Indianapolis Motor Speedway, 1911

If there is one thing that Indianapolis is known for, it is fast cars running around in circles in May. And the transportation history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway can not be denied. The 2.5 mile rectangle in a farm field five miles northwest of downtown was built to test cars in the early days. The four men that created the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Company were car people. Carl Fisher and James Allison owned Prest-O-Lite, a maker of headlights and batteries for cars. Frank Wheeler made carburetors. Arthur Newby owned the National Motor Vehicle Company.

I want to go into a little more history before getting into the pre-coverage of what would, decades later, become the “Greatest Spectacle In Racing.” Carl Fisher wanted to create a place to test automobiles. Local roads were not of sufficient quality, and the new one mile oval track at the Indiana State Fairgrounds was not good enough either. Fisher’s first plan was to create a five mile track at French Lick. (For those of you that have read my article on the routing of the Dixie Highway through Indiana – “Winners and Losers, Routing the Dixie Highway Through Indiana” – know the irony in that plan.) That plan, obviously, did not happen. And so, in 1909, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was born.

We look at the speedway today, and we look at the three (max) races held there every year. In 1910, there were MANY races held at the track. As many as 42 in one three-day weekend. This led to poor attendance, and a plan to have one great big race with a lot of money to the winner. This created the first of what would become the Indianapolis 500.

That “extravaganza” was publicized well. The Indianapolis Star of 28 May 1991, had “a history of the careers of the drivers who will pilot the cars in the 500-mile race at the Speedway Tuesday.” I want to focus on their exploits at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The first one mentioned was Ralph De Palma. He started racing on his own in April 1908, even with broken tendons in his arms after a wreck as a mechanicman. In August 1909, he scored four second place finishes with a Fiat stock car. He also won time trials in August 1910 with a 200 horse power Fiat. He also won a ten-mile free-for-all.

The next mentioned was Charles Merz. His first racing experience included crashing through a fence, demolishing his car and narrowly escaping death. That was 4 November 1905. At a race. In Indianapolis. The car company that supplied his racing vehicles was the above mentioned National Motor Vehicle Company. His experience at the Motor Speedway included races in August 1909, May 1910 and September 1910. In these, he either placed first of second. Including running 100 miles “without a stop.”

Robert Burman drove for Benz. His history included driving the very first car built by the Buick Motor Company. He raced several Buick entries across the country. His first experience at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway included several wins in long races in July 1910. But his cars were disqualified, meaning so were his wins.

Indianapolis Star, 28 May 1911

“Happy” Johnny Aitken of Indianapolis. He also drove National Motor Vehicles. His list of accomplishments at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is rather long. To the point that his list from 1909 is included to the left. Another list of his exploits is included below that. This doesn’t include his running at the December 1909 sessions at the Speedway.

There are more…I plan on a second post.

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.