Ray Harroun won the very first Indianapolis 500 miles race in 1911, and he also gets the gong for being the first person ever to fit a rear-view mirror to a car. Even Harroun, who was born in 1879, was quick to deny the statement: 'Hell, no. We had them on horsedrawn carriages,' he would growl 50 years later.
But what is true is the fact that Harroun was the first man to use a rear-view mirror as a substitute for the riding mechanic who was employed on early racing cars as much to keep a look-out for following cars as to attend to the vehicle.
Harroun started racing in a small way in 1905, competing in a ten-mile dirt-track event in Chicago. In 1908 he joined the Marmon
car manufacturing company at Indianapolis, where businessman Carl G. Fisher was proposing to build a banked motor racing circuit to rival Britain's Brooklands
. And when the Indianapolis track eventually opened, in August 1909, Harroun, who was both engineer and racing driver to the Marmon company, was there.
Though the Buicks of Bob Burman and Louis Strang dominated the inaugural meeting, Harroun took third place in the strongly contested 100-mile trophy race, as well as winning several minor events. He repeated his Indianapolis form three months later at the opening of another famous circuit, the two-mile dirt-track at Atlanta, Georgia, with five first or second places in the five-day meeting.
Playa del Rev
The following season opened well for Harroun, who took two first places on a new banked board circuit at Playa del Rev in California, though his performance in the United States Grand Prize at Savannah was disappointing, as he was the last of six finishers (though to have finished was in itself an achievement, as no less than 50 per cent of the entry had fallen by the wayside during the gruelling 415 mile race).
The Wheeler-Schebler Trophy
Again, it was Atlanta and Indianapolis which saw his most impressive victories: he won a 200-mile event at Atlanta, while a ten race meet at Indianapolis saw four first places, two seconds and three thirds. His Indianapolis victories included the 200-mile Wheeler-Schebler trophy, donated by one of the circuit's founders, won in the face of stiff opposition from several of the leading racing teams, such as Buick and National. This was the zenith of the Marmon team, which took 25 first places, 24 seconds and 13 thirds in the 93 races for which they were entered: but one failure should to be recorded, as the car that Harroun drove in the Vanderbilt Cup, which retired with a broken crankshaft, was based on the new Marmon six-cylinder model, which would achieve lasting fame the following year.
Ray Harroun, pictured at Indianapolis in 1966, at the age of 87.
National Driving Champion
The Vanderbilt could still have seen a Marmon victory, as Harroun's team mate Joe Dawson would have come first had he not stopped to report a minor incident - a collision with a spectator who had strayed on to the course. In any case, Harroun's showing during the year was sufficient to win him the title of National Driving Champion: and that, he decided, was time enough to quit, and he therefore announced his intention to retire. Howard Marmon, however, had other ideas, and eventually managed to persuade the reluctant Harroun to take part in the year's major event, the first 500 miles race at Indianapolis, driving the bright yellow Marmon Wasp six-cylinder single-seater. By this time Harroun had earned the nickname "The Little Professor" for his hand in creating the Wasp.
The First Rear View Mirror
The Marmon just had to do without the weight of a riding mechanic, as it was, at 7.3 litres, well outclassed by the other entries, which were built right up to the maximum capacity allowance of 9850cc. Harroun rigged up the famous mirror when the other competitors complained of the danger inherent in a car with no rear lookout, but it seems that his heart wasn't entirely in the race for which he had so unwillingly entered. Forty of the opening laps were driven by one Cyrus Patschke, an unknown who proved his worth by keeping the relatively diminutive Marmon well up with the leaders; then Harroun took over, and consolidated Patschke's performance.
This swapping of drivers was permissible under the rules of the race, and in fact Patschke, annoyed at having been pulled out of the race when he was doing so well, took over Joe Dawson's four-cylinder Marmon and brought it up level with the leaders, until a leaking radiator spoiled his chances. Cyrus, cheated of his chance to make motoring history, handed the car back to Dawson (who in the end finished a creditable fifth). Harroun, closely pressed by Ralph Mulford's Lozier, held the lead and finished first. His average speed was 74.59 mph, and he had taken 6 hours 42 minutes 8 seconds to cover the 500 miles, beating Mulford by 1 minute 43 seconds.
Both Marmon and Harroun retired from racing after that; three years later Harroun designed two Indy racers for Maxwell, one of which, running on paraffin fed through a Harroun-designed carburetor, finished ninth. Harroun's subsequent career was as a consultant engineer specialising in car accessories, though he recreated his 1911 Indianapolis victory with the Wasp in a commemorative film in the 1940s and drove the same car in the track's golden jubilee celebrations in 1961, at the age of 82. He died seven years later.