Checkered Past

As everyone knows, Ray Harroun won the first Indy 500 a century ago. But is everyone right? Investigating the chaos, crashes, and confusion of the inaugural race.
The first Indianapolis 500, which had started just after 10:00 a.m. on May 30, 1911,ended at about 5:37 that evening, when the 11th-place finisher, the No. 10 Stutz driven by Gil Anderson, was shown the checkered flag. By 7:30 p.m., Indianapolis Motor Speedway was empty and quiet, except for the mop-up work being done by the remaining crewmen along pit row, and the sun was setting behind the main grandstand. Presumptive race winner Ray Harroun, who earned a total of $14,250 in purse money and “accessory prizes” for his victory, had long since scarfed down a sandwich, showered, and been whisked off the grounds to attend a banquet sponsored by the Dorian Tire Rim Company at the Claypool Hotel in downtown Indianapolis. The “Conquering Sheik” (a nickname derived from the driver’s vaguely Middle Eastern–sounding name) was the toast of Indianapolis in what would have been a landmark moment in Arab-American relations if Harroun had been the slightest bit Bedouin. Though the praise was premature—the result of the race had not been declared official yet—and the statements made about him often inaccurate (besides not being an Arab, he was neither a “local boy” nor a professor), the guest of honor contradicted no one who had something complimentary or colorful to say about him. As a racecar driver who came of age in the era before the windshield, Harroun understood the advantages of keeping his mouth shut.

His car owner, Howard Marmon, however, was having a different sort of evening.

Excerpted from
Blood and Smoke:
A True Tale of Mystery, Mayhem, and the Birth of
the Indy 500
(Simon & Schuster, May 2011)
Order the book

In the August 1971 issue of Car Classics, writer Napoleon Boz depicts the owner of the Indianapolis-based Marmon Motor Car Company as “wandering about the track all night worrying until the final announcement,” and quotes Harroun as telling a reporter years later, presumably with a chuckle, “I guess I was the only member of the Marmon organization that was sure who won.” Howard Marmon, according to Boz, had strong doubts about the outcome. He had been concerned since the midpoint of the race that driver Ralph Mulford’s Lozier was actually several laps ahead of Harroun’s Marmon Wasp—in other words, he shared the view of the Lozier team—though most sources had the Wasp leading Mulford’s auto from mile 250 onward. Now that a call for a reexamination of data had been made by an ad hoc group of dissatisfied car manufacturers and drivers, and the judges were poring over records of various sorts, Marmon worried that the trophy—which had been thrust upon him with unseemly haste by Speedway publicist Heinie Shuart, then pulled back at least temporarily at the instructions of the presiding officials of race-sanctioning body AAA—would be presented to his Detroit rivals.

In the small world of people who still discuss and debate the first Indianapolis 500, there is a subset of buffs that maintains there was no rising up of voices in the wake of all the timing and scoring problems, or at least no significant one, because no mention of a protest occurs in The Indianapolis Star, already the city’s leading newspaper. The protest deniers are right about the Star’s shamelessly provincial perspective on any controversy that might reflect poorly on Indianapolis or any of its citizens or institutions, but wrong not to look further into, for example, the somewhat harder-to-find Indianapolis Sun, where the late-afternoon debate was covered in detail—or to papers like the Washington Post (which ran a story headed “Tangle in Auto Race Result”) and the New York Tribune (“Protest in Auto Race”). Without question, confusion about the outcome didn’t stop when the checkered flag came out, and protests were, if not “filed” formally, at least energetically voiced.

While Harroun was still in the winner’s circle, trembling with hunger and fatigue despite the substantial spelling he had received from his relief driver, Cyrus Patschke, a number of drivers, crewmen, and auto manufacturers stalked up to A.R. Pardington, a once and future crony of colorful Speedway founder Carl Fisher who was serving as the AAA referee, and who had positioned himself not far from all the hoopla. This coterie of competitors, now united in anger, complained that they had not been credited for laps they had in fact traveled during the race, and demanded to know how the scorers were dealing with periods when there had been broken timing wires and an empty judges’ stand. Pardington, always sympathetic to whoever was standing in front of him, had no ready reply, other than to decide on the spot that, if only for appearances’ sake, he would hold up formal presentation of the race trophy. Instead of celebrating with Harroun in the Claypool’s Grand Ballroom, the AAA referee and his associates repaired—along with Speedway publicist Shuart, who held no position in the AAA and thus had no business being there—to Pardington’s Claypool suite, where they pored over scoring sheets and other data. The officials ordered dinner in their suite at 8:00 p.m., and at midnight called for the Warner Timing System Dictaphones to be brought from the racetrack. They would not emerge, Pardington promised the assembled press (who were not allowed to witness the deliberations), “until we can prove beyond a shadow of a doubt the result.”

Anyone who heard even a snippet of the Dictaphone tapes, which were supposed to record the running order of the race as shouted in the heat of competition by various judges, knew it was going to be a very long night. For upon playback it was impossible to distinguish between, say, “20, 4, 7” and “24, 7,” or between “30, 2, 3” and “32, 3.” (Even though the scoring system would change, cars were not assigned the numbers 20, 30, or 40 again until the 1960s.) Never mind that the investigating officials did not even have a full 500 miles’ worth of this muddled material, or how many hours it might have taken to listen to and review all the ultimately inconclusive evidence that they did possess.

