Revisionist History


Revisionists, unfortunately, have a big role in the early history of national driving champions. Secretaries of the American Automobile Association (AAA) Contest Board most frequently cited for the re-writing of auto racing history are Val Haresnape in the 1920's and Russ Catlin in the 1950's.
Haresnape "created" champions where there were none, for 1902 through 1915. Aside from the peculiar case in 1905 of a "track" points championship won by Barney Oldfield, the first time the AAA conducted a points championship was 1916. Haresnape ignored the only genuine championship in 1905 and named champions largely based his subjective assessment.
Winners of the Vanderbilt Cup were named in some instances, so if you can suspend disbelief over the preposterous process of crowning champions years, even decades ex-post facto, there was at least knowledge reflected in choices like George Heath, Barney Oldfield, Lewis Strang, and Joe Tracy. They were all highly talented, accomplished drivers who may have prevailed (although with the Heath and Hemery choices this is unlikely as they drove primarily in European road races) if a championship season had actually taken place.
Catlin confused matters further when he not only affirmed much of Haresnape's work but also changed the rules for the 1920 championship thirty years after the fact. Arthur Chevrolet, who won the championship legitimately as defined by the rules that season, was stripped of his title and replaced by Catlin's friend, Tommy Milton.
The story goes that Milton did know about the change and criticized the decision. Apparently, and to his credit, Milton only wanted recognition for genuine achievements - of which there were many in his career.
Believe it or not, this is all a back story to my real point with this post which focuses on Marmon mainstay Ray Harroun's victory at the New Orleans Fairgrounds track in November 1909. Harroun had a great year in 1909, not only triumphant at The Big Easy, but also the Wheatley Hills Sweepstakes on Long Island, the Atlanta Speedway 120, and a ten-mile sprint contest at the new, crushed stone surface Indianapolis Motor Speedway in August.
Those successes almost certainly earned him, in the revisionist imagination, the title of "national champion" for 1909. The only problem is that there was no national championship for 1909.
Yeah, let me repeat that.
There was no AAA national championship in 1909.
There may have been some of the trade newspapers whose editors and writers selected someone as "driver of the year," effectively. Ray Harroun would be an excellent choice.
All that said, I think it is fitting to note what a fine driver Ray Harroun was and that he was, indeed, a very prolific victor in 1909. He, of course, later won the 1911 Indianapolis 500, but less well known was his victory in the 1910 Wheeler-Schebler Trophy also at the Brickyard but one year earlier. He had a more accomplished driving career than most people realize.
The reality is that if there had been a championship awarded that year, there's a better-than-even chance Harroun would have received the award.