THE FIRST ENTRY FORM HIT Fisher's desk on Oct. 22, 1910, long before anyone had expected to see one, with the full $500 fee attached (though only a $100 down payment was necessary). It was from the J.I. Case Threshing Machine Company of Racine, Wis., nominating a car to be driven by the great Lewis Strang. Having a "mount" in the sweepstakes made Strang the envy of his fellow driving stars. Ralph DePalma piped up immediately to say, "I will be a starter even if I have to drive a wheelbarrow!" He wound up in the second car entered, a barely legal (at 597 cubic inch displacement it was a mere three cubic inches under the limit allowed) New York--made Simplex.
Did bigger necessarily mean better in a long race? If it did then Strang had a problem; his engine, at 284 cid, shared the distinction of being the smallest machine in the sweepstakes. Still, as Oldfield noted, with variables such as weight and number of pistons also in play (five of the cars had six cylinders, the rest four), the relationship of size to power was slippery, and there was no consensus on the best approach.
Cubic inch displacement had to count for something, though, or the founders, who initially pitched the sweepstakes as an "international" event meant to decide whether European cars were still superior to American ones, would not have drawn the admission standards in a way that effectively eliminated most of the big-engined German, French and Italian entries that Americans supposedly no longer feared. Fisher would have been severely disappointed to see his trophy go overseas, or for that matter across state lines. For several years Indiana and Michigan had been running neck and neck in terms of auto production and sales, but since Henry Ford had come along and set up shop in Detroit, the balance of power had tipped northward, and Fisher's Hoosier comrades very much needed a boost.
Indianapolis's best hope was the number 32 Marmon "Wasp," a pointy-tailed "experimental" car to be driven by Ray Harroun. The Wasp was the only single-seater in the sweepstakes, a rarity in an age when almost every driver took along a riding mechanic, who manually pumped oil, checked the gauges and swiveled his head to check for competitors coming from the rear. Harroun didn't like race driving much—he considered himself an engineer—but he happened to be very good at it, and in fact was the national champion the year before.
"My father was one of the first drivers who believed in strategy—tire strategy," Harroun's 95-year-old son, Dick, said not long ago. "The people at Firestone told him that if he stayed under 80 miles per hour, he'd make fewer pit stops and win the race." In an age when most drivers were hard-charging front-runners, no matter what the distance, this was considered a radical approach.
In all, only 13 of the 40 starters were Indiana-made, and several of the most formidable entrants came from elsewhere. Deep into May, top American drivers Spencer Wishart and David Bruce-Brown were still in Europe, tinkering with the Mercedes and the Fiat, respectively, that they intended to drive in the sweepstakes. And Ralph Mulford, the cheerful, blond, part-time choirmaster who dominated road racing in 1910 the way Harroun had dominated track competition, was preparing a powerful, pure-white Detroit-made Lozier (544 cid) that impressed connoisseurs of fine engineering (one of the few true stock cars in the race, it cost about $5,000 retail) and looked as if it could handle the distance.
Mulford set out in his race car from the Lozier factory in Detroit on May 14, with his wife, Ethel, in the riding-mechanic's seat. Smiling Ralph was a true superstar, famous enough to have spawned an impostor who went around the country telling young women he was Ralph Mulford and wanted to marry them.
WITH THE SNAP OF A RED FLAG AND AN INAUDIBLE SHOUT OF "GO!" starter Fred Wagner got the field away for the first Indianapolis 500 on May 30, 1911. Both Harroun and Mulford immediately dropped back, content to let others battle through the smoke and dust to put their cars on the lead.
Who held that lead at any one time, though, was hard to say; the officials of that era simply did not have the technology to keep track of timing and placement in a long, crowded race, and an accident at Mile 240, which sent a car spinning toward the judges' stand and caused the timers to abandon their posts for at least 10 minutes, only added another layer of uncertainty. Cycle and Automobile Trade Journal found that "cars were bunched so closely and came across the wire so continuously that it was absolutely impossible to tell who was ahead and who was running behind."