The 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 will take place May 29.
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway was built in 1909 as a proving ground for automobile manufacturers to test the reliability and endurance of their cars. It also served to showcase the cars’ power and speed to the public, which was inquisitive about these relatively new horseless carriages.
Back then many automobile manufacturers were based in Indianapolis. So in the first years of the race many of the competing cars were in most cases similar to those produced for the public by American and foreign manufacturers.
The Marmon Wasp, which won the first Indy 500 in 1911, was a sleek modified version of the Marmon Model 32 Sportster. It was built by Nordyke Marmon & Co., which produced 250,000 upscale and reliable fast cars from 1902-33. Of all the Marmons produced, less than 300 are known to still exist.
The Model 32 – listed at a pricey $2,750 – had a cast aluminum body, which was innovative for the time as previous cars had been made predominately of wood. It had a new water-cooled four-cylinder engine that displaced 318 cubic inches while producing 32 horsepower, hence the name Model 32. The clutch pedal was located between the brake and accelerator pedals on the floor.
The 1911 winning car was driven by Indianapolis native and Marmon engineer Ray Harroun, 28, a former auto racer who came out of retirement for the race and promptly retired again after taking the checkered flag.
The Wasp was actually a 1-year-old modified 1910 Model 32 that had been thoroughly tested. The car was numbered 32 to represent the Model 32; however, it differed from the Model 32 in many ways: most notably by having a V-6 engine, with its lights, fenders, doors and rear-mounted spare tire removed. Additionally, it had a smoothly cowled cockpit and a sleek pointed tail. That combined with its yellow color resulted in its name.
These changes made the car more streamlined and lighter than its factory counterpart. The biggest revolution was that the Wasp had only one seat, which was unheard of at the time. All cars, even race cars, had two seats. In racing the second person was a riding mechanic, who also doubled as a spotter. Since many voiced complaints against the Wasp in that having just one driver was unsafe, Harroun designed and installed the first rearview mirror to counter the criticism. The mirror has been an essential tool on race cars and production cars since.
Harroun started the first Indy 500 from the 28th position and won in 6 hours, 42 minutes at an average speed of 74 mph. He collected $14,250 for his effort and holds the record for starting the furthest back in the field and winning. His car is on display at the IMS Hall of Fame Museum.
A second Marmon was also entered in the 1911 race, a stock Model 32 with a four-cylinder engine; it finished fifth.