While I was covering the Indy 500 last year, I had the chance to sit in Ray Harroun’s car that won the first 500 back in 1911.
1911 Indy 500 Winning Marmon Wasp
It was amazing to think that anyone would travel 500 miles in a crude seat and an awkward sitting position, let alone race that way. Granted, the average speed that year was only about 75 miles an hour, but that’s pretty fast in rickety race car.
Ray Harroun’s home for the first Indy 500
Fans of racing lore, like me, know the story of Ray Harroun’s victory well. In those days race cars carried both a driver, and a riding mechanic. The mechanic had many jobs, but high on the list was keeping track of the competition. Ray and his team decided they could save weight by making the car a single-seater. Of course that meant that Ray was on his own when it came to watching for other cars.
Ray Harroun’s Rear View Mirror
Thus was born the rear view mirror. It sat high on the cowling right in front of the driver on four spindly legs. According to racing legend, Ray got the idea from a mirror he’d seen mounted on a horse drawn carriage years before. Ironically, while it caused plenty of controversy, the mirror was actually a flop. Harroun later told speedway historian Donald Davidson that it shook so badly he couldn’t see a darn thing.
Harroun wasn’t just another driver. He considered himself more of an engineer and was an important part of the crew that built the Wasp. He later went on to found the Harroun Car Company (which unfortunately folded in 1922). His simple invention didn’t change racing right away. Riding mechanics were the norm at the speedway until 1923. While they came back between 1930 and 1938, they’re usually a long forgotten part of racing history.
1911 Marmon Wasp
Technically, I guess we’d have to give credit to some horse drawn chauffeur who came up with the idea of using a mirror to keep track of what was coming from behind. But Harroun deserves his share of credit as the guy who put it on the automotive map. Even if it didn’t really help him much when it came to winning the first Indy 500.
Bio: Rick DeBruhl is a gearhead since birth. Growing up he had car wallpaper in his room. In high school he spent way too much time in auto shop. After working his way through college at Sears Automotive, he turned to journalism, working as a reporter for more than three decades at KPNX-TV. Of course, he couldn't leave cars behind completely. In the mid-80s he started covering auto racing for ESPN. These days he covers IndyCar for ABC, NASCAR Nationwide for ESPN, and the Barrett Jackson collector car auctions for SPEED. His day job is working as the Chief Communications Officer for the State Bar of Arizona.