At 3:00 a.m., a haggard-looking Pardington poked his head out to tell reporters dozing in the hallway that deliberations would be continuing into the next day. Since it already was the next day, this was not exactly stop-the-presses stuff—but then he added something strange that would make headlines. The official order of finish might well change when the final results were announced, Pardington said, but whatever happened, Harroun would remain in first place.

“Oh, yes, sir, there was some hometown scoring!” Edward Towers, the riding mechanic in the No. 12 Amplex car, would say many years later, when he reflected upon the race.

To say that the Wasp’s placement was immune from revision when it had traveled so close to both Mulford’s No. 33 Lozier and driver David Bruce-Brown’s Fiat for most of the final 50 laps, and when there had been so many scoring problems, was unmitigated chutzpah. Pardington’s brazenness, though, was rooted in fear. He did not have the will or the nerve to “reverse” the popular semi-official “decision” and deprive the rich, Indianapolis-based and Speedway-friendly Howard Marmon of a victory the automaker not only wanted but felt he needed badly for business reasons. (Marmon had a major advertising campaign, in which he boasted about the victory for “the Marmon 32,” ready to go.) By proclaiming the Wasp the undisputed winner, Pardington wasn’t pretending to proffer a conclusion based on the comparison of different scoring methods (the ostensible work of the men behind the hotel-room door); he was simply signaling to the powers that be, and to the hometown fans, that he wasn’t going to do anything stupid.

One must expect men to put their sense of self-preservation before their sense of justice, but Pardington’s lack of subtlety was positively unseemly, and the favoritism he would show Marmon blatant to a degree that tainted the victory he was attempting to bolster. Harroun didn’t even need such ham-handed help. A strong case could—and still can—be made for his being the winner; after all, most eyewitnesses assumed that he had crossed the finish line first. By most accounts, Harroun had made the fewest number of pit stops—four—of any of the 26 cars still running at the finish (Mulford made a more typical 11), and thousands of newspapers already had variations on “Harroun Wins!” in banner headlines; in a lot of minds, of course, print equals proof.

Still, Pardington’s crew, when it finally announced its Revised Results at 7:00 a.m. on Thursday, June 1, did not merely keep the Wasp in first place as promised (albeit while raising Harroun’s official time by one minute to 6 hours, 42 minutes, and 8 seconds, an average of 74.6 miles an hour, with Mulford 2 minutes and 43 seconds back in second place, a decrease of nearly 3 minutes from his initial timing, and Bruce-Brown third—the same 1-2-3 order as originally announced). The judges also upgraded the status of the other Marmon car in the sweepstakes, Joe Dawson’s four-cylinder 31, from “Did Not Finish” to fifth place, making him eligible for $1,500 in prize money—and giving Howard Marmon two cars to brag about in his ads. The official explanation of Dawson’s ascension must have been especially galling to Mulford, since the judges said that in the case of the smaller Marmon, they had initially miscounted the laps, and that the No. 31 was already somewhere beyond 500 miles when its radiator started leaking and it was forced to stop.

Mulford’s response to all the post-race mischief is a subject that often comes up when the first Indy 500 is discussed. That’s because the second line of defense for those who support the notion of Harroun as winner, but feel they must acknowledge the post-race grousing, is often to say that the manipulation of the scoring data, and the maneuvering of the Marmon Wasp into the winner’s spot, could not be as egregious as some people make it sound, or Mulford would have complained louder and longer than he did that day. Indeed, one can make a case for Smiling Ralph (as the amiable driver was known) being not at all vexed by the proceedings. For one thing, though he did not enjoy the services of a relief driver for the complete run of the race, he never stopped smiling. For another, when interviewed not long after the finish by a reporter from the Star, he said, “I had a great time today” and “I feel so good right now I could go and play a baseball game!” This, you have to admit, does not sound like a man who had just been screwed out of glory, job security, and several gold nuggets in a monogrammed leather sack. (His prize for second place was $5,000, and he received another $200 for using a Bosch magneto, a type of alternator.)

But to correctly judge Mulford’s reaction we must consider the special kind of man he was. Driver Ralph DePalma called him “the most modest of drivers” and “a true gentleman.” No one who knew him thought his choirboy image was a public relations pose or a remnant of his innocent youth. Auto racing’s choirboy, it turned out, actually sang in a church choir in Fair Haven, New Jersey; abstained from alcohol and tobacco; openly cherished his wife—and practiced sportsmanship, positivity, and politeness as if his immortal soul depended on it. Mulford was polite even to his sometimes temperamental automobiles. “Ralph nurses his car along,” DePalma said, “and yields more to the whims of his machine than any pilot now racing for fame or fortune.” Mulford constantly spoke to his cars, said one reporter, “as if they were a family horse or a household pet.” On the rare occasions when he did get a bit peeved with his vehicle, he would wait until his anger subsided before dealing with the mechanical problems, “so as not to speak too sharply to his engine.”

