Indianapolis 500 History: Ray Harroun and the Marmon "Wasp" - An Engineer's Aspect


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Thursday, March 24, 2016

Indianapolis 500 History: Ray Harroun and the Marmon "Wasp"

Sunday, May 29, 2016, is the 100th running of the Indy 500. Gates open at 6am and the race will start at 12:20pm. Spectators will see 200 laps of pure speed, adrenaline and drama.

If you want to see some awesome cars, the Indy 500 cars are spectacular. In looking at all 100 winning cars recently, I became enamoured with the car driven to victory by Ray Harroun in the first Indy 500...the Marmon "Wasp."

Ray Harroun in the Marmon "Wasp" after the first Indy 500 in 1911.

Ray Harroun, a talented engineer, designed his six-cylinder car to be aerodynamic that it appeared to actually have a wasp's stinger. His car sat low to the track so as not to flip over during the race. Harroun also bolted a mirror in front of his face so he could dispense with the human rear-view-mirror and drive alone, thus inventing the all-important rear-view mirror we depend on today. People were quite upset by Harroun's lack of "mechanician."

The Marmon "Wasp," Winner of the 1911 Indy 500
According to, Harroun was an engineer for the Marmon Motor Car Company. He designed the "Wasp," which he named for its black and yellow paint job. I'm sure the pointed tail he designed to reduce air drag influenced the name as well.

Harroun won the 1911 Indy 500 in 6 hours, 42 minutes, and 8 seconds. His average speed was 74.6 mph. I imagine that speed was quite harrowing in those days, however I can't help but think about it as I drive I-35 at 75 mph getting passed by soccer dads and moms late for games.

Ray Harroun in the Marmon "Wasp" during the 1911 Indy 500
Check out the video footage of the 1911 Indy 500 below. You'll see smoke billowing from the vehicles. This was from the castor oil used in the fuel. The longer the race went on, the more oil coated the bricks on the speedway and driving became more treacherous.

You can purchase tickets to see the 100th running of the Indy 500 on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway website.

Below are two newspaper articles from the Indianapolis Star. The first highlights the Harroun and his "Wasp," the second is the Indy 500 race wrap-up.

The Indianapolis Star, Indianapolis, Indiana, Sunday, May 14, 1911, Page 38.

All Is in Readiness for Memorial Day Auto Races


Pilots Give Speedway Race Atmosphere While Tuning Motors for big Race.


Note Minor Details in Construction of Fast Cars Built for Supreme Speed Test

Nearer and nearer draws the day for the biggest automobile race of 1911--the 500-mile international sweepstakes event at the Speedway Memorial day. Every day the grand stand is dotted with rail birds, who sit through the afternoons and watch the drivers putting their cars through their paces, testing out tires, different lubricating oils, their magnetos and other parts of the car that are vitally concerned in the driving of a race of five centuries.

One of the most amusing things at the track while the practice is being held is the gossip in the grand stand. The motor fans and the motorwise mingle and exchange ideas. One topic that has excited much comment in the last week is the construction of Ray Harroun's Marmon "Wasp." Harroun is wrapped up in this steel monster, and when he unleashes his engine in the big race he is going to show some unexpected speed. The lines of the Wasp are familiar to all the followers of the game, and among the records that have been won by the "Bedouin Pilot" many of them have been captured by this same car.


The question arises, "Why does the Wasp have a tail?"

Among the reasons for this freak construction the principal one is that it offers less resistance to the air than the usual construction. To understand what this resistance is one has only to sit beside a driver and make one lap on the track. As the car moves forward the air directly in front forms a buffer to the air, and as the car hurtles through space at high speed it forms almost a vacuum behind it.

In the "Wasp" the tail acts as a guide to the air which flows backward over the car. This idea has been followed out in all the details of construction. The rear axle has a miniature tail bolted on, the drip pan is shaped off and narrowed toward the rear and the car offers much less resistance to the atmosphere. Harroun sits low in the car behind the wheel and the steering apparatus is brought to the center by a system of cogs. The air as it passes over the car does not catch Harroun full in the face and he will be able to get more power out of his engine for the same number of revolutions than the fellow who drives a car of the usual construction. Another point in his favor is the fact that the car is hung very low and this keeps it much steadier and as he speeds around the track the "Wasp" seems to almost stick to the track.

