Ray Harroun is best remembered as the first champion of Indianapolis 500. But his greatest contributions to the automotive world arguably happened behind the scenes. Here, we take a closer look at the storied career and off-the-track accomplishments of this pioneering inventor and automotive engineer.
Despite being someone who never considered himself a race-car driver, Ray Harroun occupies a rather prestigious place in the history of auto racing. Harroun’s career as a driver began at the dawn of the Motoring Age and the subsequent rise of the sport of motorcar racing. He rose through the ranks to become one of the era’s top drivers even though it was well known that this humble and self-described engineer only got into racing to better observe how the cars he worked on performed under racing conditions.
Having helped to design and build the Marmon Wasp for the Marmon Motor Car Company, Harroun followed his usual course of action in driving the car at the very first Indianapolis 500 in 1911. , the Wasp also included another Harroun-inspired first: a review mirror for keeping a better eye on the competition.
Harroun proved a savvy racer and kept his speed just under that of his competitors in order to ensure fewer tire changes. Averaging 74.6 mph, Harroun went on to win the inaugural race. Having successfully completed what he set out to do in the car and still insisting he was not a race-car driver, Harroun walked away from competition. His last documented start came in nearby Fort Wayne, IN, where he won a three-mile race in September of that same year.
And while this marked the end of Harroun’s time as a race-car driver who refused to recognize himself as one, he remained busy with his work as an engineer. In addition to the early years of automotive development, Harroun also tried his hand in the still new and equally dangerous field of flight.
Taking To The Sky
In 1910, Harroun partnered with Carl S. Bates, founder of the Bates Engineering Co. of Chicago, IL, to begin work on an engine and aircraft. The end result was the 24-hp, 2-cycle Bates-Harroun engine used in the Harroun-Bates Bleriot XI-type monoplane.
Based on the famed design of Raymond Saulnier and subsequently used by Louis Bleriot in his historic July 25, 1909 flight across the English Channel, the Bleriot XI-type monoplane featured a tractor-configuration with a partially covered box-girder fuselage. The Harroun-Bates version was constructed of steel tubing with the fuselage covered by aluminum sheet. This brought the plane to a reported 460 pounds. News reports from the era show Harroun flying concurrently with his brief time as a race-car driver. A report from Valdosta, GA, indicated that Harroun had attended the local air show in early March on 1911 in his new monoplane—presumably the Harroun-Bates Bleriot XI-type he developed with Bates.
The following year, Bates sold his company to Edward Bayard Heath and his E.B. Heath Aerial Vehicle Co. Harroun would later work for the United States government in developing a cart for the loading of bombs before returning full-time to his work as an engineer for Marmon (and eventually Maxwell) where he designed three different race cars for the 1914 and 1915 seasons.
Harroun eventually relocated to Michigan. Here he started his own, short-lived automobile company in 1917—a company that produced some 500 roadsters in 1917 alone.
How Quickly We Forget
In honor of the 50th anniversary of the race in 1961, Harroun appeared on an episode of the television program I’ve Got A Secret alongside A.J. Foyt, who had won the Indy 500 the previous week. One panelist incorrectly identifies Harroun as Barney Oldfield. When asked about the safety of the race between then and now, Harroun quipped deadpan, “It’s still safer than it is riding on the highway with some of these hot rodders.”
Harroun continued working within the automotive industry in various capacities until his retirement at age 79. He died in Anderson, IN, one week after his 89th birthday. During his brief, six-year career, Harroun notched a total of 60 starts and drove to 19 wins.