Getting to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (1940 and before)

Today’s entry will be graphics heavy. This is going to be a very strange Memorial Day weekend in the Hoosier Capital. The “Greatest Spectacle In Racing” has been postponed. But I wanted to look back at how newspapers covered getting to the track…especially before 1940.

Indianapolis Star, 30 May 1919

A look at the Indianapolis Star of 30 May 1919 shows some of the old road names that existed at the time on the west side of Indianapolis. Waterway Boulevard was still Crawfordsville Road in 1919. And that Crawfordsville Road crossed White River on the old Emrichsville Bridge. The Big Eagle Creek Gravel Road is now Cossell Road and Winton Avenue.

Indianapolis News, 29 May 1923
Indianapolis News,
29 May 1923
Indianapolis News, 29 May 1928
Indianapolis News, 29 May 1928
Indianapolis Star, 29 May 1940

Indianapolis and Its Decoration Day Race

If there is one thing that Indianapolis is known for, it is racing. Oh, yes. Almost anyone in the WORLD would respond “Indianapolis 500” if you mention the city. Memorial Day weekend has become a time when the population of the city doubles and triples, with all of the visitors coming to watch “the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” But the subject of this post isn’t something related to a farm field with a large rectangle with curved corners in Speedway. As a matter of fact, the subject article of this post dates from the Indianapolis News of 23 May 1896, some 13 years before that other race started.

Before it became known as Memorial Day, 30 May of each year was known as Decoration Day. The holiday floated depending on the location of 30 May on the calendar. It was declared a Federal Holiday in 1868. In Indianapolis, the end of May signified, among other things, the end of the “rainy season,” otherwise known in the rest of the world as Spring. The weather starts getting drier and hotter right after Decoration Day. So it made almost perfect sense to use that holiday as a day to get together to watch a race.

Indianapolis News, 23 May 1896. This map shows the route of the annual Decoration Day Bicycle Road Race of 1896.

The Indianapolis Cycle Club and the Cycle Board of Trade put together the annual Decoration Day Road Race through the streets of Indianapolis. At the time of the source article, thirty men were in the list of racers. Those racers, unlike previous years, weren’t all from Indianapolis. Entries would be taken until 26 May, the following Tuesday. It was estimated that seventy-five to one hundred riders would be at the starting line when the race kicked off. Batches of racers would be set off on the 13.625 mile course at intervals of one minute.

Prizes for the race, due to its amateur status, could not include money. But there were 38 prizes to be given to the riders. The rules state that each rider is only allowed to win one prize. Prizes include four different bicycles, tires, suits, caps, hats, electric lantern, a Kodak, fishing rods, shoes, lamps, golf hoses, sweaters, luggage and a speed indicator. These prizes came from merchants across the city. Carl G. Fisher, future creator of the Lincoln and Dixie Highways, and his bicycle store donated two sweaters, a pair of shoes, and a “speed indicator.”

The course was chosen due to the relative good condition of the route. “It is probable that not another road race will be run on Decoration Day throughout the entire country on a finer course than the one which will be used here.” There are a few bad spots along the way, but they are few and far between.

The race started at the corner of Meridian and 14th (now 21st) Streets , heading north to 30th (now 38th) Street. Here it turned west one block to follow Illinois Street, which since it was outside the city limits at the time, was called the Indianapolis and Westfield Road (which is now Illinois Street and Westfield Boulevard to Broad Ripple). From there, it followed what is now Broad Ripple Avenue to the Fall Creek and White River Gravel Road (now called Keystone Avenue). South along the Fall Creek Road, the course then turned southwest onto the Allisonville Pike (now Fall Creek Boulevard). The Allisonville Pike went as far as what is now 38th Street, with the Allisonville name being used across that numbered street. The route then turned south on Meridian Street at 30th, going back to the starting point at 14th.

A three block stretch of asphalt starts, and finishes, the course. Two bad street car track crossings, one at 26th (34nd) Street and the other at 28th (36th) Street, are encountered. From the Fall Creek bridge to 30th (38th) Street is “one of the worst spots along the whole course.” Potholes and loose gravel make this section a rough going. Turning at 30th (38th) Street gets interesting, with a wooden culvert to be crossed, with boards at one end being lose. Three-eighths of a mile after turning onto Illinois Street riders will encounter a small rise. Further along Illinois Street requires crossing a wooden culvert, a small wooden bridge and climbing a 200 yard long, fairly stiff hill. “This hill stops just beyond the carriage entrance for Fairview Park (now the location of Butler University).” This entrance would be at what is now 46th Street. From here, for the next one-half mile, is a gradual down grade. At the canal, the route drops along a steep grade for about 100 yards.