Harroun will have the most unique mechanician in the race. This trusty helper is dumb, it is always looking backward watching for a car coming up fast, and it will always be on the job. Harroun has bolted a mirror directly in front of his face and as he will ride alone the men around the pits have dubbed the looking glass the dumb mechanician. The idea of getting away from the atmospheric resistance is again considered and the mirror with its triangular case will also act as a break to the wind and let Harroun ride without any discomfort in the long grind.

With the race but two weeks away, by the end of this week almost every driver entered will be on the track. Already the cars are giving the Speedway the atmosphere of a race, with from four to six cars on the track all the time. Harry Grant is waking the echoes with the exhaust of his black Alco--twice winner of the Vanderbilt; Bruce Brown is pushing his big red Fiat around the track at high speed; Louis Disbrow has his fiery red practice Pope-Hartford at the track; Arthur Chevrolet is tuning his big white buick "100," Aitken, Zengle, Wilcox, Merz and Beck are alternating at the wheel of the blue Nationals; Joe Dawson and Ray Harroun are working out the pair of Marmons; Harry Knight has been on the track with his Wescott "Six" and the two McFarlan cars from Connersville have also contributed to the racing atmosphere. Lewis Strang, veteran of many a race, a pilot who has guided both foreign and American made machines to victory, has been working out with his team of Case cars of which "Looie" is team captain. Strang has Joe Jagersburger and Will Jones as teammates in the big event and the light cars with the wind splitting radiaters have been nosing their way around the track at a merry gait. Gil Anderson in his Stutz, and Will Turner in his Amplex have also taken the opportunity to work out and the past week has seen eighteen cars at work on the track.


It would seem to the layman that the drivers were a jealous lot and given to knocking, but this is not true. The amount of good nature that exists between the different camps, the drivers and the pitmen is surprising. They all stand ready to help the other fellow if he needs assistance and these men, who in following their vocation must face death at every turn of the wheel, are bubbling over with good nature. A grouch would not last long in a racing camp, for if he did not show a pleasant smile once in a while he would be treated to a slight surprise and whithout a doubt he would soon be wearing a smile even if smiling at his own discomfiture.

One of the features of the work at the track that shows how the drivers work together is the rival ball clubs that have been formed. Dr. Wadsworth Warren came to the track early last week and a day later had two nines lined up, and when the drivers tire of their dizzy practice stunts, they turn to smiting the horsehide.

The entries have closed for the big derby, and now the fans are beginning to study the dope sheet, with the past performances of the drivers and cars and the possible winners of the big cash prizes which are hung up.

In the last hour of the time for getting in, Bob Burman, world's speed king, shot his entry to the management and beat the gate by but a few minutes, nominating a 521-cubic-inch Benz for the race. It would be a strange coincidence if the last man to enter would be the first man to finish and carry off the honors, but Burman is an adept at making strange things materialize and there is some chance, in fact more of a chance than the average speed fans realize.


Burman broke Barney Oldfield's world's mark on the Florida beach on his twenty-seventh birthday and if he would score in the big derby--well, to look over the dope sheet, the rail-birds are predicting something erratic and he may put it over on the big day. If it is done, and the grey Benz which has felt his trusty hand flies by the stand first, Burman will do it alone, and the dopesters can score one in the driving column, because Burman has declared that he alone will pilot the big racer through the five hundred long miles of battle.

No relief drivers will help Burman out, nor mar his chances for victory and the fight against the classy field will be made by none but the man who has held the steering wheel of the fastest car in the world, Bruce-Brown, grand prize winner, and the most of the rest will have alternates, but Burman has stated that he will trust no one at the wheel of his car in this contest and that every mile will be driven with the same hand at the wheel.

This announcement will probably cause comment in the camps of those who are at present training at the course, and, while the move may not be welcomed as wise by the other entries, the speed king has made this decision and will stick to it. Bob Burman will drive in the 500 mile race without alternates, and every inch of the way will be carefully traveled with but one object, and what to win.


