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Who Really Won The First Indy 500?

by Russell Jaslow

People love controversies, mysteries and conspiracies. Whether it be the constant nagging over who really was involved in the John F. Kennedy assassination or the outlandish fictional claims in the X-Files, the public just can't get enough to ponder over.

The sports world is no different as a stroll through any sports bar will attest to. The more memorable controversies that remain alive through the ages are those associated with the major events.

Did Babe Ruth really call his home run in the 1932 World Series? Did the whole ball really break the plane of the goal to give England the go-ahead score in overtime for their win over West Germany in the 1966 World Cup? Were the rules properly administered when the Soviets were given three opportunities to play out the last crucial seconds against the USA in the gold medal basketball game during the 1972 Olympics?

Racing is no different. And just like the rest of the sports world, the ones everybody remembers are those that took place in the top events. For racing, that would be the Indianapolis 500.

Was Parnelli Jones leaking enough oil that he should have been black flagged in the 1963 race, or were the officials trying to avoid giving the victory to Jim Clark and the "British Invasion?" Were the rules properly applied during the 1981 event when the victory was taken away from Bobby Unser, given to Mario Andretti, and then reversed some four months later?

However, perhaps the most controversial mystery, when looking at the historical significance of it, and one that many people are not aware of, is the identification of the true winner of the first ever Indianapolis 500 in 1911.

The history books say it was Ray Harroun, but facts, rumors, and claims point to Ralph Mulford as the true winner of the first Indy 500.

When the Indianapolis 500 was organized out of the ashes of two initial years of failure for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and after a major expense of converting the surface from crushed stone pavement into bricks, it was done so as the greatest race ever held at the time. The distance of 500 miles (picked to allow the race to be completed and still have time for the fans to arrive and get home in daylight), the then unheard of purse of $25,000 with another $15,000 in contingency prizes, international participation, and the top drivers of the era all added to the anticipation.

The organizers also instituted a timing and scoring system that would be the envy of everyone until the invention of computers. Mechanically, the system included four Burroughs adding machines, two Columbia dictaphones (used to record in voice the entire race based on car numbers as they passed the line; the first time this was ever attempted), a Warner Harograph, and four complete scoreboards. All of it was tied into a Telautograph which duplicated handwriting from the scoring stands to twelve places around the track. This effort was manned by 100 workers.

The key to this system was the Harograph invented by Mr. C. H. Warner of the Warner Instrument Company. Operated like an odometer, this device consisted of four wheels -- one for hours, one minutes, then seconds, and finally hundredths of a second. Over these wheels was placed a typewriter ribbon and a piece of paper. A hammer would strike the paper against the wheels and thus record the exact time this occurred. The car number would be written next to the printed time.

The hammer was actuated by an electromagnet set off when a timing wire that was laid across the start/finish line was tripped. In order to avoid double hits by the two axles of a car, the system was designed to detect when the wire was stretched. It would not attain equilibrium quick enough before the rear axle hit it.

The wire had to be placed one foot above the surface of the track in order for this to work properly. This was the main weakness to the design. It left the wire susceptible to being broken.

There were other design flaws to the entire operation. The scoring stand was placed trackside near the pits. During those days, pitlane did not have any outside retaining wall. You simply pulled over on the main straight to receive service.

The 100 men as it turned out were not really experienced with the racing game. Instead, they were picked from the "society" class. Not only that, there were actually 200 men selected for this job causing nothing but confusion in the scoring, or as they called it then, judges stand.

Some of the favorites for that race were Ray Harroun in his Marmon, Ralph Mulford in a Lozier, and David Bruce-Brown in a FIAT. At the start of the race, the timing wire was broken. This was quickly repaired before the first lap was completed.

As the race settled down, a dual developed between Mulford and Bruce-Brown trading positions almost every lap.

Around the 240 mile mark, Joe Jagersberger in a Case, lost control of his car when a steering knuckle broke. It veered back and forth across the track. Finally, the machine smacked the judges stand with everybody abandoning their posts. The car continued down pit row, back onto the track, and the riding mechanic ended up sprawled on the ground.

Harry Knight in a Westcott was first on the scene. Attempting to miss the mechanic he nearly took out the whole pit row. Knight and his riding mechanic, Glover, were thrown from the car when it hit the parked Apperson of Herbert Lytle, overturning the Apperson which was sent into another car in pitlane, Eddie Hearne's FIAT. Glover suffered the only injury in this melee, to his back, but recovered fully.

Next came the Mulford and Bruce-Brown duo. They were greeted with a nearly blocked track of broken, overturned cars, parts, and people. Somehow, Mulford found a hole through the mess, and Bruce-Brown followed him through. The rest of the field discovered the same safe path.

However, there was still no one in the scoring stand. A lot of them were milling around the accident scene to lend their "expert" advice.

The early editions of the Indianapolis News was reporting that Ray Harroun took over the lead at the 200 mile mark. Yet, the final results for the lap leaders show that Harroun did not take the lead until the 257.5 mile mark. In fact, the account of the race leaders in the news stories were completely different than what the official lap leader sheet finally showed. It was becoming obvious that the early lap leader reports, and thus the lap board at the track, were not accurate.

