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RALPH MULFORD’S performance at the 1911 Indy 500 was no less dramatic than his 1912 achievement (see http://wp.me/p2ETap-2PY for the latter). The 1911 event is also rather more controversial. In fact, this inaugural running of the Indianapolis 500 was a shambles.
Organizers had rigged up a complex electric timing apparatus, a wonder for its day. Who would have guessed its foot-high trip wire wouldn’t be damaged by 40 race cars?
As the kids say, “Duh.”
There was a Judging/Timing Stand. However, many of its 200 officials were chosen on criteria of Indianapolis society standing, not racing ken.
Shortly before the race’s midpoint, a car veered back and forth across the track and then headed for the Judging/Timing Stand. The judges and timers headed elsewhere. Other cars collided. Chaos ensued, both on track and in any semblance of official record-keeping.
When the dust settled, a duel ensued between Ralph Mulford, that year in a Lozier, and David Bruce-Brown’s Fiat. Ray Harroun’s Marmon “Wasp” also joined the fray.
The race had, at best, muddled scoring. On what might have been the penultimate lap, the order was Mulford, Bruce-Brown and Harroun. Or maybe not.
Bruce-Brown pitted for a mechanical fix. Mulford took the finish flag, followed by Harroun. Or maybe not. And then things got positively fuzzy.
What with the confused lap counts. the Lozier team sent Mulford around on three “safety” laps. However, Harroun drove the Marmon directly to the victor’s circle and the celebration began.
Lozier protested. Organizers said results wouldn’t be official until the next day, but immediately told the press that Harroun was the winner.
Indianapolis’s Claypool Hotel was the site of that night’s meeting. The next day, officials confirmed the finishing order as Harroun, Mulford and Bruce-Brown.
This time, Bruce-Brown’s team protested, claiming they were 2nd, ahead of Mulford’s Lozier.
The officials reconvened.
There were conflicting arguments: The Judging/Timing Stands had emptied whenever excitement occurred on the track. The electric timing system had a backup that worked. The second meeting’s conclusion, albeit with times adjusted, remained Harroun, Mulford, Bruce-Brown.
After this meeting (conspiracy alert!?), all official timing and scoring sheets were destroyed.
To this day, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway view continues to side with the 1911 organizers. So does a recent book by automotive authorities Matt Stone and Preston Lerner.
However, other authorities beg to differ: See “Who Really Won the First Indy 500?” by Russ Catlin, Automobile Quarterly Vol. 8 No. 4 Summer 1970. See also Russell Jaslow’s article in The North American Motorsports Journal, 1997, http://goo.gl/4MzXXr.
Also, another recent book, Blood and Smoke: A True Tale of Mystery, Mayhem and the Birth of the Indy 500, adds other research and opinion to these two sources.
In Russ Catlin’s Automobile Quarterly piece, Ralph Mulford, age 85, is quoted as saying “Mr. Harroun was a fine gentleman, a champion driver and a very great development engineer, and I wouldn’t want him to suffer any embarrassment nor the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. They have publicly credited me with leading the race and each year send me something as a remembrance and to let me know I have not been forgotten.”
My view? A gentleman throughout all this is Ralph Mulford. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2015
Oh my, will we ever know the true truth in this matter? Or will the mystery of the first Indy race keep speculation going and create new conspiracies and thus keep the interest in the history of Indy racing alive? Interesting story!
Agreed about an interesting story, something I’m happy to see continuing.
There is no reason to continue to perpetuate what is, to be generous, at best a myth (at worse, a complete fabrication, which is the most probable of the two). Ralph Mulford did not win the 1911 International 500 Mile Sweepstakes, despite the persistence of the rather imaginative mythology that he did so. Ray Harroun and Cyrus Patschke, his relief driver, won the event, something which all the contemporary sources agree upon — although there were legitimate questions raised regarding some of the positions perhaps further down the list of finishers.
As with a number of other issues regarding the early years of US racing, this mythology appears to be another creation of Russ Catlin. Even Russell Jaslow, whose article is endless cited in support of the Mulford claim, has recanted and stated that the Harroun/Patschke Marmon won the race. The article that Catlin published in AQ becomes utter tripe once one begins to question its assertions, conduct research, and then analyze the results of that effort — something that actual historians do routinely.
The Charles Leerhsen book was, at best, a hopelessly misguided effort to create controversy where none actually existed. It was someone attempting to cloak nonsense with pseudo-historical prattle.
The problem, of course, is that much of what passes for “racing history” has been shaped and formed by those far more interested in spinning “interesting stories” than hewing too close to what might or might not be true: that is, legend, folklore, tall tales, and mythology. History as in its scholarly meaning tends to be largely absent from considerations of automobile racing, something that some of us are attempting to correct.
As an old friend once put it, albeit in Italian, “It may not be true, but it makes a good story.”