Exploring the Marmon Legacy | Feature, May 2011

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Exploring the Marmon Legacy

Sports marketing expert Ellen Greenleaf expands her vision with a project that highlights her family’s ties to the first Indy 500

With dust and smoke flying behind his No. 32 blazing yellow Marmon Wasp, Ray Harroun barrels his way across the finish line to thrill a crowd of 80,000 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

With a running time of 6 hours, 42 minutes and 8 seconds, the feat on the brick raceway is a spectacle to behold. Ray’s average speed during the inaugural Indianapolis 500 race is 74.602 mph. And his Marmon racecar, the only vehicle on the track designed to hold one person instead of two, also is creating a buzz.

Nearly 100 years later, a race is taking shape on an entirely different course. Helicopters hover overhead as logo-adorned speedboats plunge through choppy water at speeds of up to 200 mph toward a finish line.

A woman sporting dark sunglasses, a crisp white shirt and a black baseball cap is intensely watching this dangerous high-speed race.

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Ellen Bristol Greenleaf

She’s Ellen Bristol Greenleaf.
Though a century separates the two events, she has a significant connection to both races.

Greenleaf’s interest in that yellow Marmon Wasp goes beyond that of racing aficionados who are aware of its historically significant role as the Indy 500’s first winner. She’s the great-granddaughter and niece of Walter and Howard Marmon, who built the legendary vehicle.

In recent years, Greenleaf has been digging through documents, letters and history books to create a documentary film on the brothers’ engineering genius and entrepreneurial pursuits.

Meanwhile, her interest in that spectacular race on the ocean constantly keeps her schedule packed.

As the PR/events director for Time Bandit Offshore Racing, Greenleaf represents the team of the fishing vessel Time Bandit, which is highlighted on Discovery Channel’s No. 1 hit reality TV show, Deadliest Catch. She also is the event and media director for the Offshore Super Series Powerboat Racing Association, a position she has held since 2004.

She’s on the board of directors of Championship Auto Racing Auxiliary Charities, working with the IndyCar Series, NASCAR and the American Le Mans Series to support the Lyn St. James Foundation and the Cody Unser First Step Foundation.

Needless to say, the world of racing is in Greenleaf’s blood.

Childhood curiosities
Early on, the significance of the Marmon family name and its ties to the Indianapolis 500 were lost on Greenleaf, who was born the second of five children to Robert William Greenleaf, who is now deceased, and Anne Amelia Marmon Greenleaf.

As a child, Greenleaf says, she was only vaguely aware that her family was somehow involved in a car that made racing history. She was unfazed by the black-and-white photos hanging in her house on Park Avenue on the near north side of Indianapolis.

“My mom probably mentioned some things about it,” she recalls. “I kind of knew a little bit about what was going on, but when you’re that young, it’s kind of like, Okaaay.”

Her formative years landed her in Tudor Hall School for Girls, which later became Park Tudor through a 1970 merger with Park Hall. “We had to wear these wonderful uniforms,” Greenleaf quips.

Despite the uniformity, Greenleaf found many ways to express her individuality at the school — exploring her acting talents by becoming involved in theater, taking up singing as part of the choir, and tapping into her athletic side as a member of the basketball and hockey teams.

But she found her niche in the study of language, especially Latin, which she studied for 10 years throughout her elementary and secondary education.
That passion eventually evolved into the study of French Literature at Indiana University Bloomington, where she earned her degree in the field.

While a graduate student at Indiana University, Greenleaf delved into the culture and religion of Tibet when she met and started studying under the Dalai Lama’s brother, the late Thubten J. Norbu.

Ellen shares a moment in the spotlight with offshore racer Larry Kostelac.

Branching out
Greenleaf says she received firsthand lessons on the principles of Buddhism when she met Norbu, who had fled to America in the ’60s to escape Communist rule in Tibet, eventually moving to Bloomington, where he began teaching at IU.

“It was awesome,” recalls Greenleaf, who also got to know his family. “He was just a humble, humble man who had lived in a monastery before he escaped. He had a lot of interesting stories.

“I think it made me more open to all different kinds of experiences,” she adds.

Those rich experiences at Indiana University piqued her interest in travel and tourism. “That was my niche right there,” she says. “Studying with the people I did while at Indiana University opened up a whole new realm of possibilities, both mentally and spiritually.”

After leaving Bloomington, Greenleaf, newly married, pursued her passion for tourism while living on a farm near Madison, Ind. There she was involved in promoting tourism in Jefferson County and working with a historic preservation agency.

When her husband was recruited by the Texas Historical Commission in Austin, Texas, to develop its downtown business and historic districts, the couple made the move to the Lone Star State.

While there, Greenleaf, who expanded her family with the births of Tristan Walker, now 35, and Blaine Walker, now 30, shifted her focus by working for the Marine Military Academy in Harlingen, Texas.

