Classic Car Of The Week – The First Indy 500 Winner ‘The Marmon Wasp’

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons /
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons /

The 100th Indianapolis 500 has been run and won! As such, there is no better time than now to look back at those who started it all, and the car which took victory before any else.

On May 30, 1911, a total of 40 automobiles joined the grid for the very first Indy 500, all vying for the largest racing purse that had ever been offered.

Among those participating were professional racers, gentleman drivers, and even the already extremely rich.

Little did they know at the time that they would also be racing for a place in the history books of what was to become/is one of the greatest races in the world.

Motor-racing was, of course, a different beast 105 years ago, not least for the spectator.

Sure the cars themselves have changed dramatically, but the concept of the race remains basically the same. The spectacle begins, the drivers fight for position, and whoever’s in first place when the chequered flag drops takes home the prize. Throw in some exciting passes and a collision or two and you have yourself a car race.

But back 1911, following this process wasn’t exactly easy during the inaugural 500.

To begin with, ‘the auto racing tracks of the day simply did not have the technology to keep track of split times and running order’.

This meant that the numerous timing officials placed around the circuit couldn’t accurately keep track of a car’s lap times, this in turn leading to the four scoreboards which dotted the skyline seemingly never agreeing on who was winning at any given point of time.

Adding to this, one news publication argued that because there were ‘too many cars on the track…the spectator could not follow the race.

Even so, it appeared at least one person was carefully paying attention, as by the race’s finish, Ray Harroun, driving his Marmon Wasp, had been declared the first Indianapolis 500 victor. After racing 6 hours, 42 minutes, and 8 seconds, and averaging 74.6 mph, Harroun and his Wasp became a household name overnight.

Not only a gentleman/part-time racer, Harroun was also an engineer for the Marmon Motor Car
Company, and as such he not only drove the famous one and only Wasp, he designed it.

The Wasp was unique in its time for a number of reasons, chief among them being that it only fitted one person. This meant that out of all those cars which competed in the first 500, the Wasp was the only one which raced without a riding mechanic whose job was to pump oil, and more importantly, watch out for cars from behind.

Harroun’s design was met with skepticism and concern from the other drivers, his opponents worried that a crash would be inevitable due to Harround being unable to see their approach.

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In order to combat this worry, Marmon’s engineer got to work and quickly invented what we now call a rear view mirror. He stuck the mirror to the front of his car, dusted his hands of the issue, and that was that.

The black and yellow racer was a revolution, one which altered the playing field for motorsport enthusiasts and participants for generations to come by implementing changes to the motoring world that still remarkably resonate 105 years on.