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Famous Marmon ‘Wasp’ Designed for Speed from the Start

Comparisons of Ray Harroun to NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Namath may seem a stretch, but it is true both predicted they would prevail in the greatest moment of their careers. Namath brashly guaranteed victory for his upstart New York Jets in Super Bowl III, and Harroun predicted he would win the inaugural Indianapolis 500.

So, what was Harroun’s reasoning? He pointed to his already famous Marmon “Wasp” racer and asserted that because it was a year old, all the bugs had been worked out.

In an article he wrote for the May 28, 1911, The Indianapolis Star, Harroun said: “I chose the ‘Wasp’ against a dozen new cars I was asked to drive simply because I know it to be in better shape for this race than any new racing car that could be built. A car that is built right is in better condition the second year than it is the first.”

A commonly held belief is that the Marmon Wasp was designed and constructed for the first Indianapolis 500. It was not. In fact, the machine was developed as much as a year and a half prior and at least eight months before plans for the Indianapolis 500 were announced in September 1910.

What is true is that the car was engineered with the new Indianapolis Motor Speedway in mind. By December 1909, the track was freshly paved with 3.2 million bricks, earning it the nickname “The Brickyard.” This was state-of-the art paving in the day, and the goal was a safer track but also one with the blazing speed needed to assert the reputation of America’s fastest speedway.

One of the biggest prizes of the 1910 season was the 200-mile race for the Wheeler-Schebler Trophy on May 28 at the Speedway. A 7-foot, sterling silver, Tiffany-designed masterpiece was a clear statement by track founders that the Brickyard would take a backseat to no other facility in the world.

By January 1910, Harroun was reportedly supervising the design of a “special” race car. The company was a relative newcomer to the racing game but had already established itself with important victories in such events as the Wheatley Hills Trophy, a support race for the 1909 Vanderbilt Cup on Long Island, New York. Newspaper writers had latched onto their yellow-and-black racing colors to dub the cars “yellow jackets” and “wasps.”

While there was some debate within the auto industry about the value of purpose-built race cars, Howard Marmon had no hesitation. Marmon was the chief engineer and one of the owners of the company that carried his name and firmly believed the specials demonstrated the engineering prowess of a manufacturer. In an article Marmon wrote for The Indianapolis Star, he discussed the value of the special cars and took a particular focus on aerodynamics.

“I have always contended it is a matter of wind resistance,” Marmon said. “This six-cylinder car will weigh close to 2,200 pounds, but with its sharpened fish tail, its speed is a matter of speculation at this time.”

Another article published the same day commented on the slick lines of the Wasp. Written by Ernie Moross, who served as director of Speedway contests at the time, it included sneak preview of the machine at the Marmon factory.

“Long, clean and veritably lithe; close clinging to the earth over which it will speed faster than any bird of the air, it is built for power to push and cunningly contrived to slip through the air with the least resistance to that drag upon all motion of matter -- the atmosphere of the earth.”

Yes, in a time decades before wind tunnels and computer-aided design, constructors considered how to best flow air over car bodies. This was a primary concern in designing the Wasp, especially its pointed tail.

These considerations may also have had something to do with why the car was a single-seat machine. With a fuselage-like body, it carried no second seat for a riding mechanic. Narrow and sharp-tailed, it was reminiscent of an arrow to observers at the time. Consider, too, that Harroun, like many in the auto industry of the day, had an interest in airplane design and very likely drew parallels between the two categories of vehicles.

While Harroun will forever be associated with the Wasp, all signs point to two other men at the wheel – Marmon and Harry “Sunshine” Stillman – when the car was first rolled out for testing on the bricks in mid-March. Harroun was presumably preoccupied with a race elsewhere. Stillman was the team’s number-two driver. Reports from the test indicate that company officials were debating the car’s name, and the moniker “yellow jacket” was still in play.

The name was apparently resolved by early May when newspapers reported that the Marmon “Wasp” had won its maiden auto race at the 2-mile, red-clay speedway outside Atlanta. Harroun was at the wheel during a 12-mile sprint race for the car’s first wheel-to-wheel competition.

Next up was the Wheeler-Schebler Trophy race May 28, 1910, during the Speedway’s first Memorial Day weekend of racing. If anyone was paying attention, they could have predicted Harroun’s strategy of taking care of his tires and conserving fuel in the first “500” a year later because it was exactly what he did to dominate the 200-mile feature in 1910.

Speaking of tires, Harroun, famous for launching Firestone’s long dominance of the Indianapolis 500 in 1911, drove on Michelins in the Wheeler-Schebler triumph. Unfortunately, two days later while practicing on the morning of May 30, one of those tires let go, and Harroun took a harrowing ride that hurled him to the point of teetering on the third turn retaining wall. Uninjured, he was lucky to be alive.

Given that he went the 200-mile race distance without a pit stop, it’s possible he pushed the rubber 1 mile too far in practice. Regardless, the Marmon Wasp appeared to be junk. Company officials considered scrapping it and starting over but at some point reconsidered. Less than two weeks later, the car was reportedly repaired.

The Wasp fit into the American Automobile Association “Class D” category for purpose-built race cars. These events were limited by agreement of the manufacturers, so opportunities to race such cars were few relative to stock machines. The first Indianapolis 500, though, gave Marmon the opening to again show what the car could do. On Tuesday, May 30, 1911, the yellow-and-black aerodynamic car took home its second great victory at the Brickyard – one that overshadowed its impressive and dramatic past.

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