No doubt you’ve looked in your car’s rearview mirror lately. But did you know it’s an innovation that came from racing? Probably not.
It was used at the first Indianapolis 500 by driver Ray Harroun piloting a Marmon Wasp with a 3-inch-by-8-inch mirror mounted above the dashboard. Averaging 74.6 mph, Harroun won the race for one simple reason.
Of the 40 cars on the track, he was the only one not driving with a second man on board, a riding mechanic, whose job it was to look backwards and alert the driver as to what is going on. The aerodynamic and weight advantage of not having one gave Harroun the win.
Such stories and innovations are part of a new permanent exhibit, “Driven to Win: Racing in America,” one that has taken more than a decade to put together. Sponsored by General Motors, the new 24,00 square-foot display opens March 27 at The Henry Ford in Dearborn, Michigan.
Tracking racing history
It traces the history of motorsports in America, covering everything from soap box derbies and Indy car, to stock car and drag racing. The exhibit spotlights more than 50 racing legends from Barney Oldfield through A.J. Foyt, Lyn St. James, Dan Gurney, Bobby Unser through to Ken Block.
There are displays with 225 artifacts, 28 vehicle exhibits, 26 race cars, 24 interactive exhibits, six simulators, and a 15-minute film, “Fueled by Passion,” which chronicles following five people pursuing their dream of racing.
“American motor sports racing is the embodiment of American innovation in the world of sports. But its reach has long stretched beyond the track to our showrooms, our roads and our culture,” said Mark Reuss, trustee of the Henry Ford, and President of General Motors.
“It’s about technology, it’s about cars, it’s about everything having to do with motorsports,” said Edsel Ford II, a trustee at The Henry Ford, and son of Henry Ford II.
Of course, being that this is The Henry Ford, you’ll see two of America’s most significant early race cars — Henry Ford’s 1901 Ford “Sweepstakes” and the 1906 Locomobile “Old 16.”
Henry Ford raced to success
In the case of the Ford, it was Henry himself, then a neophyte, who raced it, beating his opponent, Alexander Winton, an established automaker. The win garnered Ford the financing he needed to establish his second company, which ultimately became Cadillac. It is, perhaps, the earliest example of the old motto, “win on Sunday, sell on Monday.”
The Locomobile is noteworthy for a different reason. It’s the car driven by George Robertson in the 1908 Vanderbilt Cup, the first time an American car won a major international road race in the United States.
But the exhibit also has more modern iron, such as the 2012 Ford Fiesta ST HFHV driven by Ken Block in his series of YouTube videos that has more than 108 million views. It sits alongside the victorious 1902 Ford “999” race car driven by Barney Oldfield.
Of course, its next to the even more victorious 1967 Ford Mark IV Race Car driven by Dan Gurney and A.J. Foyt. It won the 24 Hours of Le Mans, beating Ferrari by 32 miles at a record-breaking average speed of 135.48 mph. Then there’s the Lotus Ford Type 38, which Jimmy Clark drove to victory at the 1965 Indianapolis 500, the first rear engine Formula One-style car won the race.
But beyond the cars themselves, the exhibit delves into what happens behind the scenes to make race cars go faster while enhancing their safety. Many items developed for race cars are common in modern street cars, including disc brakes, steering wheel controls, seat belts, and many more.
Still, you might wonder how two of the world’s largest automakers came together to create this exhibit. It actually happened eight years ago at SEMA, when Mark Reuss first heard the pitch from The Henry Ford. At the time, he wasn’t sure it would happen. But The Henry Ford is a vital educational institution, one whose impact on children and the Detroit region can’t be overstated. GM quickly realized the opportunity it was being given.
“We compete fiercely in the showroom and on the track,” said Jim Campbell, General Motors U.S. vice president, Performance and Motorsports. “But when we’re not doing one of those two things coming together for efforts like this actually make a lot of sense or a lot of fun. So we couldn’t be prouder to be part of it.”
It clearly inspires plenty of loyalty and dedication.
“I’ve been involved in this exhibit for probably the last 15 years,” said Ford. “It has been a true labor of love.”