On Memorial Day weekend of 2016, competitors will line up for the 100th Indianapolis 500. And, for over a century (several war years had no races), the argument has been made that the peril drivers put themselves in for races has helped improve the quality, reliability and safety of our everyday vehicles. These benefits help answer the question that casual observers often have for the rabid race fan: “what’s so interesting about a bunch of cars going around in circles?”
In trying to answer the riddle of why we race, some racing fans resort to the bit of oft-repeated trivia that the 1911 race featured the first use of a rear-view mirror. That innovation, used by driver Ray Harroun on his famous “Marmon Wasp” car, is cited as one of the first examples of a safety device born at the track that we now take for granted. The real story, however, is not that simple, and sheds some light on the complex relationship between racing for sport and the everyday need to get ourselves from point A to point B.
Donald Davidson, Indianapolis Speedway’s official track historian, explains there were several factors that led to the appearance of the mirror. Harroun’s Nordyke & Marmon car was a single-seater, despite the fact that, at the time, most racecars were two-seaters, as mechanics actually rode along in the car and spotted for the driver. Without the extra weight of another person, Harroun’s car was naturally faster and, after an early test session, competitors complained, making the excuse that the Wasp was a safety hazard due to Harroun’s diminished track vision.
There was no rule that specifically stated a mechanic had to ride along. Harroun had found a loophole in the wording of the rulebook, but he still had to address the protests of his competitors. A memory from his pre-racing days popped into his head. In 1906, while working as a chauffeur in Chicago, Harroun saw a horse-drawn carriage driver use a mirror affixed to a pole to help him navigate through the chaotic streets full of cars, bicycles and horses. Like many inventions, Harroun’s rearview mirror was a borrowed idea applied in just the right circumstance. Safety wasn’t the primary motivation — circumventing the rulebook, turning faster laps and winning the race was.
This backstory has been left out of most racing histories, and although it’s often referred to as such, Davidson points out that it’s yet to be determined if this was truly the first use of a rear-view mirror in an automobile. Regardless, the historian has a credible source for the story behind its appearance at the first 500 — himself. “I didn’t get this off Wikipedia — Ray Harroun told me this as we sat in his kitchen,” Davidson says with a laugh. As a young boy living in Indianapolis and interested in racing, Davidson had a standing invitation to the driver’s shop.
Davidson’s deep knowledge of racing leads him to believe that the track may not necessarily be a wellspring of invention, but the extreme conditions that car and driver are subjected to on track serve as a crucible. “What I tell people is that a lot of products were improved through racing. Were they invented? No. But they were definitely perfected there.”
Davidson explains that at the beginning of the last century, “the original intent of racing was to serve as a proving grounds, to prove to the public how good the cars were…It wasn’t meant to be a sporting event or an opportunity to sell drinks, hats and t-shirts,” he says.
At some point though, it did become a sport — a grandiose spectacle — where fans rooted for drivers, not just manufacturers. Racing’s transition into a form of entertainment catalyzed a divergence between the design and safety concerns of racecar and road car.
Today’s IndyCar costs several million dollars, is constructed of lightweight composite materials and filled to the gills with sensors. Apart from having four wheels and an internal combustion engine, an IndyCar shares more in common with a jet fighter than the four-door sedan sitting in your driveway. IndyCars are purpose-built wonders, that, considering the downforce their aerodynamic packages produce, are theoretically capable of running upside down on the ceiling. (Don’t try that with your grocery getter).
Will Phillips, VP of Technology for the Verizon IndyCar Series, explains that, in addition to studying many of the technologies that are now readily available in our road cars, such as back-up cameras, proximity (lane change) sensors and heads-up displays, in the hopes of incorporating them into the sport, there’s a larger parallel between the track and real world emerging. The Verizon IndyCar series has worked with its technology and broadcast partners to build a system that can handle massive amounts of data in the interests of safety and driver vision, competition and car performance and the entertainment value of race broadcasts. Over the past three years, they have rolled out their Live On Air (LOA) system, a common data pipeline to transmit data from the cars to race operations, race teams, safety personnel and broadcast. Phillips describes it as an infrastructure “not that dissimilar to a road vehicle sending its GPS location up to the cloud.” Imagine it as plumbing for the digital age; bitrates have become equally as important as horsepower.
The good old rear-view mirror days are numbered, Phillips points out, as it juts out of the car (in an IndyCar) and produces unnecessary drag and will eventually be replaced by a camera, another step in perfecting driver vision. The history of racing is defined by compromise, striking a balance of safety concerns, speed and entertainment value, and one often has come at the expense of the other. However, the recent drawing in of technologies such as standardized telecommunications at the track has benefitted all three. That may not fully answer the larger philosophical question of why we race, but this new emphasis on connectivity helps the sport sustain its cultural relevance, not to mention that the more we know about what’s happening inside the car as spectators, the more exciting the sport is to watch. The only better seat would be as a ride-along mechanic.
Paul Biedrzycki covers automobiles for such magazines as DuJour, where he is a contributing writer.