Rewind: 1911 Indianapolis 500

By: Spencer Neff
May 27, 2021

On Sunday, the 105th running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge will be held at the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” for 2021 will be held on its own anniversary. 110 years ago, the first running of what first was known as the “International 500-mile Race Sweepstakes” was held on May 30.

In the 11 decades since that first race, much has changed.

For this week’s Rewind, here’s a profile of the 1911 Indianapolis 500, the first running of the race.

Harroun dominates in swan song

Two years after its opening, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway found itself at a crossroads.

After being founded in 1909 with businessman Carl G. Fisher at the helm, the 2.5-mile brick oval had become the subject of an oversaturation of events between ballon, motorcycle and car races.

Automobile pioneer Henry Ford joins IMS founders Arthur Newby, Frank Wheeler, Carl Fisher and James Allison for a photo (IMS)

During the fall of 1910, Fisher and the speedway’s founders began to consolidate the race track’s schedule to a single yearly event on Indianapolis’ west side, approximately five miles from downtown.

After much deliberation, a 500-mile car race to be run around Memorial Day weekend was the final decision for the event.

In an effort to attract global intrigue and competition, a $27,500 purse was included for the race’s participants.

The entry list saw 42 drivers vying for their chance at the inaugural running. To “qualify” for the race, drivers would be required to reach a speed of 75 miles per hour from a “flying” (rolling) start. With the grid set by entry date, Lewis Strang would start first.

Before the race, Fisher would start alongside the 40 participants in a Stoddard-Dayton, the first known use of a “pace car” in an automobile race. The field was lined up in rows of 5, with 40th starter Billy Knipper on the ninth row by himself.

Race Recap

On the opening lap, Johnny Aitken used his far outside grid position on the front row to go from fourth to the lead on the opening lap.

After winning the most recent car race at IMS the previous September, the local racer looked to make even more history and would lead the opening four laps.

Aitken holds the distinction of being the first lap leader of the Indianapolis 500-mile race (IMS/INDYCAR)

By Lap 23, the lead had been swapped among five drivers. On Lap 24, David Bruce-Brown, who started the race in 25th, made his way back to the lead for the second time.

Bruce-Brown, making just his second career start, led for the next 49 laps, the longest stretch of anyone in the race.

Aitken and Bruce-Brown would combine to lead the next 30 laps before Ray Harroun re-emerged to take the lead.

After coming out of retirement, Harroun, an engineer for the Marmon Corporation, started 28th and with the help of the first rear-view mirror, Harroun ran the event without the aid of a riding mechanic.

During the latter half of the event, the race became a two-man battle between Harroun and Ralph Mulford in his Lozier. Harroun would lead 88 of the final 98 laps, with Mulford leading the other 10.

Ray Harroun takes the checkered flag (IMS/INDYCAR)

Harroun would cross the finish line 103 seconds ahead of Mulford. With the help of relief driver, Cyrus Patchke, he won the race with an average speed of 74.602 miles per hour, completing the race in six hours, 42 minutes and eight seconds. Following the race, Harroun would not compete again.

The victory did not come without controversy however, as there had been reports of Mulford contending that he had lapped Harroun earlier in the race. Ultimately, no formal protests were filed and Harroun’s victory stood.

Analysis

Following Harroun’s win, riding mechanics were mandated off and on until 1937.

Harroun following his monumental victory (IMS/INDYCAR)

By 1974, the Speedway’s long-standing policy would be rescinded and the race has been scheduled for the Sunday before the last Monday in May ever since. Sunday’s race will be the first one held on May 30 since 2010.

Since that inaugural running, Harroun’s record of being the furthest back on the grid an eventual winner has started from was tied just once, when Louis Meyer became the race’s first three-time winner in 1936.

Mulford would make nine more starts in the race but would not match or better his runner-up finish. At the time of his passing in 1973, he was the only living participant from the 1911 event.

Header Image By IMS/INDYCAR

Published by Spencer Neff

I am a lifelong auto racing fan. Through IndyCar1909, I look forward to sharing my passion for the series and its illustrious history with you.

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