We’re chronicling 100 days of Indy 500 history on #SpeedRead leading up to the historic 100th Running. With 41 days to go, Jeff Vrabel continues exploring the many tie-ins between the Indy 500 and pop culture.
More Vrabel: “500” in Hollywood’s glory days | A.J. Foyt has a secret | Late-night TV hosts at Indy | The “500” in reality TV shows | In old TV | In silent movie | In “Cars” | In “Turbo” | The Beatles at IMS | Pace Car drivers | Snake Pit rebirth | The ultimate “500” playlist | David Letterman, pit reporter | Indy 500 on Atari 2600 | On “Jeopardy!” | More 100 days blogs
If all Ray Harroun did was win the inaugural running of the Indianapolis 500, it would make him a pretty big banana in automotive circles. But it turns out he was also something of an inventor, and brought to the mainstream a small but crucial device that we use each and every day, specifically to see who the jerk is who’s tailing us too close.
Indeed, Harroun is credited with being the brains behind the rearview mirror, which he installed on his Marmon Wasp en route to winning the 1911 500. Naturally, there’s some debate about whether he was really the first — an earlier three-wheeled vehicle had one. But as with countless such cases, the legend is due to outlive the truth, because frankly ascribing it to the guy who won the “500” is cooler than saying it appeared on a horse-drawn carriage in the late 1800s. Sorry, carriage guys.
Harroun was a wildly successful racer before that first 500, and, as befitting his nickname of “The Little Professor,” designed his winning car himself. As the tale goes, he installed the mirror as a response to other teams who complained that he didn’t travel with a riding mechanic/safety spotter, and was thus a danger on the track. (They might have just been grumpy because he was pretty good.)
The mirror has proved important for, you know, driving cars and stuff, but as this is a pop-culture heavy blog, let us ask you this: Have you ever seen a race, chase or car-drama scene that didn’t, at some point, feature a protagonist glancing in fear or panic or excitement at a rearview mirror? Without it, we’d have no scenes of parents shouting at kids in the backseat, no conversations between cab drivers and passengers, nobody hitting the gas because the blue lights in the mirror were fast approaching. (One exception: “Cars.” We have no idea what talking self-aware cars need rearview mirrors for, especially not Mater.) Janet Leigh would have no idea she was being trailed in “Psycho.” There basically wouldn’t even be a “Taxi Driver.”
So to that we thank Ray Harroun for not only, you know, making it a lot easier for us to change lanes on 65, but also for basically inventing “Taxi Driver.” OK, that might be kind of a stretch. We’re keeping it.