More than anything else, Ray Harroun considered himself an engineer who claimed that he raced only to observe his creations being tested in battle conditions. So it’s no surprise that the man nicknamed “The Little Professor” helped design and build the Marmon Wasp that he drove to victory in the inaugural Indianapolis 500-Mile race in 1911.
The ‘500’ was actually one of the last races that the native of Spartansburg, Pennsylvania competed in. Born in 1879, Harroun was one of the top drivers in the earliest days of automobiles and racing, setting records for over-the-road competitions from Chicago to New York in 1903 and ’04.
Records from the era are not complete, but Harroun contested at least sixty American Automobile Association-sanctioned races that were the predecessors of modern Indy car racing. In fact, Harroun won no fewer than seven shorter races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway prior to his famous triumph in the first Indianapolis 500. In 1927, the AAA retroactively named Harroun its 1910 National Driving Champion.
Only a part-time racer, Harroun worked for the Marmon Motor Car Company, an Indianapolis-based automobile manufacturer that produced cars from 1902-1933. From the very start of the project, he was directly involved with the racing car that became known as the Wasp due to its distinctive yellow and black paint scheme.
One key feature of the Wasp that Harroun was given credit for is the development of the rear-view mirror, a device he successfully used in his Indianapolis win that eliminated the need for a riding mechanic and spotter. The creative solution to traffic management was something Harroun had seen on a horse-drawn taxi several years earlier when he served as a chauffer in Chicago.
While Harroun’s was the only entry that didn’t feature a riding mechanic, his co-driver Cyrus Patschke drove approximately 35 of the 200 laps in the middle of the race. Harroun or Patschke led 88 of the final 97 laps to complete the 500 miles in 6 hours, 42 minutes and 8 seconds, for an average speed of 74.602 mph to claim first place prize money of $14,250 from a total purse of $30,150.
Harroun’s eschewing of a co-driver led to one significant technological development still utilized in road and racing cars today: The Marmon Wasp featured one of the first known uses of a rear-view mirror, inspired by a creative solution to traffic management Harroun had seen on a horse-drawn taxi several years earlier when he served as a chauffer in Chicago.
The 1911 Indianapolis 500 was the last major race of Harroun’s driving career; his last documented start was a 3-mile race he won at the Fort Wayne (IN) Driving Park in September, 1911. However, he continued his association with automobiles and racing. He led Maxwell’s racing program in 1914-15 and developed a carburetion system for kerosene that allowed Maxwell driver Willie Carlson to complete the 1915 Indy 500 using just 30 gallons of fuel.
In 1917, Harroun moved to Michigan and formed the Harroun Motor Sales Corporation, which produced automobiles until it folded in 1922. He remained involved in automotive or military engineering for pretty much of the rest of his life.
Harroun and the Marmon Wasp made a pair of significant final appearances at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway; he drove demonstration laps in the 1911 winner before the start of the 25th running of the Indianapolis 500 in 1937, and again in 1961, on the 50th anniversary of his victory in the inaugural race.
The Marmon Wasp is a significant piece of Indianapolis Motor Speedway history that permanently resides in the IMS Hall of Fame Museum. The famous car’s most recent outing came prior to the Centennial Edition of the Indianapolis 500 in 2011, with 1963 Indy 500 champion Parnelli Jones at the wheel.
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