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The winner of the 1911 Indianapolis 500 averaged about 75 mph, less than half the winning speed in today's race. (William Manning / Corbis)

One Hundred Years of the Indy 500

A century ago, the first Indianapolis 500 race started in high excitement and ended in a muddle

Knight was a rapidly rising young pilot trying to win enough money to marry Jennie Dollie, the so-called Austro-Hungarian dancing sensation. She had at first balked at his pre-race proposals, saying, “No haphazard racer for my life’s companion!” via her hopefully not very expensive interpreter. But she had proffered a tentative yes, the Star reported, after “she found out Knight was a man of good habits and devoted to his mother” and he presented her with a diamond solitaire. All Knight had to do was to pay for the ring, but here now was Anderson literally standing between him and a possible share of the purse. Should he mow down the hapless riding mechanic and perhaps improve his position in the running order—or swerve and quite likely wreck?

His love for Miss Dollie notwithstanding, he crushed the brakes and veered toward pit row—where he crashed into the vermilion and white No. 35 Apperson, taking his own and Herb Lytle’s car out of the race. (Anderson was hospitalized briefly, but survived.) In an article headlined “Who Really Won the First Indy 500?” by Russ Catlin in the Spring 1969 issue of Automobile Quarterly and in a very similar and identically headlined piece by Russell Jaslow in the February 1997 North American Motorsports Journal, the authors state that Jagersberger’s Case hit the judges’ stand, leading the timing officials to scramble for their lives and abandon their duties.

The incident those authors describe is consistent with the sometimes slapsticky nature of the day, yet there is no evidence of a crash into the judges’ area. The official historian of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Donald Davidson, a revered figure in motor sports and staunch defender of the official results of the race, maintains that Catlin got this wrong, and that Jaslow merely repeated the untruth. Davidson notes that the smashing of the judges’ stand would surely have been mentioned in the newspaper accounts of the race (especially since the structure was just a few yards from the main press box), but that absolutely no reference to a smashup appears in any daily or weekly journal. He is right about that, and what’s more, a brief film clip of this portion of the race, available on YouTube (www.youtube.com/watch?v=DObRkFU6-Rw), appears to bear out Davidson’s contention that there was no contact between the Case and the judges’ structure. Ultimately, though, the question is moot because Jagersberger’s car came close enough to the stand to send timing officials running, and there are contemporary reports stating that after the accidents at mile 240, no one was keeping track of the timing and running order for at least ten minutes. If the operators of the Warner Horograph hadn’t lost the thread of the race narrative before that moment, they would have done so then. In any case, with the halfway point approaching, the Indianapolis News reported, “so much excitement was caused in the judges’ and timers’ stands that the time for the 250 miles was overlooked.” Horseless Age said Harroun’s reliever, Patschke, had the Wasp ahead at the halfway point; the Star said Harroun himself had the car in the lead, and the Revised Results said it was Bruce-Brown, followed by the Wasp, then Mulford’s Lozier.

Taken to a local hospital, the men involved in the incident at mile 240 were found to have serious but not life-threatening injuries. Meanwhile at the Speedway medical tent, one reporter noticed a curious sight: Art Greiner reading an extra edition of the Star that had been dropped off at the Speedway just minutes before. “Bruce-Brown in Lead,” read the main headline on a page-one story that included a report that he had been fatally injured in the accident on lap 13. After being carried to the enclosure, Greiner had likely received the standard Speedway hospital treatment: his wounds packed with black peppercorns to deter infection and bandaged with bed linen donated by local citizens. He had probably been given a few stiff belts of rye whiskey as well; he seemed serene and reflective when the reporter approached.

“I was perfectly conscious when we whirled through the air,” Greiner said. “Dick[son]—poor boy—I guess he never realized what happened.” Then alluding to pre-race complications with the 44, he said, “I’m convinced now that it really does have a hoodoo.”

Around the 250-mile mark, Patschke pulled into the pits and hopped out of the Wasp, and Harroun grabbed a hot-water bottle and hopped back in. If the Wasp truly had the lead, then it was Patschke who had put it there.

All sources had Harroun ahead at 300 miles, but now Mulford was making his move. The Lozier hovered 35 seconds behind the Wasp from mile 300 to 350 and onward, according to Horseless Age. For what it’s worth, the Revised Results have Mulford in front at 350 miles—though the Star spoke for most journalists when it said “Harroun was never headed from the 250th mile to the finish of the race.”

At about 400 miles, the drivers positioned themselves for the final push. DePalma bore down so furiously that he was forced to come in for tires three times over a mere 18 laps. Mulford’s Lozier also had tire trouble: late in the race, he pitted for a replacement that took less than a minute, then came in again a few laps later for several minutes. The crowd, said Motor Age, “realized that it really was a race. They forgot their morbid curiosity in accidents and studied the scoreboards.”

But what exactly did they see there? After 450 miles, the Lozier team would insist that its car was listed first on at least one of the scoreboards and that officials had assured team manager Charles Emise that was one of the rare scoreboard postings people could trust. As a result, Emise would say, he signaled Mulford to ease off in the last 10 or 20 miles so he wouldn’t have to pit and jeopardize his lead. Several members of the Lozier camp would later swear that Mulford saw the green, one-lap-to-go flag first, at which point he was running comfortably ahead of Bruce-Brown, with Harroun third. A mile or so later, Bruce-Brown’s Fiat dropped back behind Harroun.

Mulford, in this version of events, crossed the wire first, and, as was the custom among drivers of that day, ran an “insurance lap” after getting the checkered flag, to be sure that he had covered the required distance. When Mulford went to the winner’s circle to claim his trophy, he found Harroun already there, surrounded by cheering multitudes. Harroun, the official winner, didn’t have much to say beyond, “I’m tired—may I have some water, and perhaps a sandwich, please?” Or something to that effect. Whether he ever wondered if he really crossed the wire first, we will never know. As a driver who came up in the era before windshields were invented, he had learned to keep his mouth shut.

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