Indianapolis Motor Speedway: Birthplace of Speed

Don Sherman
IMS Photo

Indy 500 parade queens, fluttering balloons, fried-chicken feasts, and shrieking engines are so indelibly embedded in the American psyche that it's difficult to visualize the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as anything but today's steel, concrete, and asphalt temple of speed. But, like other inventions that evolved into institutions, this one began as a zany idea.

In 1905, while assisting friends racing in France, Indiana sportsman and entrepreneur Carl Fisher observed that Europeans held the upper hand in automobile design and craftsmanship. What America needed to catch up, Fisher reckoned, was a better means of testing cars before delivering them to customers.

American racing was just getting started on horse tracks and, occasionally, on public roads. But such venues were ill-suited to either racing or car testing, Fisher reasoned in a November 1906 letter to Motor Age Magazine: "The average horse track is narrow, has fences that are dangerous, and is always dusty or muddy.

[W]ith high speed cars, where wide skids are necessary, . . . the fastest car, from a slow start or other temporary delay, gets [stuck] in the rear without chances of ever gaining the front on account of continuous seas of dust and skidding cars." Fisher also argued that spectators didn't receive their money's worth from an infrequent glance of a hell-bent competitor racing past during a fifty-mile open-road race.

Fisher proposed building a circular track three to five miles long with smooth, 100- to 150-foot-wide racing surfaces. Such a facility would provide manufacturers an opportunity to test cars at sustained speeds and give drivers a place to learn how to maintain control at the limit. Fisher predicted that speeds would rise beyond the 69 mph achieved on a one-mile horse track to more than 100 mph on a three-mile circle and at least 120 mph on a five-mile circuit. As Speedway historian Donald Davidson points out, 120 mph was practically the land speed record of the day.

Fisher knew he was literally on the right track after visiting the Brooklands circuit that opened near London in 1907. Seeing that steeply banked, 2.75-mile, pear-shaped course cemented his determination to develop his dream. With dozens of carmakers and suppliers in Indiana, a dual-purpose track would be ideal for testing, and it would also be the perfect venue for demonstrating a car's strengths to the buying public through racing.

Fisher rejected two potential sites before his real-estate agent found four adjoining tracts of level farmland totaling 328 acres five miles northwest of downtown Indianapolis. In December 1908, Fisher convinced three partners to join in purchasing the property for $72,000. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway Company's incorporation papers listed capitalization of $250,000, with Fisher and James Allison in for $75,000 apiece and Frank Wheeler and Arthur Newby onboard for $50,000 each.

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