Carl Fisher The Hoosier Barnum

Carl G. Fisher is perhaps best known as
one of the founders of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1908.
Carl G. Fisher

Carl G. Fisher
Photograph Copyright © Indianapolis Motor Speedway
But he is also credited with:

  • helping to establish the Lincoln Highway – America’s first transcontinental highway
  • manufacturing some of the first gas headlights
  • developing Miami Beach as a winter playground.

Fisher’s life would be an excellent basis for a mini-series. Fisher, a sixth-grade dropout, made and lost several multimillion-dollar fortunes. His acquaintances were many of the rich and famous from racing personalities to presidents during the first part of the century.

Fisher’s vision for new ventures was first demonstrated when he and James Allison obtained the rights to manufacture and market compressed acetylene gas headlight systems for automobiles, naming the product “Prest-O-Lite.” Prest-O-Lite prospered and in 1913, Union Carbide purchased the company for $9 million. Fisher and Allison would invest their new wealth in other ventures.

In 1908, Fisher was eager to build a proving ground “to establish American automobile supremacy.” He optioned 320 acres for $72,000, brought in four partners and created the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The first auto races were in August 1909 with the first Indianapolis 500 on Memorial Day 1911. And the rest is history. Fisher sold his interest in the Speedway to Eddie Rickenbacker in 1927.

Fisher’s travels throughout the Midwest provided his next opportunity, a campaign to build the first transcontinental highway in the U.S. In September 1912, Fisher conceived his plan for a highway spanning the country from New York to San Francisco. On July 1, 1913, the Lincoln Highway Association was created with Henry B. Joy (Packard Motor Company, president), as president and Fisher as vice president.

Fisher also enjoyed wintering at his white mansion on the edge of Biscayne Bay in Florida. It was here that he conceived his idea of improving a jungle of mangrove swamps to be known as Miami Beach. Fisher used his proceeds from the sale of Prest-O-Lite to build this “winter playland for himself and his friends.”

He died financially ruined but his legacy lives on. He was truly an automotive pioneer who serves as an inspiration. He has been called a “Practical Visionary” and a “Prime Mover.”

I recommend the following books on Carl G. Fisher: The Pacesetter: The Untold Story of Carl G. Fisher, by Jerry M. Fisher, ISBN 1882897218, and Castles in the Sand: The Life and Times of Carl Graham Fisher, by Mark S. Foster, ISBN 0813018099 for more information.

Back to: Pioneers – a look at the people involved in Indiana automotive history


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