Tires always have been a big part of the Indianapolis 500, but perhaps no more so than they were in the inaugural running in 1911. When watching present-day pit stops where tire/wheel combinations are swapped out in mere seconds, it's hard to fathom that in the inaugural running of "The Greatest Spectacle of Racing," dealing with tire changes was much more difficult.
As Donald Davidson, the historian of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, related to attendees at the 25-Year Club Luncheon during the recent ACS Rubber Division Spring Technical Meeting in Indianapolis, back then the tires actually had to be peeled off the rims, which weren't removable, replaced and inflated—all using manual tools.
And if a tire was blown anywhere along the 2.5 mile oval—back then all brick—the race car might need to limp around on a rim to get to the pit area. So the racing team that could best deal with the tire issues would find itself with a huge advantage, said Davidson, the only person to hold the position of historian on a full-time basis for any motorsports facility in the world.
And that definitely played into the strategy of Ray Harroun, the winner of that first Indy 500 in 1911. He considered himself an engineer who reportedly raced just so he could see creations he made tested in battle conditions, according to information on the IMS website. Nicknamed "The Little Professor," he worked for the Marmon Motor Car Co., an Indianapolis-based auto maker that produced cars from 1902-33. He helped design and build the Marmon Wasp—so named because of its distinctive yellow and black paint scheme—that he drove to that historic victory.