One Hundred Years of the Indy 500

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

The winner of the 1911 Indianapolis 500 averaged about 75 mph, less than half the winning speed in today's race. (William Manning / Corbis)
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Few watched for the simple reason that no one could tell what he was seeing. The opening half-hour had been bewildering enough, but at least it was fairly apparent in those first 30 miles who held the lead. As the field approached 40 miles, tires started to blow. Belcher’s Knox, Wishart’s Mercedes and several other cars were among the first to hobble into the pits. It took some crews only two minutes to change a tire, others eight or 10 or 15, and no one was timing these stops officially, so the already debatable running order became inscrutable. To compound the chaos, some cars were crossing the finish line and then backing up to their pit, so they (perhaps inadvertently) got credit for a whole additional lap when they emerged and traveled a few feet back across the line. And the worst breaches of order and continuity were yet to come.

What made all this especially maddening was that the race was proceeding exactly as everyone had expected it would, given the natural antagonism between bricks and tires: the smarter drivers, like Harroun, were going at the relatively easy pace of 75 miles an hour or so in an attempt to keep pit stops to a minimum, just as they had said they would in pre-race interviews. You might think that such a conservative and formful contest would help the clocking and scoring officials in their labors. But no. As the trade publication Horseless Age put it, “The system...did not work as expected, merely because the cars were so numerous and tore around so fast.” In other words, if only there hadn’t been a car race at the Speedway that day, the Warner Horograph would have functioned just fine.

A few writers—a largely ignored minority, to be sure—were frank about the problems. “The workers at the great score boards...keep very bad tally on the laps that each car makes,” wrote newspaperman Crittenden Marriott, whose on-deadline dispatch has held up well. “Hundreds of amateur mathematicians do sums upon their cuffs and find that the pace is 70 to 75 miles an hour, a speed that the survivors maintain till the end.” The New York Times: “It was acknowledged that the timing device was out of repair...for an hour during the race.” (Some sources had the downtime as considerably longer.) No one sounded more exasperated than the influential weekly Motor Age, which dismissed the race as “a spectacle rather than a struggle for supremacy between great motor cars.” There were “too many cars on the track. The spectator could not follow the race.”

Most reporters, realizing that a conventional story was easier to compose on deadline than an exposé (and, no doubt, that Speedway publicist C. E. Shuart had been covering their drink tabs), acted as if the race had a coherent storyline. The writers did this partly by guessing at what they were seeing and by agreeing to agree on certain premises. But mostly they accepted the Speedway’s official version of events as disseminated by Shuart—even though it did not always jibe with the venue’s scoreboards, and would change substantially when the judges issued their Revised Results the next day. What any one of these spoon-fed reporters had to say about the running order is mostly worthless. But by braiding their accounts, and occasionally referencing the Revised Results, we can begin to recreate a very rough version of the race.

The dashing David Bruce-Brown, we can say with a fair amount of certainty, played an important role. Virtually all the writers agreed that his Fiat, leading when the Amplex plunged into the infield on lap 13, was still ahead when the field began to stream past the 40-mile mark. At 50 miles, though, accounts diverge. Most dailies said “the millionaire speed maniac” remained on top, but the Horseless Age, in an issue that appeared the day after the race, had Johnny Aitken and his No. 4 National back in front at this point, with Bruce-Brown second and Ralph DePalma third. The Speedway’s Revised Results, meanwhile, put DePalma in the lead at mile 50, followed by Bruce-Brown, then Aitken.

Virtually all sources converge again at mile 60, where they have DePalma ahead, and most also say Bruce-Brown reclaimed the lead soon after and held it for a good long while. At mile 140, some sources place Bruce-Brown a full three laps, or seven and a half miles, ahead of DePalma, with Ralph Mulford and his No. 33 Lozier third. As for Harroun, he had been riding as far back as tenth place for most of the race by some estimates, but he moved into second place at mile 150. Or so said some sources.

The second significant accident of the day occurred at mile...well, here we go again. The Star said it was the 125th mile, the Horseless Age between the 150th and 160th miles when Teddy Tetzlaff, a California driver on Mulford’s Lozier team, blew a tire and crashed into Louis Disbrow’s No. 5 Pope-Hartford, seriously injuring the Lozier riding mechanic, Dave Lewis, and taking both cars out of the competition. The Revised Results have Disbrow dropping out of the race after about 115 miles and Tetzlaff leaving with mechanical problems after a mere 50. So by the Speedway’s lights the participants weren’t racing when their accident occurred and Lewis did not officially fracture his pelvis.

At mile 158, Harroun pitted and turned his car over to a fellow Pennsylvanian named Cyrus Patschke. At about mile 185, Bruce-Brown blew a tire and made his first pit stop of the day, and Patschke took the lead. In the opinion of every reporter at the Speedway, and according to the initial data provided by the Horograph, Patschke reached the 200-mile mark first. The Revised Results, however, have it Bruce-Brown, DePalma, Patschke.

The buffs who still chat about such matters know that May 30, 1911, was not the finest hour for the steering knuckle (the automobile part that allows the front wheels to pivot). Several knuckles had given way early in the day, and at about 205 miles, relief driver Eddie Parker broke the one on the No. 18 Fiat and spun out at the top of the homestretch. Though not a serious mishap—no one was hurt and Parker got out and with a few others pushed his car a few hundred yards into the pits—it set the stage for what steering knuckle historians know as the Big One.

As the leaders, whoever they were, came down the homestretch on what is officially said to be mile 240, Joe Jagersberger’s red and gray No. 8 Case bounced off the concrete retaining wall on the outer part of the track and skidded diagonally toward the infield, traveling perhaps 100 feet. Jagersberger’s riding mechanic, Charles Anderson, fell or perhaps jumped in panic out of the vehicle and wound up underneath it, lying on his back; one of the Case’s rear wheels passed directly over his chest. He was able to get up, however, or at least begin to—when he saw Harry Knight bearing down on him in the battleship gray No. 7 Westcott.


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