It was around the time of this accident that Ray Harroun took back control of his car from his relief driver. If the Marmon Wasp was in the pits during the whole, or even part, of this commotion, then the judges would not have missed him going by when they were ducking for cover. Yet, while doing this, Mulford and Bruce-Brown were going by.

The rest of the race was accident free, and the battle, joined now by Ray Harroun, raged on. The one lap to go flag (which back then was the green flag) was waved at Mulford, Bruce- Brown, and Harroun in that order. Bruce-Brown stopped on that last lap with a broken spark lever, and although he made some hasty repairs, just barely coasted across the finish line out of contention.

Mulford took the finish flag alone followed by Harroun. The Lozier team ordered Mulford to take 3 more "safety" laps, a standard procedure for some teams in those days. In fact, this is where the victory lap got started. Fearing mistakes in scoring, drivers would often take extra laps at race speeds to ensure they completed the proper distance.

Harroun did not take these precautionary laps. By the time Mulford was done, Harroun was already receiving the winner's spoils.

A howl came up amongst the Lozier camp, and this was quickly silenced by A. R. Pardington, the AAA referee, when he announced that the result would not be official until the next morning (thus beginning another Indy tradition). It was released to the press that every position in the race was under scrutiny except for the winner.

The Lozier team claimed that the scoreboard had Mulford in first place and in fact they told their driver to back off and preserve the car. The judges claimed that the scoring on the board was inaccurate. On the final lap leader report, Mulford was shown to have the lead from laps 177-181 when Harroun took over first spot till the end. Yet, all newspaper accounts had Harroun in the lead from at least lap 100 through the end. Thus, there is no account of when Harroun passed for the lead. The newspapers said that the three leaders remained the same throughout this period.

That night in the Claypool Hotel, the top folks in racing officiating assembled. The reason most people are unaware of this controversy is because the press barely reported it. Only the Indianapolis News gave extensive coverage to the smoke filled back room dealings. The New York Times, in very small paragraphs, merely mentioned that some positions were changed. The next morning the "official" results were announced. Ray Harroun was declared the winner in a time of 6:41:08 with Mulford second in 6:46:46, and Bruce-Brown third in 6:52:29. As soon as this news was heard, more protests were filed. Bruce-Brown and his team insisted they finished second. Mulford and the Lozier team were unsatisfied.

The officials reconvened. It turns out the original protesters were not heard in full. This time they were. Drivers testified that the scoreboards were not recording their laps and that the judges stand was empty every time something exciting happened. A key point was the claim that those who took "safety" laps were penalized for having done so, while those that stopped immediately received higher positions.

Another fact that soon came out was that the timing wire broke not just in the beginning of the race, but a second time later on. That one took a "considerable time" to repair. The New York Times reported it was an hour. The Speedway claimed that wires placed elsewhere on the track worked properly the entire race. However, records do not indicate whether the one Harograph was capable of multiple inputs.

Representing the Lozier camp was Charlie Emise. He was a race-wise executive who did not allow mistakes to slip by him. When he arrived from the meetings, it was obvious to all that a resolution had been reached.

The official results came out for a third time. The top three had not changed, but their times had. Harroun lost a full minute and was listed at 6:42:08. Mulford gained about three minutes at 6:43:51 and a lap down. Bruce-Brown remained the same. Other positions did shuffle a bit. Joe Dawson in a Marmon was placed fifth bumping everybody down a spot, and Fred Belcher's Knox and Harry Cobe's Jackson were switched finally ending up ninth and tenth, respectively. Only the top ten finishers received prize money that year.

(The Joe Dawson correction was an interesting one. Originally, it was believed that when he started his 200th lap, a piece of debris pierced his radiator. He was never able to nurse the car around that last lap as the engine seized up. It was later discovered that he was actually beginning his 201st lap, and thus had already completed the required distance. However, the scoring sheets were almost split in their results. The three adding machines in the upper portion of the judges stands showed 200 laps were completed while the one machine in the lower stand and the timing machine showed 199 laps. Dawson was driving a different Marmon model.)

However, this raises a slew of questions. In those days, the race was not over when the winner completed the distance. Rather, everybody had the opportunity to complete the full 500 miles within reason. For this race, the top 12 were given this opportunity. This led to some rather isolated cars droning on late in the twilight hours. The green (last lap) flag would be waved at each individual car when that car was starting his last lap.

Why then, was the green flag given to Mulford first, then Bruce-Brown, then Harroun? Why, when they crossed the line in the same order sans Bruce-Brown, was the finishing flag given to both of them? Was Mulford being shown a lap down in the final revised results a way of explaining that anomaly? That he was really a lap behind Harroun and the flagman made a mistake? If so, then why did it take the second revision of the official results to show this?

Why, before any investigation even began, was it announced that Harroun's position was unchangeable? How could they have possibly known that before studying the records? Why was Charlie Emise satisfied when he left the meetings and never said anything again? Was he finally convinced of the validity of the results, or was a deal struck for his appeasement?

