Who actually won the first Indy 500?

The controversial finish of the 2011 Indianapolis 500 (one month ago today) was nothing compared to the debacle that was the inaugural 500 one-hundred years prior. None of the forty cars that started that race could come close to turning a lap at 100 mph, but keeping track of the positions of each big, noisy, poorly marked car as they circled the enormous, dusty brick track proved impossible. Ray Harroun went down in history as the winning driver, but a new book by Charles Leerhsen--Blood and Smoke: A true tale of mystery, mayhem and the birth of the Indy 500--does a great job supporting the argument that the winner could actually just as easily have been the humble Ralph Mulford, whose Lozier was credited with finishing second.

A crash that caused scoring judges to scatter from their table, a conspiracy to ensure that an Indiana-based automaker won the race, a reportedly high-tech but essentially useless electric timing system, and the hasty destruction of timing and scoring records are some of the things that Leerhsen entertainingly discusses in his 261-page book.

Leerhsen sets the stage for the 1911 marathon, which he calls “a hit from the start,” with background information on the era’s fledgling auto industry, professional sports, and early twentieth-century culture in general. The Speedway’s most notable and involved founder, Carl Fisher, is explored in depth, as is the creation of and inspiration for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Howard Marmon, manufacturer of Harroun’s winning car, wrote a letter defending the Speedway and downplaying the numerous deaths that occurred during the first weeks of competition at the track in 1909. Leerhsen writes: “Marmon in 1909 did his friend Carl Fisher a sizable public favor—something that Fisher … was not likely to soon forget. Anyone attempting to understand what would happen two years later, at the first Indianapolis 500-mile race, should not forget it either.”

Further supporting the scandal, Leerhsen reports, is the fact that Fisher bent the rules so that Marmon could pick its own car numbers (instead of being assigned them based on when the entry forms were received) as well as the fact that Fisher ignored other teams’ complaints that Harroun’s Marmon would be the only car in the race not weighed down by a riding mechanic.

Some readers might not have the patience to read through the 192 pages that precede the actual start of the first Indy 500, but I found the entire work to be quite entertaining, well organized, and snarkily humorous.

For instance: “Like boxers, some of [the drivers’] colorful personality traits could be attributed to head injuries they had sustained along the way.”

And: “The Speedway kept a press car standing by [in 1909, an Overland] … to deliver the reporters to the scene of an accident as soon as it occurred. A corps of newspapermen reached the bodies of [Wilfred] Bourque and [Harry] Holcomb before even the ambulance staff.”

The well-researched book is published by Simon & Schuster and costs $26. More information is available at www.charlesleerhsen.com/bloodandsmoke.htm

Vintage photography courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway

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