Early auto racing was a rough-riding sport. Even today, part of its thrill is the risk of horrible accidents. But one of history’s greatest auto racers would develop and popularize one of the automotive world's core safety features: the rearview mirror. Of course, Ray Harroun was full of surprises.
Known as "The Little Professor," Harroun was a part-time racer who held a day job at a car factory. He was a genuine automotive enthusiast: He raced the cars he built not just to burn rubber but for the thrill of seeing his handiwork battle-tested. His final race, the first Indianapolis 500, in 1911, was the luckiest ride of his career.
Race cars at the time were two-seaters, one for the driver and the other for a ride-along mechanic whose main job was to warn about approaching competitors. Harroun's rivals were then understandably shocked — and outraged — when he debuted his six-cylinder Marmon Wasp. It had just one seat.
After complaints that he had gained the advantage of not having the mechanic’s extra weight at the cost of not being able to see behind him — the sort of dangerous disadvantage that could hurt all drivers on a track — he rolled his Wasp into his garage at the racetrack and emerged with a solution he had seen years before on a horse-drawn buggy taxi: a bracket fixed atop the steering wheel with a mirror mounted to it — "seeing without turning," as Popular Mechanics called the concept.
With his rearview mirror attached, Harroun took his place as the lone solo driver.
With his rearview mirror attached and only half an hour until race time, Harroun took his place on the outside of the seventh row, 28th out of 40 competitors, as the lone solo driver. His yellow car could have just as easily been called the Odd Duck.
As the race commenced, he progressed with patience. He had calculated the exact limits of what his car could handle. As other drivers floored it, zooming by but burning rubber, Harroun played his time on the track more like a tortoise than a wasp, slow and steady — if an average speed of almost 75 miles per hour could be seen as slow.
Harroun's attentive thoughtfulness let him change only four tires, in only three pit stops, through his nearly seven hours of raving. His chief rival, by contrast, replaced 14 tires. When that rival, Ralph Malford, made a final pit stop, Harroun was able to take the lead and declared the victor. Having won the debut championship and cemented both his name, his car, and his MacGuyvered rearview into the history books, Harroun retired, not eager to press his luck.
But the rearview mirror caught on nationally and around the world. Only years later did Harroun confessed how truly lucky he’d been. The Indianapolis Speedway had just been paved in 1910, with 3.2 million bricks — not the smoothest ride in the world. "Actually, it shook so bad I couldn't see a darn thing in it anyway," Harroun told a Speedway historian years later. "But nobody knew that but me."