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Wacky World of Rubber: Tires made difference in first Indy 500

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Photo by Indianapolis Motor Speedway Ray Harroun was the winner of the first Indianapolis 500, run on May 30, 1911.

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.

Photo by Indianapolis Motor Speedway Changing tires at the initial Indy 500 in 1911 was a much different process then it is during current-day races.

Harroun was credited for the development of the rear-view mirror that he used in that first Indy 500, a move that eliminated the need for a riding mechanic and spotter, which was the norm during those early days in racing. He reportedly was inspired to equip his car with a rear-view mirror by seeing one several years earlier on a horse-drawn carriage while working in Chicago as a chauffeur.

As Davidson tells the story, Harroun—having raced successfully at the track in the past—had devised a plan to increase tire wear, decrease the likelihood of blown tires and, in the process, limit times in the pits. The engineer had calculated that running 75 mph rather than 80 or 85, would greatly increase tire wear over the 500 mile race. Harroun said it didn't matter who passed him and how fast they were going, he would stick to keeping his speed at 75.

And in the end, the game plan worked. Davidson said news accounts of the first Indy 500 show that Harroun—driving the No. 32 car, out of 40 entrants—changed just 4 tires during the race, including the right rear tire on three separate occasions. By comparison, second place finisher Ralph Mulford had to change 14 tires, including blown tires on several occasions.

Historical accounts of the race back up the role tires played in the inaugural race. A newsreel the IMS put together to commemorate the 100th running shows footage of a tire being changed in the 1911 race, and another of a tire coming off.

Photo by Indianapolis Motor Speedway Tire mishaps also played an inherent role in the drama of the race.

There was one fatality during the first race. It was caused when one car lost a tire, swerved into the infield and rolled over several times, killing the riding mechanic on-board.

Tire mishaps also played an inherent role in the drama of the race. Tires started to blow roughly 40 miles into the race, according to a piece in Smithsonian Magazine. Some of the crews took just a couple minutes to change a tire, while others reportedly took as much as 15 minutes. This played havoc with the scoring system, leading to controversy over who was leading at any one point in the race.

Harroun was relieved by Cyrus Patschke for 35 of the laps, and officially led for 88 of the 200 laps. He and Mulford dueled for much of the second half of the race. Harroun was forced to stop when a tire on the Wasp failed, allowing Mulford to take the lead. But Mulford later came in for a tire change, putting the scoring system in question.

Some reports say Mulford, upon completing the 500 miles and a final "insurance lap," came into the pit expecting to be declared the winner. But upon arrival, he found Harroun already being lauded as the victor.

Officially, Harroun was credited with finishing the 200 laps in 6 hours, 42 minutes and 8 seconds, for an average speed of just under 75 mph, right in line with his target. Mulford was declared the runner-up, 1 minute and 43 seconds behind.

Mulford, some say, initially protested, though no official protest was filed at the end of the race. Mulford later said he figures he lost at least 14 minutes of track position because of the pit stops and tire changes, more than making the difference between being the historic first winner and a footnote in race history.

Photo by Bruce Meyer, Rubber & Plastics News Donald Davidson, historian of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, entertains attendees at the recent 25-Year Club Luncheon at the ACS Rubber Division meeting in Indianapolis.

As for Harroun, he didn't have much to say upon winning, asking for some water and "perhaps a sandwich." That initial Indy 500 was the last major race of his career, but he was associated with automobiles and racing for the rest of his life. In 1915, he developed a carburetion system that allowed driver Willie Carlson to complete that year's race using just 30 gallons of fuel.

Harroun also drove demonstrations laps in the Marmon Wasp before the start of the 25th Indy 500 in 1937, and again in 1961 on the golden anniversary of his victory.

Meyer is editor of Rubber & Plastics News, and he sees potential rubber-related stories nearly everywhere he goes. Follow him on Twitter @bmeyerRPN.