The Forgotten Man Who Built the Indianapolis Motor Speedway
When the field for the first Indy 500 left the starting line 100 years ago this month, a big, white Stoddard-Dayton touring car led the way. At its wheel was a man now forgotten by most Americans, but in his day he was a regular in the sports and business pages of newspapers from coast to coast. Carl Graham Fisher drove the pace car in the first five installments at Indy, and for good reason: Fisher spearheaded the creation of both the 500 and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Motoring America's debt to him goes far beyond that, though. Fisher also organized two of the country's earliest interstate auto roads, helping to kick-start the nation's first primitive highway network. He marketed the first practical automotive headlight, which turned car travel into an all-hours proposition, and he may also have made one of the first lengthy road trips by auto.
So why haven't you heard of him? Because after taking on a couple of additional projects—creating the city of Miami Beach and the Montauk settlement on the eastern tip of Long Island, N.Y.—he lost everything and faded to historical footnote.
Fisher's contributions began on two wheels. Born in 1874, he quit school at age 12 to make his fortune, and in five years amassed enough cash to open a bike repair shop in the midst of a national craze for pedal power. He advertised the business by spending a lot of time on a bike himself, as part of a traveling race team led by a friend and fellow speed demon named Barney Oldfield. The pair pedaled hell-for-leather at county fairs throughout the Midwest. The shop thrived.
Still, by late in the decade, new machines were attracting his attention: carriages and bikes fitted with lightweight gasoline engines. Fisher bought a three-wheel, French-made horseless carriage, packing all of 2.5 horsepower. It was reputedly the first automobile in Indianapolis.
In January 1900, Fisher and Oldfield visited the nation's first auto show at New York's old Madison Square Garden. Both bought cars and, according to two Fisher biographies, both drove them back to Indiana, thus becoming pioneers in the automotive road trip.
The auto show changed both men. Oldfield would emerge as America's first car-racing star, becoming such a celebrity that his name entered the lexicon for a full quarter-century: A cop's standard greeting to speeding motorists in the teens and '20swas, "Who do you think you are, Barney Oldfield?"
Fisher returned to Indianapolis with a new business model. He closed the bike shop and opened the Fisher Auto Company, which was among the nation's first car dealerships.
The horseless carriages of the day were fragile, wheezy and wide open to the elements. An afternoon jaunt to the country involved flat tires, breakdowns and as much digging as driving. The first land-speed record, set in 1898, was a hair over 39 mph, and most cars couldn't manage 10.
Still, excitement surrounding the machines was infectious. In 1900, 8000 autos were registered in the United States. The count quadrupled by 1903 and doubled again by 1905. With cars practically selling themselves, the Fisher Auto Company's owner was not long content to simply move product. Early in the new century, he and Oldfield took up auto racing and toured county fairs, much as they had on bikes.
Fisher became a regular on the track, too, his favored ride a powerful, long-snouted Mohawk on which he sat high, unstrapped and bare to the wind. The car was deafening, top-heavy, unstoppable and terrifying to behold. Fisher won races throughout the Midwest. In the summer of 1903, when Oldfield achieved the long-sought grail of covering a mile in a minute, Fisher wasn't far behind. Horseless Age numbered him among "the best-known track racers" in 1904.
That same year, an inventor named Percy C. Avery approached Fisher with an idea. Until then, automotive headlights had been lifted, unchanged, from horse-drawn carriages; they relied on kerosene or candles, which blew out at any speed above a horse's trot. Avery hit on a new design: compressed acetylene fed to gas lamps from a small tank, producing a hard, white light that outshone anything Fisher had seen. That September he, Avery and one of Fisher's old cycling friends, James Allison, incorporated as the Concentrated Acetylene Company, better known as Prest-O-Lite, and started making the first practical headlight.
It was revolutionary. The driver turned a valve to start the gas flow, turned it off to kill the lights, and when the tank ran low turned it in for a refill. Photos of just about any high-end car taken between 1905 and 1913 show this design. Fisher and Allison became rich beyond their dreams.
And then, Fisher started thinking even bigger.
"It seems to me," he wrote to Motor Age magazine, that "a five-mile track, properly laid out, without fences to endanger drivers, with proper grandstands, supply stores for gasoline and oil, and other accommodations would net for one meet… a sufficient amount to pay half of the entire cost of the track." It would be a big, high-speed proving ground where new cars and ideas could be put through their paces, a place where reliability, speed and strength could be tested. He was convinced, too, that Indianapolis, which at the time vied with Detroit as an automotive center, was a logical place for the track. More at Popular Mechanics