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Comparing the first car and the last car to win the Indy 500

How does Ray Harroun's 1911 Marmon Wasp match up to Helio Castroneves' 2021 race-winning car?
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Posted at 5:39 PM, May 13, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-13 18:27:18-04

SPEEDWAY — In 1911, Ray Harroun made history as the first winner of the Indianapolis 500, crossing the finish line at 6 hours and 42 minutes.

He was behind the wheel of the machine that put him in the history books, the Marmon Wasp.

The mustard-colored racer is on display at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum, where Jason Vansickle works as the Vice President of Curation & Education.

"I mean this machine started it all," Vansickle said. "This is Ray Harroun's office if you will."

Vansickle calls the Marmon Wasp an interesting car, built in Indianapolis in 1909. It featured an experimental six-cylinder engine, designed by Harroun.

Harroun designed the Marmon Wasp as a single-seater, with a rearview mirror -- all innovative concepts at the time.

In a documentary titled "Crucible of Speed," which aired on WRTV in 1949, Harroun explained he designed a single-seater race car so he could "save weight and get more speed by riding alone."

Up to this point, race cars carried a driver and mechanic.

On the first Indianapolis 500 race day, Harroun kept a close eye on his speed.

"It actually ran a little bit slower than its competitors," Vansickle said. "Ray Harroun understood that if he ran just under 75 miles per hour, he could save tires on the rough surface of the brick and he would not have to take as many pit stops for tires, which would make up time."

The first car to win the race averaged 75 miles per hour.

The last car to win the same race in 2021 more than tripled that speed, with four-time Indianapolis 500 champion, Helio Castroneves, behind the wheel.

"I think we're over 238 miles per hour," Castroneves said. "And that was in qualifying. So hopefully we can hit that 240 (mph)."

Castroneves is going after his fifth win this year with his speed machine, the No. 06.

"This car is amazing. We saved it from last year to this year. So it's exactly the same," he said.

Time and space are so different for racers, 111 years later.

The time it takes to finish the race is shorter.

The space a driver has to operate his racer is tighter.

Back in the early 1900s, the cockpit was larger and had no seat belts.

"They believed it was safer to be thrown from the vehicle than to be in it if there was an accident," Vansickle said.

Castroneves acknowledges the safety differences between the early race car models and the ones he drives today.

"They think making a stronger car would be better for the driver," Castroneves said. "Over the years, obviously, it's been proved it's quite the opposite. You wanted a car to be absorbing the impact... all the pieces you see today flying all over the place, it's actually on purpose to help absorb that impact. The only thing you cannot allow to do that is the cockpit."

Not only will you find a tight cockpit in Castroneves' Indy Car, but you'll also find low, wide tires --- a stark contrast to the high, narrow Firestone tires on the Marmon Wasp.

Driver Ray Harroun had to maneuver a large wooden steering wheel.

Helio Castroneves uses a steering console a fraction of the size, equipped with buttons and controls.

The IMS Museum curator says the Marmon Wasp may look primitive in today's terms, but "this was like a spaceship in 1911 terms."

Two machines: the bookends of a storied tradition, with one man looking to make history once again at the 106th running of the race.

"We feel very very strong that this No. 06 machine is gonna be ready for another fight," Castroneves said.

The Indy 500 runs on May 29, 2022.