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Car and Driver: “An Enormous and Desperate Whirligig”: the Associated Press’s Original Dispatch from the First Indy 500


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Indianapolis 500 1911


The first running of the Indianapolis 500 took place in 1911, around 44 years before this magazine first churned out an issue as Sports Cars Illustrated. Built up over 60 years, our archives are exhaustive, but there’s no getting around the fact that we weren’t at the Brickyard for that first 500—but the Associated Press was. And on the eve of the 100th running of the Indy 500, the AP has unearthed its original 1911 dispatch from the first “International 500-Mile Sweepstakes Race,” and it’s every bit as old-timey and quirky as we could have hoped.


Ray Harroun 1911


We highly recommend reading the report—you can get it in full here—and not only for the outdated and curious language throughout. It’s a first-hand account of the state of endurance racing over a century ago, when a 500-mile speed contest was considered an outlandish endeavor for daredevils. The winner, Ray Harroun (pictured in his no. 32 Marmon Wasp), completed the race in just under seven hours, and even boasted that “At no time was the throttle wide open and I relied wholly on consistent high speed” to win. It speaks volumes about the reliability and safety, or lack thereof, of the cars running in the race that the winning driver would avoid full throttle in a race.


Speaking of safety, the AP report’s note that “one man lost his life and three others were seriously injured” during the race almost comes off as acquiescent. There was an injury to one man’s spine, while a mechanic fell out of a car which subsequently ran over his leg. A mechanic? In the car? Some contemporary race cars carried both a driver and an onboard mechanic to monitor various systems and sometimes to balance the car, although if one were to read only the AP‘s report, it would seem the cars’ occupants existed for the sole purpose of being flung from spinning, rolling, crashing, or disintegrating race cars. The race’s lone death is attributed to a mechanic who was hurled from a spinning race car into a fence, an event the AP summarized thusly: “His body was terribly mangled.” While the thresholds of safety, speed, and spectacle in auto racing have risen in the 105 years since, The Greatest Spectacle in Racing still carries an omnipresent threat of danger, one which we hope stays a threat and nothing more at the 100th running of the race.


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