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Inventor, engineer Harroun honored as 1st Indy 500 winner

May 3, 2016

After more than 100 years, Ray Harroun, winner of the first Indy 500, got his plaque.

An enormous American flag flew over a nearly perfect replica of Harroun's bright yellow Marmon Wasp, a single-seat roadster that shot red flame out of the tailpipe and shook the ground when the gas pedal was pushed.

More American flags lined the streets of Anderson Memorial Park Cemetery, where Harroun was buried after he died in 1968, and where, now, a large plaque explaining Harroun's accomplishments to racing and the automotive industry greets people as they enter the cemetery.

"Growing up in Indiana, I knew Ray won the first Indy 500 before I knew Washington was the first president," Brian Hasler, Indiana Racing Memorial Association co-founder, said at Sunday's unveiling.

The day, which opened with remarks from several city and racing officials, included a wreath laying at Harroun's gravesite and ended with a talk by Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian Donald Davidson.

In all, though, the day was a way to begin those 30 days of May that culminate in the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing," by remembering the man whose win began the yearly tradition in 1911.

Harroun, who grew up in Pennsylvania, worked as an engineer for Marmon, a now-defunct automobile manufacturer. He was also a racer, although Davidson said Harroun would often only race the cars so he could have a better understanding of what could be wrong with them.

The 1911 Indy 500 was Harroun's last race, although he shouldn't have even been in it, he had retired from driving a year earlier. But after some coaxing he decided to pilot the Marmon Wasp, which was the first car to not have a mechanic riding along with the driver. He is also credited with the first use of a rear-view mirror on an automobile.

After his win Harroun turned to inventing, what Davidson said he said was his true calling.

He worked for Maxwell Auto Co. before opening his own shop in 1917. However, that shop was refitted by the U.S. government during World War I to build ammunition. After the war Harroun wasn't able to change the machinery back to build cars and abandoned the project.

When Davidson visited Harroun in the 1960s he still had a small tea chest that sat beside his kitchen table that was overflowing with inventions like a periscope for drivers to use to see over traffic jams and a bomber that was used in the Vietnam War.

In the early 1950s Harroun married his fifth wife, Mary Alice Devore, and moved into a small trailer park in Anderson.

Shortly thereafter he would die of a heart condition that plagued him in his later years. He was buried in Anderson Memorial Park Cemetery in 1968.

Davidson said only about 30 or 40 people attended the memorial for Harroun, which was surprising to Davidson because of his connection to not only motorsports history but Hoosier history as well.

And almost 50 years after that funeral more than 250 people would attend a memorial for Harroun.

Anderson Mayor Tom Broderick Jr. said at Sunday's memorial, he was proud to know about Harroun and his connection to the Indy 500 before he was contacted by IRMA to complete the plaque.

"When you live 35 miles from the greatest speedway in the world, it's hard not to know its history," Broderick said.

The city was the perfect place to begin the Indy 500 celebration not just because of Harroun but also because of the history Anderson has with the automobile industry.

Barbi Sherlin, Harroun's granddaughter, said she "can't even fathom," what it means to know so many people remember and respect her "Grampy."

"We are so honored to be here, in this time, because he was never really able to experience (admiration)," she said, standing near her grandfather's copper gravestone with the small inscription reading: "Winner - first Indy 500 - 1911."

She was brought to tears when she first saw the memorial honoring her grandfather.

"I am so excited and so blessed, thank God for all of this and the ability to be here," she said. "I can't thank everyone enough."

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