In preparation for the race Fred Belcher with his six-cylinder Knox stock car has been driving some very fast and exciting early morning tryouts. Not far from Springfield, Mass., are several stretches of very good state road, deserted in the early morning hours, save for an occassional milk wagon. Here the powerful Knox has been clocked at more than ninety-five miles an hour and shows promise of higher speed on the better surface of the Speedway track after the present limbering up process.

An exciting episode took place the other morning on a curve which had a loose gravel surface. In taking the corner at well over sixty miles an hour the car rolled on the gravel and slid toward the bank. Belcher showed his lightning judgment by heading directly up the bank, around a tree and down on the road again with undiminished speed, averting a bad spill while still keeping up his clocked time.

These instantaneous flashes of what to do at the critical moment mark the successful driver and greatly help toward bringing in the winning car.

The Indianapolis Star, Indianapolis, Indiana, Wednesday, May 31, 1911, Pages 1 and 13.



Unmuffled Exhausts Raise Great
Clouds as Noisy Autos Bound
Into Contest.


Troubles Begin Early in Race and
Cars Are Gradually Eliminated
by Accidents.


Promptly at five minutes before 10 o'clock yesterday morning the first of a series of aerial bombs announced to the gathering throng that the world's greatest motor car speed contest was about to begin. Instantly the array of machines proudly lined across the track at intervals of several hundred feet became animated.

The unmuffled exhausts began to pour forth smoke as the mechanics turned the great motors over. President Carl G. Fisher and his partner, James A. Allison, toed the starting line with their roadster, and at a given signal they rolled forward, the racing cars keeping in straight lines back of them.

They rolled around the track gathering speed slowly until they came into the stretch on what was to be the real start of the grueling 500-mile grind. As the caravan neared the wire, Fisher swept to one side, and the machines, tugging impatiently at the enforced leash, were unloosened.

The drivers gave more gas, and out of the haze that still lingered over the track, despite the brisk breeze, shot a big blue National. Dashing "Howdy" Wilcox whipped his big craft to the front and set the pace for the first lap of the 200 that was to end with Ray Harroun and his Marmon "Wasp" a victor after the bitterest, most brilliant, most thrilling motor spectacle on record.

Wilcox swept into the home stretch on his first real lap of the race with the big dark gray Mercedes thundering at terrific speed close behind. The Knox, driven by Belcher, followed, and then came the others in an almost unintelligible mass.


Harroun kept his Marmon well toward the rear in the first few rounds over the glistening bricks. Spencer Wishart, the daring amateur from New York, at the wheel of his own car, set the pace and turned the first twenty miles in 15.06.

Both the Mercedes and Knox suffered fire trouble and alternated at the pace making. At thirty miles, the Knox was leading, covering the distance in 25.07. Wilcox was still hurtling the National onward at a terrific clip and running a close second. The Fiats and Simplex cars roared after them, with Harroun, Burman and Merz bringing up the rear.

In the thirteenth lap came the first accident. The mankiller Amplex, with a gory practice record, turned over and killed Greiner's mechanician, Dickson, and injured the spectacular Chicago boy, who has earned a reputation for clever and fearless driving.

The horror of the accident stole upon the crowd, and the thousands gazed as if hypnotized upon the endless chain of roaring cars that sped by the grand stand at such terrific speed. Tire troubles began to be more and more in evidence, and the pit scenes divided the attention of the crowd with the flying cars.

David Bruce-Brown, the young millionaire sportsman from New York, at the wheel of the chubby Fiat, took the lead in the nineteenth lap. De Palma was shoving his big Simplex along in second place at high speed, and Johnny Aitken got to going well with the National pulled into third place.

The Chevrolet buick became noticeable for its appetite for tires early in the conflict. Dishrow suffered a delay in the sixty-seventh mile due to ignition trouble, but it was not until the seventieth mile that the first formidable contestant bowed to the serious misfortune of a broken crank shaft. The powerful Fiat suffered this stroke of ill luck, and the driver, little Caleb Bragg, was forced to view the contest from the side lines with all hope of participation in the rich prize money gone.

