Ask Donald Davidson: Parsons’ engine, one-and-done Harroun

Published On October 1, 2014 » 2435 Views» By Donald Davidson » Ask Donald Davidson, Blogs, IMS, IMS History, Indy 500

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I keep hearing a story suggesting that on race morning in 1950, the crew of Johnnie Parsons discovered a crack in the engine block and that his strategy then became to lead as many laps as possible, knowing he probably wouldn’t be able to finish, and that the race being stopped by rain at 138 laps basically saved him. Another version has a welding genius being brought in from St. Louis so Parsons could keep his front row starting position. So what’s the story? – John Buck, St. Louis

Well, number one, Johnnie wasn’t ON the front row that year, and number two, that is another of those stories that keeps getting more and more out of hand! Paraphrasing what was told to us years ago by a crew member, Bill Sparks, later of the USAC technical committee, somebody around 7 a.m. race morning happened to notice some beads of moisture on top of the block. The moisture was wiped off with a rag, but within a few minutes, more beads had materialized. Chief mechanic Harry Stephens then told the crew “don’t tell anybody about this,” but evidently somebody did because within minutes it was all over the garage area. According to “Sparky,” it was soon determined that porosity in the metal was allowing the moisture to seep to the surface, and so two or three of the fellows placed rags and a couple of small wooden blocks on either side of the engine block and gently peened with hammers in an attempt to seal the porosity. Not only that, but the late Frankie Del Roy, a former riding mechanic and chief mechanic-turned USAC technical chairman, told us something which debunked that “cracked block” story to an even further extent. He told us that after winning car entrant Ed Walsh sold the car to Jim Robbins, Frankie was hired by Robbins to replace Harry Stephens as the chief mechanic. Robbins was not famous for spending money and he kept encouraging Frankie to “make do” with what they had, with the result that when driver Mike Nazaruk travelled the entire 500 miles to finish second the following May, the engine was still outfitted WITH THE SAME BLOCK!

Johnnie Parsons won the rain-shortened Indianapolis 500 in 1950.

Johnnie Parsons won the rain-shortened Indianapolis 500 in 1950.

I have often wondered why Ray Harroun did not return to drive in the “500” again after winning in 1911? – Brad W., Indianapolis

Actually, he didn’t want to drive in 1911! He told us that he never thought of himself as a driver, but rather as an engineer who wanted to see for himself how everything mechanical was performing on track. He announced his retirement from driving at the end of the 1910 season, but Walter and Howard Marmon came in to the Nordyke & Marmon engineering department one day and told him they wanted him to drive the single-seater in this new 500-mile race scheduled to be held out at the Speedway the following May. “I told them I had already retired, that 500 miles was way longer than I cared to drive and that young Joe Dawson would be perfectly capable of driving the car. They replied that they wanted Joe in the stripped-down stock job and me in the single-seater,” Harroun said. Original plans called for W. L. Studebaker, a Marmon test driver, to stand by as relief for both Harroun and Dawson, but at the last moment, long distance specialist Cyrus Patschke was brought in from Lebanon, Pennsylvania, to perform those duties. At the conclusion of the race, winner Harroun made it perfectly clear that he was now done for good and wouldn’t be racing again.

Ray Harroun was a somewhat reluctant champion of the first Indianapolis 500, and never tried to win it again.

Ray Harroun was a somewhat reluctant champion of the first Indianapolis 500, and never tried to win it again.



About The Author

Donald Davidson

Indianapolis Motor Speedway Historian Donald Davidson, based at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum, developed a passionate interest in the Indianapolis 500 as a teenager in England. Arriving at IMS in 1964, he delighted the racing community with his ability to recite year-by-year accounts of participants’ careers. Returning permanently in 1965, he was invited by Sid Collins to join the worldwide IMS Radio Network and was hired by Henry Banks as USAC statistician, remaining at USAC for almost 32 years. He was named Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian in 1998. Along with numerous television and radio assignments, raconteur Davidson has played host to the popular call-in radio show “The Talk of Gasoline Alley” on 1070 AM in Indianapolis during the month of May continuously since 1971. His writing credits include countless historical articles and columns, a pair of “500” annuals in 1974 and ‘75 and co-authorship with Rick Shaffer of the acclaimed “Autocourse Official History of the Indianapolis 500,” published in 2006.