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THE SLOWEST driver credited with finishing the Indianapolis 500 might also have been credited with being the Indy 500’s first winner. Added to this is the paradox that he is relatively unheralded, and, unlike many early race drivers, lived a long life, dying at the age of 88.
Ralph Mulford’s 1912 Indy earned him the dubious distinction of being the all-time slowest finisher of the Indianapolis 500. This tale is better documented than an 1911 Indy 500 win, so let’s look at the 1912 race today and examine the chaotic inaugural Indy 500 tomorrow.
Twenty-four cars qualified for the 1912 Indy, each proving that it could run a 2.5-mile lap at a minimum of 75 mph. The cars gridded in four rows of five, plus the last four cars making up the fifth row. By the way, grid position was based on receipt of entry, not qualifying speed.
“Smiling Ralph” Mulford and his Knox started 16th by entry date, though at 87.88 mph he had posted the second-fastest qualifying lap.
Other hot contenders included the three Nationals driven by Joe Dawson (qualifying lap at 86.13 mph), Howdy Wilcox (87.20 mph) and David L. Bruce-Brown, (the fastest qualifier at 88.45 mph). All cars carried riding mechanics, made mandatory after the previous year when Ray Harroun drove his single-seater to victory (or maybe not, see anon).
Ralph DePalma, his mechanic Rupert Jeffkins and their Mercedes (qualifying speed 86.02 mph) took the lead on the third lap and ran away with the event—almost. See “Hollywood Meets Motor Sports,” http://wp.me/p2ETap-2JL, for this and other DePalma exploits. Briefly, the Mercedes cracked a piston on lap 198. DePalma and Jeffkins valiantly pushed their car to the start/finish line, thus completing all but two of the 200 laps.
Despite their efforts and the encouragement of more than 80,000 fans, DePalma, Jeffkins and the Mercedes were credited with a DNF, 11th among a decimated field. Only the top ten finishers gained any prize money, and to finish, a car had to run the full 500 miles.
Dawson’s National scored the win after 6 hours 21 minutes 6 seconds. He, his mechanic and the National team split $20,000 in prize money (a big-time win then, figure $480,000 today).
Meanwhile, Smiling Ralph and his Knox had been far in arears with numerous stops involving clutch problems. However, seeing the few runners remaining, he realized that completing the 500 miles would give him 10th place and $1200 in prize money ($30,000 in today’s dollars).
So Mulford and his riding mechanic continued on. It’s reported they pitted at one point to change shocks for a more comfortable ride and again for a dinner-on-the-go of fried chicken and ice cream.
The crowd went home. Speedway president Carl Fisher and official starter Fred Wagner left. Finally, after 8 hours and 53 minutes, Mulford’s Knox completed the 1912 Indy 500. At a record average speed of 56.285 mph, the slowest ever.
Tomorrow, we’ll examine the evidence that Ralph Mulford actually won the inaugural Indianapolis 500 in 1911. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2015