Indianapolis Motor Speedway: Birthplace of Speed

Don Sherman
IMS Photo


Troubled by poor eyesight and a short attention span, Carl Fisher dropped out of school at age twelve. After racing, repairing, and selling bicycles, he became one of America's first car dealers, in affiliation with racer Barney Oldfield. In 1904, Fisher and fellow bike racer James Allison each invested a reported $2500 to manufacture Prest-O-Lite automobile headlamps; Union Carbide bought control years later for $9 million. At a dinner party for auto manufacturers in 1912, the intrepid Fisher proposed building America's first transcontinental road, which became the Lincoln Highway. The Dixie Highway, a road system connecting Michigan's Upper Peninsula with Miami, was his next bold stroke. Fisher's hot streak continued with real-estate developments in Miami Beach and Montauk Point, New York. A devastating hurricane and the 1929 stock-market crash wiped out Fisher's fortune, but his legacy, as described by Will Rogers, was having achieved "more unique things . . . than any man I ever met."

Allison, Fisher's longtime ally, brought stability to their ventures. Coincidentally, he also left school at age twelve. Allison, Fisher, and a third Speedway founder, Arthur Newby, met at the Zig-Zag Cycling Club. It was allegedly Allison's idea to shift the Speedway's focus from several short events to one spectacular endurance race per year, beginning in 1911. His precision machine shop located near the track manufactured tanks, trucks, and Liberty V-12 aircraft engines during World War I. Following Allison's death in 1928, General Motors acquired Allison Engineering, which built aircraft V-12s for World War II and jet engines thereafter. More recently, Allison engineers also conceived GM's two-mode hybrid system.

The Newby Oval, a quarter-mile, steeply banked velodrome, was the magnet that drew together three of Indy's founders. Under Newby's leadership, the National Motor Vehicle Company in Indianapolis progressed from building electric runabouts to gasoline-powered cars.

The fourth founder was Frank Wheeler, who claimed to have lost two fortunes before arriving in Indianapolis in 1904 and joining with George Schebler to manufacture carburetors. Their firm sponsored Indy's first trophy, a towering Tiffany cup. Wheeler tried to spread Indy magic to a grandiose Minnesota track; after that venture failed, he sold his Speedway interests to Allison in 1917.

Louis Schwitzer, who had no hand in the Speedway's creation, deserves honorable mention for winning Indy's first race in a Stoddard-Dayton. Competing against four other stock-chassis cars in a five-mile sprint, Schwitzer averaged 57 mph, led both laps, and won by a 150-foot margin. Schwitzer had earlier emigrated from Austria with two engineering degrees and $18 in his pocket. Following stints at Pierce-Arrow and a Canadian car company, he helped design the engine that powered Ray Harroun's Marmon to victory at the first Indy 500 race in 1911. Schwitzer headed the Speedway's technical committee from 1912 through 1940. Also, an Indianapolis company he established manufactured superchargers and turbochargers. In 1952, a Kurtis Kraft roadster powered by a Schwitzer-turbocharged Cummins diesel qualified on the pole at Indy.

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