Why wasn't an explanation ever given for the missing scoring laps during the various incidents? The Harograph could act as a backup in the scoring system, but how accurate could it have been after the wire broke not once, but twice? Why, when the only mention of the dictaphones being used as an auditing device, it was also reported that the sound of the cheering crowd could be heard when Harroun completed his last lap? If Mulford was in the lead on the same lap, would not the crowd cheer also? Who says the crowd was cheering for the leader of the race? They may have been cheering everybody when they completed their 500 miles.

Then, there is the "what if" scenarios. What if Mulford did not take those "safety" laps? Would his getting to the pitlane first have forced the officials to greet him as the winner? Did his taking the extra laps indicate in the officials' minds that Lozier themselves thought they were not done with the 500 miles? Is this why the first revised results showed Mulford to be 3 laps behind Harroun, the same number of "safety" laps he took? What if Bruce-Brown never had mechanical difficulties on his last lap? Would this have created an even larger mess with three teams claiming victory?

As history played out, it turns out that Ray Harroun being the victor is much more romantic than if Ralph Mulford won. Harroun came out of retirement just to do this race. He was a local Indiana boy racing for a local manufacturer. Mulford was from California. (Coincidentally, when a new "big race" was instituted at IMS in 1994, the Brickyard 400 for NASCAR, it was another Indiana driver, Jeff Gordon, who edged out a California racer, Ernie Irvan.)

The local connection goes even deeper. Howard Marmon was one of the key businessmen in Indianapolis. Even though he was not involved with the four initial investors and builders of the Speedway (Carl Fisher, A. C. Newby, James A. Allison and Frank A. Wheeler), he was strongly in agreement with their goals -- to make Indianapolis the leader in the automotive industry, a battle that Detroit would eventually win. Thus, his ties and interests to those four and the Speedway were very close.

Even the car that Harroun drove was sexier than Mulford's Lozier -- the name, Marmon Wasp, the color, a bright yellow, the lines were sleeker, and the cockpit was too small to fit a riding mechanic. To quail the protests of other drivers who were concerned that Harroun would not be warned of cars approaching, he invented what is considered to be the first use of the rear view mirror (though some evidence indicates this was not the first use of such a devise).

However, this does not make his victory right. On the other hand, it is very conceivable that despite all the mechanical faults of the scoring system, errors and omissions made by the judges, and questionable decisions from the officials, Harroun really did win the race.

We may never know for we will never be able to check the records for ourselves. In perhaps the most stunning development of the whole affair, after the final meeting in the Claypool, all official timing and scoring sheets were destroyed. In a poor attempt at an excuse, Pardington said that, "lap positions and lap times will never be divulged on those cars forced from the race. We consider it unfair to such as the Apperson which was withdrawn through no fault of its own."

Taken in isolation, this may seem philanthropic. However, taken in a broader sense, this is ludicrous. In those days, like today, all great races were documented to excruciating detail. Yet, the 1911 Indianapolis 500 is the only race at IMS where you will never find the number of laps of most of the cars that dropped out. The official Indianapolis Motor Speedway web site lists the top 12 drivers as completing 200 laps. Positions 13-26 are listed with zero laps completed, and positions 27-40 have their laps posted.

According to Automobile Quarterly, the only records found years later in AAA's confidential files was a handwritten note that read, "Mechanical devices for scoring should be avoided at major contests. They can break down and at best are only as good as the operator."

With only one newspaper reporting the going-ons, and another race quickly coming up, the issue drifted from the minds of the participants and the spectators. Mulford himself was considered a class gentleman, and not one to carry any sort of grudge or allow a controversy to live on.

In an interview quoted in Automobile Quarterly in 1969 when he was 85 years old, Ralph Mulford said, "Mr. Harroun was a fine gentleman, a champion driver and a very great development engineer, and I wouldn't want him to suffer any embarrassment nor the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. They have publicly credited me with leading the race and each year send me something as a remembrance and to let me know I have not been forgotten." Ralph Mulford competed 10 times, but never officially won the Indianapolis 500.


For more details concerning this subject, consult the following:

Catlin, Russ. "Who Really Won The First Indy 500?" Automobile Quarterly, vol. 8, no. 4 (1969), pp. 382-385.

"Dawson In Fifth Place." New York Times, 2 June 1911, p. 9, col. 6.

"Forty-four Cars Will Start in Indianapolis Sweepstakes." New York Times, 28 May 1911, pt. 4, p. 8, col. 3-6.

"Harroun In "Wasp" Wins: One Death Is Race Toll." Indianapolis News, 31 May 1911, p. 1+.

"Harroun Is In Lead At 300." Indianapolis News, 30 May 1911, p. 1+.

"Harroun Only One Sure Of His Place." Indianapolis News, 31 May 1911, p 1+.

"Harroun In A Marmon Wins" New York Times, 31 May 1911, p. 13, col. 1.

"Joe Dawson Gets Fifth In Big Race." Indianapolis News, 1 June 1911.

"Protest Speedway Race." New York Times, 1 June 1911, p. 8, col. 4.

"Timing An Automobile Race." Scientific American, 9 April 1910, p. 296.

This article copyright 1997 by Russell Jaslow. All Rights Reserved.

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