“Some riders may seek to cross the canal and take advantage of the cycle path, but this will not be allowed.” The first quarter mile along what is now Westfield Boulevard is reported in excellent condition. Then comes 300 yards of horrible conditions, including potholes on both sides of the road. After that, fresh gravel with wheel tracks already in place on each side of center.

At Broad Ripple, the course encounters the Monon tracks and follows the street car tracks along what is Broad Ripple Avenue (previously 62nd Street). The Broad Ripple section is reported as being the worst section of the entire course. One of the best parts of the route is along the Fall Creek and White River Road. “Men who are still in the hunt will be able to come down this road at a lightning clip.” This road runs along the west border of Malott Park (at what is now 52nd Street), and just south of the village is the crossing of the Lake Erie & Western Railroad (Nickle Plate). (As an aside, the street that runs along the railroad tracks is now called Erie due to the name of the railroad company. This is common throughout Indianapolis.)

A turn onto Allisonville Pike (Fall Creek Boulevard), the LE&W tracks are crossed again near 38th Street. Then the course, still following the old Allisonville Pike turns west along 38th Street until Meridian Street, while the Allisonville Road turned south on what is now Central Avenue. The Monon tracks are crossed again on the west side of the Fairgrounds. At Meridian Street, the repeat of the conditions encountered on the way out happens. To avoid having racers cutting across the course, checkers were located at each cross street. “If the race is at all close, there will be a great sprint from Fall Creek to the tape.”

Racing, it seems, has been a part of Indianapolis’s Memorial Day for much longer than the creation of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which included a partner that provided prizes for this race.

** edited 06/03/2021 by Paula Trefun Simpson to note that the ‘canal’ mentioned was the Central Canal

Carl Graham Fisher

There are few people that have had more influence on the current state of cross country travel than one Hoosier: Carl Graham Fisher.

Arguably, we owe the complete system of United States travel routes, whether it be US routes or Interstates, to a young man from southern Indiana that was not only interested in automobiles, but was also a promotion genius.

Carl Fisher was born in Greensburg, IN, on 12 January 1874. In the late 19th century, he became interested in bicycles. He opened a small bicycle shop with his brother. His love of bicycles led to his being involved in racing. This, in turn, led to an interest in the new automobile industry.

Mr. Fisher made his fortune, along with his friend James A. Allison, when he bought an interest in a patent to make acetylene headlights. The company formed to manufacture these headlights, Prest-O-Lite, went on to produce most headlights used on cars at the time. Prest-O-Lite began in 1904. It would be about a decade before the electric headlight became common. Fisher and Allison sold Prest-O-Lite in 1913.

While still owning Prest-O-Lite, Fisher had hands in two things that would change not only Indianapolis, but the entire country.

The first was as one of four people that put together a automobile test track in a large field along the Crawfordsville Road west of Indianapolis. That test track decided to put on a car race in 1909, which only met with disaster, injuries and death. Fisher convinced his partners to make some improvements in that track, paving it with 3.2 million bricks. In 1911, the race was tried again. Today, it is called the Indianapolis 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The second was a brain storm. In 1912, Fisher conceived a great coast-to-coast road. That road would become the first Auto Trail, named the Lincoln Highway. It was this route that encouraged a then Lt. Colonel Dwight D. Eisenhower to support the construction of the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, or Interstate System, when Eisenhower became President of the United States.

After the sale of Prest-O-Lite, Fisher had another transportation brainstorm. He had already created the east-west route. Now a north-south route was in order. Starting in two locations, Chicago and northern Michigan, a series of roads was brought together in two paths to connect to southern Florida. According to sources, it was to allow people of his home state of Indiana to vacation in Florida. This highway was to be called the Dixie Highway.

His two ideas, the Lincoln and Dixie Highways ended up having a junction in South Bend.

Carl Fisher went on to work on other projects, just not as transportation oriented. He did create a city in a swampy area near Miami. That swamp would become Miami Beach.

Carl Fisher died on 15 Jul 1939 after a lengthy illness. Although he had lost his fortune in real estate with the stock market collapse of 1929 and following depression, he continued to work as a promotion man for his former partners.

Carl Fisher left an indelible mark not only on Indiana, but on the country as a whole.

Bonus fact: Neither of his highway brainstorms connected to his original home town, and only the Dixie Highway connected to his adopted hometown of Indianapolis. The Lincoln Highway, however, did connect to the namesake town of his hometown. Greensburg, Indiana, was named after the hometown of the wife of the founder of the town: Greensburg, Pennsylvania.