Story by Leigh Dorrington
The story of the Indianapolis 500 is the story of America in a pivotal century—the beginning of the American Century. A rural nation rushing to embrace industrialization. Farm boys, fairgrounds and big city promoters. Seat of the pants courage and genuine genius. Foreign invasions—so to speak—and homeland traditions.
In 1910, the city of Indianapolis was home to 233,650 people and the 22nd largest city in America. The U.S. Center of Population in 1910 was in Bloomington, Indiana, just 52 miles southwest of Indianapolis.
Indiana was already one of the early centers of American automobile production. Indiana had one of the best railroad networks in the U.S., providing ready access to both raw materials and growing markets, and an established carriage and wagon-building industry. Over 400 different makes of automobiles were manufactured in Indiana at one time or another.
Some 217 Indiana automakers had already been at work by 1910, and another twenty would be added in 1911. One early Indiana automaker, Elwood Haynes of Elkhart who built his first automobile in 1893, advertised that his automobile was ‘America’s First Car’. A Haynes-Apperson was also among the automobiles entered in the first automobile race in America, the Chicago Times-Herald race between Chicago and Evanston, Illinois in 1895.
Many pioneer Indiana automakers built as few as a single automobile. But some, like Auburn, Marmon and Studebaker, would find ongoing success before the flame burned out. Other great Indiana automobiles—Stutz, Duesenberg and Cord—hadn’t been introduced yet. But the automobile industry was rapidly becoming a backbone of Indiana’s economy.
Indianapolis drew auto enthusiasts like a magnet. Carl G. Fisher was one of these men, but he was far from typical. Fisher has been called the father of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway—and many other things, including ‘Crazy Carl Fisher’.
The Father of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Carl Fisher wasn’t crazy; he was filled with ideas.Fisher was one of a breed who were called ‘go-getters’ in his day. In addition to forging the idea of a speedway to provide a testing facility for Indiana’s automakers, Carl Fisher was later credited with developing Miami Beach from Florida swampland and spearheading the Lincoln Highway to provide a stimulus for better highways across America that much later influenced the Interstate Highway System.
Coming from a modest background, Carl Fisher opened a bicycle shop in Indianapolis at the age of 17 and was an avid bicycle racer. By 24, he was the first automobile dealer in the United States after meeting Ransom E. Olds at the 1900 automobile show in New York—America’s first auto show, held in Madison Square Garden—and returning to Indianapolis with a contract as Oldsmobile’s first sales agent. Soon Fisher had taken on other lines of automobiles and quickly made a name for himself for the outrageous promotions he dreamed up for the automobiles he sold.
Fisher once hung a Stoddard-Dayton automobile below a hot air balloon and flew over the city of Indianapolis. When the balloon landed, the Stoddard-Dayton was supposedly driven to the center of Indianapolis and put on display in Fisher’s showroom. In fact, the automobile was too heavy for the balloon to lift and mechanical components had been removed. A second car, reportedly hidden in the bushes near the balloon landing, was actually driven into downtown Indianapolis where Fisher was greeted by a large and cheering crowd.
Carl Fisher partnered with James Allison in 1904 to buy an interest in the patent rights to manufacture acetylene headlights. In a day before electric headlights had been invented, the company—named Prest-O-Lite—made virtually every headlamp sold on automobiles in the United States. Fisher and Allison sold out to Union Carbide in 1913, but not before making themselves very wealthy. Union Carbide paid Fisher and Allison $9,000,000 in pre-WWI dollars.
Fisher and Allison were examples of an age when men—and women—with vision and courage could seemingly accomplish anything. With the building of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the race that came to be called ‘The Greatest Spectacle in Racing’, they did.
The story of the Indianapolis 500 is the story of many individuals who made contributions—large and small—to the Speedway’s history. No one knows these stories better than Donald Davidson, the Speedway’s celebrated historian who co-authored The Official History of the Indianapolis 500 with Rick Shaffer.
Newby, Wheeler and Fletcher
The Speedway was the brainchild of Carl Fisher. Fisher raced briefly at the turn of the century as a ‘barnstormer’, racers who travelled from one country fairground to another staging match races between automobiles, airplanes and horses. The results were often preordained, but the excitement was authentic. One of Fisher’s colleagues was another former bicycle racer, Berna Eli Oldfield—‘Barney’ Oldfield.
Fisher also entered or attended early automobile races in both Europe and the U.S., including the Vanderbilt Cup Races on Long Island in New York. He designed and built a special race car with the Indianapolis-based Premier Motor Manufacturing Company that he planned to drive in the 1905 Vanderbilt Cup Race, but the automobile failed to meet weight restrictions and did not race.
As early as 1903—four years before the Brooklands circuit opened in England—Fisher envisioned high-speed closed circuits of 1, 3 and 5-miles, with straights 100 to 150 feet wide. Such a track took into consideration the inherent dangers to automobilists on narrow fairgrounds tracks created for horse racing, and the ongoing need to accommodate ever-increasing speeds for testing and auto racing. Fisher wrote to the editor of Motor Age magazine in 1906 to share his ideas on the “Advantages of a Big Circular Track”, as rediscovered by Donald Davidson.
Arthur C. Newby and Frank H. Wheeler were two other Indianapolis businessmen who would figure prominently in the creation of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Newby is credited with creating the popular six-day bicycle races that briefly seized the American public’s attention at the turning of the new century. In 1898 Newby built a 15,000-seat velodrome for bicycle racing in Indianapolis. Newby had also risen to a position of responsibility with Nordyke & Marmon, one of Indianapolis’s leading manufacturing firms and, since 1902, manufacturer of the Marmon automobile. Newby then became president of the National Motor Vehicle Company founded in Indianapolis in 1904.
Frank Wheeler was the partner of George Schebler in the Wheeler-Schebler Carburetor Company in Indianapolis, which had also benefitted hugely from the exploding popularity of the automobile.
A fifth partner—for no more than a matter of days—was Stoughton Fletcher whose family controlled one of Indiana’s most venerable banks, founded in 1839. A venture involving automobile racing was deemed by Fletcher’s family to be inappropriate to family interests, and the chagrined young Fletcher was forced to withdraw.