“That was an incredible experience,” recalls Greenleaf, who worked with retired sergeants as they passed on valuable lessons to students at the school.

Greenleaf’s next job took her to Hutchinson, Kansas, where she served as director of marketing/membership for the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center. Among the center’s many highlights was a space artifact restoration team, which attracted people from all over the world, Greenleaf recalls.

“That was awesome to be able to work with so many different attractions,” she says.

Later, Greenleaf moved to Corpus Christi, Texas, where she once again worked in tourism by taking on a position with the Corpus Christi Convention and Visitors Bureau. She also founded the Coastal Bend Film Commission, working with producers from Florida to Los Angeles typically on Western genre movies.

But it was while in Corpus Christi that she discovered yet another new passion.

Powerboat racing
With Greenleaf having firmly established her reputation as a marketing and event planning guru, it made sense that some friends approached her about an idea to design a course and event that would attract the attention of the American Powerboat Association.

After the course was designed and accepted, Greenleaf got busy promoting the event, helping to recruit volunteers, setting up security and working out all the other details of an event that would attract thousands to the area.

That was nearly 10 years ago. Greenleaf continues to make her mark on powerboat racing, recently adding the title of public relations coordinator for Time Bandit Offshore to her lengthy resume.

In landlocked Indianapolis, Greenleaf points out, people are not as familiar with this type of racing as they are with the IndyCar Series, NASCAR and Formula One.

“The thrill level of powerboat racing is unlike anything else on land because of the challenges,” Greenleaf says. “There are a lot of safety issues on the water. Offshore is known as NASCAR on water.”

With powerboat racing, boats containing a two-man crew — the driver and a throttle man — are navigating a continually fluid course, which can present some extra dangers not found on land-based courses.

The waves crossing over each other can create holes, Greenleaf points out. It’s because of those holes that rescue crews in helicopters are constantly on alert to make sure the driver and his throttleman emerge if they are thrown into the water.

“If they don’t see helmets up in 30 seconds, they deploy,” Greenleaf says of the medical safety dive teams.

With all the action, dangers and speeds, powerboat racing is one of the most exciting sports in the world, she adds.

Reaching back
Though Greenleaf is primarily involved in powerboat racing promotions these days, she has, for years, played a significant role with the events related to the Indianapolis 500, particularly with CARA Charities and the Lyn St. James Foundation.

However, recently, her interest in the Indianapolis 500 took on a different twist.

As project development director of Tmack Productions, Greenleaf has been working with the company’s president and CEO Tom MacKnight to create a documentary about the men behind the Marmon Wasp, which is permanently on display at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum.

Greenleaf says the documentary will delve more extensively into her family’s history, beyond what has been highly publicized about the Marmon Wasp #32.

“That just happened to be one vehicle they made,” she says. “We’re going beyond that, including how the car company was developed and the history of the Marmon family.”

MacKnight notes that the Marmon brothers’ innovations have not properly been recognized. For example, he says, the air cooling systems they installed in their automobiles were a predecessor to the air conditioning systems in cars today.

“That innovation is used today, and it hasn’t been generally credited to the Marmons. It’s not known to the layperson,” he says.

Greenleaf also says the Marmons installed a mounted rearview mirror in the Marmon Wasp #32, eliminating the need for a second passenger (a mechanic in races) to tell the driver what was going on behind them.

As part of their research, Greenleaf and MacKnight studied the vintage book The Marmon Heritage by George Hanley and Stacey Pankiw. The vintage book contains schematic and design images, letters and photos of the Marmons’ innovations.

“One of the things I find interesting is that they were attentive to aerodynamics even then,” MacKnight says. “It’s amazing the number of patents they had. It’s a shame the Marmons were ahead of their time.

“It could have changed the course of automobile history,” adds MacKnight, noting that the Great Depression put an untimely end to the family’s pursuits.

A glimpse of the past
As part of developing the documentary, Greenleaf and MacKnight will be shooting preliminary footage of 100th anniversary celebrations related to the Indianapolis 500, including the Marmon Muster, a rally that will include a display of more than 50 Marmon vehicles shipped from as far away as New Zealand. They’re planning to complete the documentary in the next year.

“It’s really amazing,” Greenleaf says. “The thing that blows us away is that no one has done this before.”

MacKnight notes that Greenleaf’s ambition and drive is apparently a trait passed down through generations of the Marmon family.

“Ellen is very tenacious. She is constantly driven,” he says. “She really interacts well with every type of person I’ve seen her meet. She’s a fireball. She takes an idea and a project and she runs with it.”

Greenleaf says it will be an honor to work on a project that sheds light on a family history she once took for granted.

“It’s a tribute to the brilliance of Howard and Walter and their work with Ray Harroun in designing a vehicle that won the first 500,” she says.

“I’m honored to be part of a family with such brilliance.”

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