(This article first appeared in the Sunday Magazine section of the South Bend Tribune on November 17, 1968. It was authored by Phil Ault)

A tale for auto racing's Hot Stove League


Memo to that special breed of Midwestern automotive "nuts" who think they know almost everything about the winning cars in the Memorial Day 500-mile race at Indianapolis:

There is something you don't know about the renowned yellow Marmon Wasp in whick Ray Harroun won the first "500" in 1911. Even Harroun didn't know when he drove it to victory. Neither do the men who care for the famous old "32" in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum, nor the thousands of visitors who inspect it each year. George Frisz of South Bend knows, however, and after 57 years he's telling.

As a secret it doesn't amount to much, really, but it is a chuckle for Frisz whenever he sees a photograph of the old hard-tired speedster.

Frisz was one of the men who built the first Indianapolis winner. Since the recent death of Harroun, he is perhaps the last survivor of the crew responsible for putting the world's fast racing car of that era onto the then-new bricks at the Speedway.

At the time, the winter of 1910 and spring of 1911, Frisz worked as a welder at the old Marmon factory on the west side of Indianapolis. When the Marmon management decided to build a specially modified 6-cylinder stock car model for competition in the first 500-mile race, he was assigned to work on it.

Frisz did all the soldering, welding and brazing on the car.

"We had to make a cap for the radiator, with arms extended so it could be spun off quickly during refueling stops," he recalls. "So we took a section of pipe and welded it onto the cap."

Secret in Cap "A fellow named Harry Stillman was working with me. Just for fun, we wrote our names and addresses on a piece of paper, and rolled it up inside that pipe. It was in the radiator cap during the race, and as far as I know it's still there."

The trip, at the then-spectacular speed of 74.59 miles an hour for 500 miles, made the note the world's fastest piece of paper. In the purple prose of the next day's newspapers, Harroun's race was extolled as the swiftest thing in history, for sustained speed.

"Railroad trains have never sustained a speed of 75 miles an hour for 500 miles; neither have airplanes," one story said.

Frisz, now 80 and retired after a long career in the automobile business, lives at 1819 N. Adams. Recently he received a letter from Anton Hullman, Jr., president of the Speedway, recognizing his role in building the first "Indy" winner.

George "It has come to my attention that you are one of the two welding mechanics who built the Marmon Wasp which Ray Harroun drove to victory in the first 500-mile race in 1911." Hullman wrote. "... I certainly envy you all of those wonderful memories of the early days of racing."

As a memento, Hullman sent a set of Speedway glasses, with a list of the race winners painted on the side.

Frisz was among the breed of young mechanically-minded Hoosiers who began tinkering with automobiles when they were a novelty, and were many years away from replacing the horse. Several of the best-known early makes of automobile were manufactured in Indiana.

He grew up in North Vernon, where his father had a bicycle shop, back in the Nineties. His father also was a bicycle racer. Among the souvenirs in the Frisz home is a silver mustache cup, with a guard to keep the hair out of the coffee. Engraving on the side proclaims that the senior Frisz cycled five miles in 17 minutes, 12 seconds, thereby finishing third in a race in 1894.

Young George learned about mechanics in the family bicycle shop. The first automobile on which he worked was a single-cylinder Reo; after that, Hupmobiles.

He moved to Indianapolis, where he lived two doors from Gaston Chevrolet, and started working for Marmon in 1910.


"I earned 20 cents an hour as a welder, working 10 hours a day, five days a week," he said. "Out of that weekly $10, I paid $4 for room and board, and 50 cents for carfare."

A couple of years after the first 500-mile victory, Frisz moved to Vincennes and operated a garage. Bitten by the speed bug, he drove in auto races on the dirt track at Vincennes, in a Buick, mostly at Fourth of July "doings."

"My best speed was a mile in one minute and 10 seconds on a half-mile track," he said. This was not to be compared with Harroun's speed at Indianapolis, perhaps, but swift and risky enough under the pioneer conditions.

Around the Turn That first "500," the race that started the Indianapolis tradition, was run before a crowd of 80,000 spectators, and involved 40 cars. The standard field of 33 wasn't adopted until the next year. Cars were assigned positions and numbers by order of entry. The only qualifying requirement was that each car run a quarter mile at higher than 75 miles an hour.

The 40 cars, called by newspapers "the greatest assemblage of cars and pilots the motor racing game has ever known," were competing for $25,000 prize money. The winner received $10,000.

Over the race hung a spirit of pioneering. The idea of a car going 500 continuous miles was new. So, too, was the brick on the track. The 2 1/2-mile oval had been surfaced originally with crushed stone and an asphalt binder, but was changed to brick after fatal accidents in the short early races of 1909. Alkali powder had been spread over the bricks on the turns to absorb the oil and cut the skidding danger.

First Indy 500 Start Frisz was among those on the sidelines as the race began.

"All the drivers lined up for a photograph and then, clapping each other on the back, they wished good luck and returned to their cars," a news report said.

The good luck was needed. Before Harroun's Marmon crossed the finish line 6 hours and 42 minutes later, one man had been killed and eight injured. Only 30 miles into the race, the Amplex car from Mishawaka, driven by Arthur Greiner, blew a tire. Mechanic S. P. Dickson was thrown from the car and killed.


Starting far back in 32nd position, Harroun took the lead in the 190th mile and held it to the finish. He drove alone, without the riding mechanic the others carried. The car made four stops, each time for gas, oil and new rear tires.

Marmon Wasp Pit Stop After the race, Harroun said, "All credit is due my car for the brilliant victory." Then he announced that he was retiring from racing.

For Frisz, the victory brought nothing but his $10 a week salary. He went on to a long career as a district manager for Studebaker, and as an inventor with several patents.

He still has the satisfaction of having played a small, unusual role in auto racing history, and of having been secretly immortalized inside a radiator cap.






George Frisz, better known as "Ed" from his middle name, was my grandfather. It has always been fun to share with others this little bit of Indy 500 history that he helped make.

I always love hearing from visitors to my web pages. If you have any comments or questions, you can email me using the link at the top of this page or, better yet, sign my guestbook. Thanks!



Guestbook