INDIANAPOLIS – It remains on proud display, gleaming in an unapologetic hue of bright yellow, a permanent reminder of a different time. The "Wasp," the victorious vehicle of Ray Harroun in the inaugural Indianapolis 500 in 1911, is still the most remarkable and striking exhibit at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum, an ever-present link to the days when the event was taking its baby steps toward a golden history.
It is an object of pristine beauty and is so far removed from any typical modern car, let alone any of the open wheel machines that will scream around Indy's 2.5-mile oval on Sunday, that it is hard to imagine how it got down the track.
Sports and history go hand in hand, and there are few events that carry such a weight of nostalgia as this one. Some things remain exactly the same – big crowds, a festival atmosphere and the kind of thrill that can only be generated by witnessing pure speed flashing before your eyes. But in many ways, the earliest version of the race was a world apart from its current incarnation.
Vast advances in technology – after all, the entire automobile industry was still in its infancy a century ago and many Americans still got about by horse and cart – have created an obvious increase in speed, but Indy's pioneers just did things differently.
For starters, Harroun and his fellow racers carried an on-board mechanic with them to assist with any technical difficulties that might arise over the course of the race. With an average speed of just under 75 mph, the drivers were on the track for more than six hours – or more than twice as long as can be expected in modern times.
In that inaugural race, an open-air convertible driven by racetrack founder Carl Fisher sent the 40 entrants on their way, in rows five wide with just a sliver of space between them. More than anything, it was dangerous. While the speeds were significantly lower than today, the risk factor was through the roof.
"Those guys must have been amazing," said Indy legend A.J. Foyt, the 500's first four-time winner. "When you look at how things were, I don't think you'd have got me into one of those cars. They were taking their life in their hands every time they went out there."
The early editions of the race were littered with deaths, among them mechanic Sam Dickson, who lost his life when his driver, Arthur Greiner, hit the wall on Lap 12 of the very first 500.
It was indeed a fearless age as the motor industry began to flex its muscles. The motor speedway was originally built as a testing venue, as Indiana joined Detroit as a hotbed of early manufacturing. The original treacherous surface spawned the laying of the famous bricks, the reason why the track is still referred to as "The Brickyard" even after being resurfaced with asphalt decades ago.
Today, only a thin strip of bricks that makes up the start-finish line remains.
"It was very different in the early years, but the spirit of the event was always there," said Indy historian Donald Davidson. "People have always cared about it, and there remains that sense of magic or mystique to this day."
That opening race was marred by controversy, when it was claimed that runner-up Ralph Mulford had had a lap miscounted, meaning that he and not Harroun should have been crowned as the victor. The race also featured a fellow by the name of Arthur Chevrolet, who would go on to found the car manufacturing company of the same name. He was forced out of the running after only 14 laps.
Many of the car makers whose vehicles were used in 1911 no longer exist. Names such as Lozier, Marmon, Simplex and Knox have long disappeared in lore, to be remembered with fondness and nostalgia.
Indeed, the centennial edition of the race is a perfect opportunity to look at how far it has come. High-level technology, big business involvement and corporate sponsorship have taken over – a complete contrast to the initial era of independence.
IndyCar's future has been called into question, but a look around the track this week, with its burgeoning crowds and party atmosphere, gives the impression that while the sport might be struggling, this race continues to be sprinkled with stardust.
And that classic old "Wasp" and its vehicular friends in the museum can remind us that Indy's history might just be its greatest asset.
- Ray Harroun