner of the inaugural Indy 500.

In 1906, Indiana car dealer Carl Fisher came up with the idea to construct an auto testing facility so car manufacturers could safely test potential top speeds of new cars. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway was built five miles northwest of downtown Indianapolis on 328 acres of open farmland. Fisher and his co-founders held small races at first to pit cars from different manufacturers against each other. He hoped that buzz about these races would encourage potential new car owners to come out and see the cars for themselves.

It wasn’t long before the crowds at these races grew smaller as the hype died down. In order to get them back, Fisher and his partners decided to host one long race per year to attract more publicity. Of course, the idea worked.

On May 30, 1911, 40 qualified cars from the U.S. and Europe lined up at the starting line, waiting for that red flag to signal a clear course. Despite a multi-car accident that occurred 13 miles into the race, Marmon Motor Car Company engineer Ray Harroun managed to slip his way into first place in his self-designed, six-cylinder “Marmon Wasp.” Harroun was the only driver to head into the race without a riding mechanic since he installed a rear-view mirror that was not standard for cars at the time.

Harroun, who’d actually won a smaller race held the previous year, came out of retirement to participate in the first Indy 500. In six hours and 42 minutes, Harroun completed the 500 laps with an average speed of 74.59 mph. The $14,250 purse he took home was the richest in racing at the time.