Winner of 500-Mile Race and His Car
Bragg's teammate, Bruce-Brown, continued to set the pace, however, with his Fiat, and he led the caravan of speed creations at a terrific pace for mile after mile. The Simplex, Lozier and Marmon began to crowd up, and it became more evident that some high-powered car would get the lion's share of the honors, rather than a lower-powered car, since it would survive the wrecks of its faster-stepping competitors.


Although Bruce-Brown set a fast pace, his time did not approach the records up to 100 miles made by Tetzlaff in a match race on the Los Angeles Motordrome some weeks ago. At 150 miles, However, Brown's Fiat registered 1 59.12 on the recording tape, which clipped two seconds from the best previous time for this distance, made by Joe Dawson in a Marmon at Atlanta.

Griener's accident with the Amplex occurred on the back stretch, and it was not until the 125th mile that the grand stand crowd was given a real thrill. Coming to the bridge over the stretch, Disbrow's Pope Hummer skidded, and Teddy Tetzlaff crashed into the Pope Special.

For a few minutes another tragedy was expected by the breathless crowd. The Lozier mechanician was injured rather badly, but the worst blow to Tetzlaff and Disbrow was the fact that their cars were permanently disabled and they were forced to withdraw.

The 128th mile was the finish for Harry Grant and the black Alco, two-time winner of the Vanderbilt Cup and regarded as one of the best individual bets in the whole field. As Grant approached the bridge near the stand he was seen to swerve off the course and stop. A broken crankshaft was the disaster that brought anguish to the popular Alco pilot.

About the same time the Buick driven by Basie suffered a similar injury, and by the time Brown's Fiat had turned the 180th mile six cars had been eliminated.

Cyrus Patschke, the well-known twenty-four-hour race driver and relief pilot for Harroun, took the wheel of the Wasp in the sixty-third lap. Although he had never driven a Marmon but once or twice in his life, he and the car made friends rapidly. Patschke took the Marmon in second position as Bruce-Brown was still leading with the Fiat.


The "Wasp" responded gallantly to Patschke's call for more speed, and the long yellow car was leading at 190 miles. At the 200-mile mark Patschke was traveling just one second slower than the record for that distance. He maintained the lead, and Brown seesawed with De Palma and the Fiat for second position.

In the eighty-first lap Eddie Hearne's car, with Parker, the relief man driving, broke a steering knuckle, and it was only by some clever work that an accident was avoided in the main stretch. Hearne started to work on the machine and entered the race later, but the delay put him hopelessly out of it.

In the 240th mile Patschke flashed by with Bruce-Brown in close pursuit and the throng was settling down to the humdrum of a speed procession when Joe Jagersberger broke on to the stage in the main stretch with a Case car running wild. A broken steering knuckle caused him to lose control of the car.

He was near the end of the parade, and had a clear field. He was not going at top speed and wabbled back and forth without apparent danger. Suddenly, the car picked up speed, and the mechanician started to jump out to help guide the unruly craft off the track.


Into the stretch came the thundering vanguard of cars, and the mechanician, realizing the danger, tried to get on the track too fast and fell under the Case car. The rear wheel passed over him and he lay stunned in the middle of the track right south of the judges' stand.

The crowd gave a piercing scream of horror, as it seemed the onrush of cars would grind him up. Harry Knight, at the wheel of the Westcott, tried to avoid the figure huddled on the bricks and in dodging him skidded in the oil and dashed into Herb Lytle's car standing near the pit. Immediately there was another horrified cry, as every one felt sure a score would be butchered.

The officials hurriedly flagged down the cars coming up the stretch at top speed, but not until some of them had skidded dangerously near the wreck. Fate was kind, however, and no one else was injured.

The Westcott and the Apperson and Case cars were added to the discard. Knight had been driving a remarkably good race up to that time, and had gone for 165 miles without a stop. All of his efforts went for naught, however, due chiefly to the quantity of oil on the track.

