Planning the track
The official result had Ray Harroun winning with the Marmon Wasp—but did he really cross the finish line first?
The first indy 500, in 1911, was certainly the start of something big. What’s less certain, as Charles Leerhsen discovered, was who the winner was.
Not everyone who came to Indianapolis for the big auto racing party was going to get out alive. Any driver could have told you that. “Look, in every race,” said one, “somebody gets it.” That was not precisely true. Someone did not die in every single automobile race. But the shadow of death hung over every starting line in those days just as it did every bugle call to arms, and the odds were strongly against a fatality-free afternoon.
One hundred years ago, 40 cars lined up for the first Indianapolis 500. We are still waiting to find out who won.
The Indy 500 was created to showcase the controversial new sport of automobile racing, which was sweeping the country. Daring young men were driving automobiles at the astonishing speed of 75 miles per hour, testing themselves and their vehicles. It was indeed a young man’s game: with no seat belts, hard helmets or roll bars, the dangers were enormous. When the Indianapolis Speedway opened in 1909, seven people were killed, some of them spectators. Oil-slicked surfaces, clouds of smoke, exploding tires, flying grit, all made driving extremely hazardous, especially with the open cockpit, windshield-less vehicles. Most drivers rode with a mechanic, who pumped oil manually while watching for cars attempting to pass . Drivers sometimes threw wrenches or bolts at each other during the race in order to gain an advantage. The night before an event the racers would take up a collection for the next day’s new widows. Bookmakers offered bets not only on who might win but who might survive. Not all the participants in that first Indy 500 lived to see the checkered flag.
Although the 1911 Indy 500 judges declared Ray Harroun, driving a Marmon Wasp, the official winner, there is reason to doubt that result. The time-keeping equipment failed, and the judges had to run for their lives when a driver lost control and his car spun wildly toward their stand. It took officials two days to determine the results, and Speedway authorities ordered the records to be destroyed.
But Blood and Smoke is about more than a race, even a race as fabled as the Indianapolis 500. It is the story of America at the dawn of the automobile age, a country in love with speed, danger, and spectacle. It is a story, too, about the young men who would risk their lives for money and glory, the sportsmen whose antics would thrill and outrage Americans in those long-ago days when the automobile was still brand new.
“Leerhsen provides an entertaining history of the automobile’s growth in the early twentieth century… Along the way, readers are treated to sharply humorous social commentary bolstered by fascinating details of Indianapolis life and industry.”
“Entertaining . . . and snarkily humorous.”
“Should be required reading for anybody with so much as a vague interest in the birth of the Speedway and the 500.”
“When you read this gripping account of the first Indy 500 run May 30, 1911, you’ll wonder why they ever had a second.”
“With alternating tales of horrifying crashes and the schemes of Carl Fisher, who promoted the Indianapolis Speedway as a venue for airplane races, this is a ripping good yarn of America in the early 20th century. Leerhsen, a witty storyteller, draws from contemporary articles, histories, and interviews to pull readers into a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the building of the Speedway and the first race…. this book has broad appeal, with laugh-out-loud stories and characters who would be unbelievable if they turned up in fiction. Highly recommended.”