The Gumdrop Kid’s good nature sometimes bordered on gullibility. “Isn’t it a shame,” a mechanic identified only as “Stevens” told a reporter from Motor Age magazine in 1915, “that everything Ralph takes hold of is unlucky?” According to one source, in the 1920s a business associate cheated Mulford out of his life savings in a scheme to finance an automobile company that unbeknownst to Mulford never really existed. But Mulford never made a public statement about the swindler, just as, in the heat of the moment and over the years, he had only good things to say about Ray Harroun (“a fine gentleman, a champion driver”) and no comment at all on Carl Fisher. When asked, as he was on various occasions after his retirement in 1922, if he harbored resentment toward the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he always said, “No, not a bit,” and never failed to mention that Tony Hulman, then the president of the IMS, “always treated me nicely and took care of me at Christmas time.” Although this statement has raised eyebrows because it sounds to some like an allusion to hush money, IMS historian Donald Davidson dismisses that notion, saying that Mulford merely was referring to a set of souvenir drinking glasses that Hulman sent out annually to the people on his holiday gift list.

In any case, he didn’t keep silent about the matter, even if he did have the wisdom and grace to refrain from taking his anger public through the press. In the same interview in which he mentioned being fresh enough to play baseball, Mulford tactfully but matter-of-factly gave himself credit for being the only one of the top five finishers to go the distance without a relief driver, and noted that his Lozier had been a true stock car racing against mostly souped-up competition. One of Lozier’s pit mechanics that day, William Giblin, used to tell his grandson that Mulford was certain he had been cheated out of the victory. “My granddad would say, ‘They completely screwed us up with the counting of the cars—it was total mayhem!’” the grandson recounts. “Then he’d add, ‘Mulford knew exactly what was going on, and don’t ever believe anyone who tells you any differently.’”

Mulford, who died in 1973 at the age of 88, had two grandsons, neither of whom, for some reason, warms to the subject of his ancestor’s exploits, but one of whom, William Mulford of Worcester, Massachusetts, did tell me in a brief phone conversation, “All I can say is that he contended that he won the race until the day he died.” This is indeed true. In a brief memoir Mulford wrote in the September 1969 issue of Automobile Quarterly, he says tersely of the first 500: “The argument is over who really won the race. I still think I did, and so did a lot of other people.” The truth is, by then he was sick to death of giving his opinion on the judging controversy, because when journalists and racing fans sought him out, it was usually the first thing that they asked. A June 1954 Associated Press piece about Mulford appeared in the Idaho Falls Post Register under the headline “Auto Dealer Says He Won 1911 Speedway.” He was not the crank that that headline conjures, but all those years later, what happened in the hours following the first sweepstakes would still rankle him. (“The Case car broke a steering knuckle in front of the grandstand, but I saw an opening and zigzagged through,” Mulford told the reporter, explaining how he picked up at least one lap that went unrecorded. “The timers and judges didn’t see me, and they scattered to keep from getting hurt.”)

Not just Mulford, but anyone who cares about the Indy 500 has the right to be furious at Carl Fisher for his final decree in regard to the inaugural race of 1911: This was to tell Pardington that he wanted all of the records destroyed before the AAA referee announced the Revised Results. Even historian Donald Davidson calls this “the thing that’s hardest to reconcile” with the idea of a fair decision. To those who disagree with Davidson’s favorable opinion of the official outcome, the reason Fisher issued this order was obvious: to leave timing-device inventor Charles Warner’s scattered and scrambled numbers open to scrutiny would be to show how meaningless his system, and thus how valueless the official result, was.

Timing official Harry Knepper defended his cohorts as best he could, saying the judges locked in Pardington’s suite that night actually had four sets of records for each car, which they mixed and matched for hours on end, even if they could see from the score sheets that “it proved impossible for the human hand to keep these records up to date.” Pardington proffered an equally inept stab at an explanation for the AAA’s methods, saying, “Lap positions and lap times will never be divulged on those cars forced from the race.” Neither, however, said anything about why data of more widespread and more pressing interest was dragged to the Claypool’s dumbwaiter shaft in the early-morning hours, like an inconvenient corpse. All that was later found in the AAA’s “confidential” file for the 1911 race was a note-to-self from the organization’s chairman, Sam Butler, saying, “Mechanical devices for scoring should be avoided at major contests. They can break down and at best are only as good as the operator.”

Mulford no doubt sensed the futility of fighting back. He had as much chance of overturning the unofficial decision as the anti-car lobby had of pushing through laws that lowered the speed limit to 5 miles an hour and forced autoists to attach a rendering of a bucolic scene to their bumpers so as to camouflage their appearance from skittish horses. The world may have had to view the race through the cracked lens of the newspaper coverage, but it had been galvanized by the images of Harroun in the winner’s circle, surrounded by happy faces, saying he would never race again “because it is simply too dangerous,” and smiling gallantly as a cup of water is held to his cracked and grease-smeared lips. To no one alive, but to many now gone, it was an indelible memory.