Before the crowd had recovered from the shock, Harroun had taken his seat in the Marmon, and he began to cut out a lightning pace. He dashed past the 250-mile post at 73.23 miles per hour, clipping the record made by Joe Horan in the Lozier at Atlanta last fall.

On the next lap M. A. Marquette, in a McFarlan, dashed into the oil on the first turn south of the grand stand and skidded desperately, his car turning around completely thrice. The plucky pilot held on to the big car gamely, and, as fate was kind, no other car was close enough to him to cause any damage.

A shout of relief went up when the big white machine was straightened out and headed in the right direction at top speed again.


Harroun was never headed from the 250th mile to the finish of the race. He kept about a lap ahead of the procession at all times, with a few exceptions when the changes enabled the Lozier and the Bruce-Brown Fiat to cut down his lead.

Ray was riding easily, however, while the majority of the cars were working hard, although the Lozier and Fiat were both running and the terrific gait in magnificent style, despite the increasing layer of oil upon the course.

At 300 miles Harroun had an average speed of 73.94 miles for the long route. The Lozier kept coming like wind, but the Fiat slipped back to make room for De Palma in third position. Joe Dawson was driving a great race, but the four-cylinder Marmon did not hang on so consistently and, because of tire trouble, see-sawed with the Simplex, Fiat and Mercedes.

Aitken's National went out in the 330th mile with a broken connecting rod. Strang joined him on the side lines shortly when a steering knuckle went wrong and he headed the Case car toward the crowd hanging on the fence. Some clever work righted the car, but it could not proceed in the race.

At 400 miles, Harroun was going better than ever, and had raised the savage pace from 73.94 miles an hour to 74.49 miles an hour.

The Lozier and Fiat hung on grimly, though, and Ray's final stop for tires robbed him of practically every bit of margin that he had on his pursuers. He gained it back when they were forced to seek the pits, but the last century proved a battle of intense interest between these three titans.

At 470 miles, Bruce-Brown had forged into second place, with Mulford third and Joe Dawson fourth, closely followed by De Palma and the Simplex.

As the flying cars reeled off mile after mile, the crowd began to get restless. The strain was almost too much for human nerves stretched to the breaking point by the pranks of Fate. The track was getting more dangerous, due to the oil, the drivers were becoming tired, tires were throwing pieces of thread or rolling off bodily in an orbit of their own.

On came Harroun and on came the Fiat with Lozier hitting it up at a dizzy pace in a mad effort to overcome the lead. The Mercedes was roaring past at wonderful speed. Joe Dawson was fighting gamely. Merz was sticking it out grimly and consistently. And the others with less hope for first were none the less determined to share second or third or lesser parts of the rich purse.

At 490 miles, Harroun was beating it on the stretches, but nursing his car on the turn. Bruce-Brown was thundering at his heels with the Lozier, Dawson's Marmon, the Mercedes, De Palma's Simplex and Turner's Amplex following in the order named.

As the finish drew near the crowd waited breathlessly. And when the long yellow "Wasp" slid down the stretch and took the checkered flag, Harroun was given a big ovation by the crowd. An unfortunate tire change robbed the Fiat of second, putting the Lozier up a notch. Something struck the radiator of Dawson's car and put him out for good when it seemed he had fourth cash tucked away in his pocket.

Wishart shoved the Mercedes into the opening and De Palma captured fifth position in the final standing with the Simplex.

Merz raced into sixth place, while Turner gamely brought the Amplex home for seventh honors, with Cobe's Jackson, Belcher's Knox and Hughie Hughes a sturdy Mercer taking the next prizes. The Firestone-Columbus finished nicely, as did the Stutz, before the cars were called off the track.

Tire trouble played havoc with Burman and the speed king was not able to get speed out of his Benz without sacrificing time for reclothing the rims.

Harroun's Victory in Dollars and Cents
Total prizes............................$14,950.00
Earnings each hour on track............. 2,332.29
Earnings each lap of track.............. 75.00
Earnings each minute on track........... 37.50
Earnings each second on track........... .62
Earnings, if continued for year........$10,933,500