The winner of the 1st Indianapolis 500 was born and raised in Spartansburg. He was the son of Russell and Lucy (Halliday) Harroun and was born January 12, 1879.
His dad was a carpenter who became the Spartansburg Postmaster in 1880.
Harroun spent his early years in the home that his father built on Washington Street. That home still stands. The family lived in the area for several years before moving to Ohio in about 1899.
Following high school graduation, he entered the US Naval Academy where he earned a degree in Mechanics. He served during the Spanish American War of 1898. He was honorably discharged and lived in Erie, Pa for a short time. Later, he moved to Akron, Ohio with his family. While there, he learned the trade as dental assistant and also worked in a men’s clothing store.
Ray married Edythe Guilford in February of 1900
Ray and Edythe moved to Chicago, initially to continue his dental education. But as he worked to the equipment involved, he realized that he was good at anything mechanical.
While in Chicago, Ray became acquainted with William Thorne who was the president and CEO of a mail order company named Montgomery Ward. Thorne had just purchased a “horseless carriage” and he asked Harroun to become his chauffeur. Ray waited until Thorne left, then began to teach himself how to drive the car.
His experience with driving encouraged his interest in automobiles and, eventually in racing. This interest caused him to move to Indianapolis to be closer to the evolving automobile industry. While there, he became involved with the Chevrolet brothers and cars belonging to Charles Miller (a business man and oil industry leader from Franklin PA. When Miller sold his cars to the Buick Race Team and they hired Ray as a mechanic.
Ray wanted to be a driver, but he had no experience and the race teams already had drivers. So, he decided that he would need to build his own race car. In 1905, he built the car on a Marmon chassis, but with an engine he designed. With the car he called the “Harroun Special” he began winning county fair races and became noticed.
In 1910, Harroun won enough races to be named the AA Champion Driver.
Harroun ran several races before his Indy 500 win. Howard Marmon took notice of Ray and hired him as head engineer in charge of the new racing division. He drew up plans for a 6 cylinder single seat car with a pointed tail. This design was unusual since most racers had 2 men in the car- a driver and another who helped to watch traffic.
In April, Harroun returned from racing on the west coast and the car was ready- painted yellow and black stripes and nicknamed “Yellow Jacket”
In May, they raced in different length races in Atlanta and won the 10, 12 and 200 mile races- with Ray at the wheel for the 200.
They returned to Indianapolis ready to race. The Indianapolis racetrack was new and had gone through several changes and improvements. They ran in a 100 mile race and a 200 mile race, with Harroun winning the 200 mile and a very prestigious trophy. He then announced that he was retiring as a driver so that he could concentrate on engineering new designs.
By 1911, the Indianapolis track officials decided to run just 1 race on Memorial Day that would be 500 miles long, Ray had re-designed the Yellow Jacket (dubbed the Wasp by reporters), and allowed Marmon to talk him into driving in the 500 mile race. Ray agreed to drive as long as he couild have a relief driver.
With the mechanical knowledge that Harroun had acquired, he had a few thoughts on the best way to run the race. He would run an average of 75 MPH for the entire race because doing so would save the tires and require fewer pit stops. He had verified his thoughts with Firestone.
He qualified for the race but there were complaints from other drivers that he did not have a mechanic riding with him-even though he had raced without that person before. To resolve the concern from the others that he would not be able to see if someone was passing, he found a 3 x 8 mirror and had it mounted in the car. He had seen a mirror like this on horse-drawn vehicle, but his was the first known use of a rear view mirror in a car.
Several reports of the happenings of the race are available, including some at the end of this article. The primary fact is that Ray Harroun, a Spartansburg hometown boy, won the 1st Indianapolis 500 in the Marmon Wasp that he had designed.