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The First Indy 500 Controversy
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The First Indy 500 Controversy

The first Indy 500 race was held in 1911 and named Ray Harroun as the winner. However, what many people aren’t aware of is the controversy that still plagues many today. The history books claim it was Ray Harroun who was the first winner of the Indy 500. But was it really Ray Harroun or Ralph Mulford? Who actually won this race? 

In 1911 the Speedway undertook a major expense after converting their track surface from crushed stone pavement to brick. The Speedway wanted to hold the greatest race of all time. Furthermore, they installed a new state-of-the-art timing and scoring system that was the envy of other race tracks. 

The new scoring and tracking system needed 100 workers to man the different points around the track and the official scoring box. The system used two Columbia Dictaphones to record the race based on the car numbers as they passed the line. This was the first time this had ever been attempted during a race. The Harograph used a timing wire to record the drivers as they crossed the line. Each time a car passed the line the time was recorded on paper in the official scoring box. One of the officials was responsible for writing the number of the car next to the time. 

The first 240 miles of the race went along without incident until Joe Jarsberger, driving a Case, lost control of his car because of a broken steering knuckle. When the car finally smashed into the judge’s stand, everyone left their posts. Nobody was there recording the car numbers as they passed the line. Jarsberger’s riding mechanic was thrown from the car and ended up on the race track.

This accident caused a chain of events when Harry Knight, driving his Westcott, was the first one there. His failed attempt to miss the debris in the road caused him to nearly take out pit row. He was thrown from the car along with his riding mechanic, Glover, when his car hit a parked Apperson that was driven by Herbert Lytle. This somehow overturned the car and sent it flying into another car that was in pit row, driven by Eddie Hearne.

Because the track was scattered with debris and people the first driver to find a hole through the mess was Mulford. After, Bruce-Brown followed and soon the rest of the drivers. Because of the accident nobody was in the scoring box to record the car numbers as they passed the line. Therefore, the completed lap wasn’t officially recorded by the judges. 

During the time of the accident, it was reported that Ray Harroun was in the pit taking back his car from his relief driver. The judges finally returned to their station when Ray Harroun was back on the track. That was when the judges started recording the car numbers as they passed the line. Therefore, all cars passing the line during the accident weren’t officially recorded on paper. 

The next 260 miles of the race were accident-free. This started the battle between Mulford, Bruce-Brown, and Harroun. Finally the one lap flag was waved to indicate the race was coming to an end. In the lead was Mulford, followed by Bruce-Brown, and then Harroun. Unfortunately, at the last lap of the race Bruce-Brown had to make a stop to repair a broken spark lever. Even with the hasty repairs made to the car he barely coasted across the finish line. 

It was Mulford who took the finishing flag alone. He was followed in second place by Harroun. The Lozier team owner ordered Mulford to take his safety laps. This was a standard procedure for some team owners. Many team owners used the safety laps to ensure their driver had completed the correct number of laps. Harroun’s team owner didn’t require him to take his safety laps.

By the time Mulford finished his safety laps he saw Harroun receiving the winners spoils. In the pit the Lozier team was furious. Soon the A.R. Pardington and AAA referees calmed them down. The judges announced they would confirm the official winner of the race the next day. When the press released the official winner of the race it wasn’t what anyone had expected. The judges said Harroun was the first winner of the Indy 500. The judges went on to say that all the other cars in the race were under scrutiny. 

After reading these facts, who do you believe actually won the first Indy 500? Was it Harroun or Mulford? Many believe that Mulford is the true winner of the race. Some say the safety laps caused him to lose the race. What do you think?

Image: Flickr.com


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  1. Eve Sherrill York
    Very interesting article, Ann. I could barely see the spot to vote.
    1. TMH
      I thought it was just my old computer Eve.
      1. Eve Sherrill York
        So did I at first. LOL
  2. Sarah Johnston
    Sarah Johnston
    You have done a lot of research and supplied a lot of facts about this race. I can see why it was hard for Mulford to accept the fact he wasn't the winner of the race. From what you have found it would appear that Mulford should be the winner of the first Indy 500 race.
  3. Julie Sinclair
    I had no idea there was ever a controversy for the first Indy 500 race. Very interesting facts and information.
  4. TMH
    Interesting history on the Indy 500! Only the drivers and perhaps the pit crews will know the true winner! Vote #7
  5. tzigane


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