The Speedway as an automotive proving ground

How many are aware that one of the motives behind building the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was as an automotive proving ground?

Carl Fisher
Carl G. Fisher
Courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway

In late 1908, Carl G. Fisher, after being a competitor and spectator at numerous auto races across the nation since 1905, had the inspiration to build an automotive proving ground “to establish American automobile supremacy.”

The idea formed while Fisher and his real estate associate Lem Trotter were returning to Indianapolis on a trip from Dayton, Ohio. Their car overheated twice and just inside the Indiana state line the vehicle blew the third tire of the day. The projected one-day journey had turned into a fiasco. Fisher kept grumbling to Trotter about how unreliable American cars were and that the nation really needed a huge test track. Trotter challenged Fisher to stop griping and start acting. “You’ve been talking about a racetrack ever since you got back from Europe,” Trotter bluntly said. “If you think it would make money, why don’t you build it yourself.” Trotter later claimed “I just kept nagging Fisher and his three partners.”

Trotter’s words ignited Fisher. From then on during the business trip, Fisher talked of little else. He grilled Trotter to think of a spot where he might build. Trotter had the “perfect” spot in mind. It was a 320-acre plot known as the old Presley farm located about five-miles northwest of downtown Indianapolis. By the time they got home, Fisher had commissioned Trotter to inquire about purchasing the site. Trotter sounded out the owners, who confided that they might be persuaded to part with it for $80,000.

Fisher consulted James A. Allison, his racing associate and Prest-O-Lite partner. Allison was excited by the notion as was Fisher, and readily agreed to the plan. These two speculators approached three other mutual friends: longtime racing chum and president of Diamond Chain Company, Arthur C. Newby; carburetor manufacturer Frank H. Wheeler; and Indianapolis banker Stoughton Fletcher.

All but Fletcher joined in. Fisher soon figured this section of land would not be large enough for the track they envisioned. They soon purchased adjacent land and controlled 539 acres. On February 8, 1909, they filed incorporation papers under the name of Indianapolis Motor Speedway Company, capitalized at $250,000. Fisher and Allison each subscribed at $75,000; Newby and Wheeler $50,000 each.

The first auto races were in August 1909 on the macadam track, with the first Indianapolis 500 on Memorial Day 1911 on the track paved track with 3.2 million 10-pound paving bricks. Automotive innovation began with Ray Harroun inventing the first rear-view mirror for his winning Marmon Wasp.

1911 Marmon Wasp
Ray Harroun with the 1911 Marmon Wasp
Courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Early on company founder, Howard C. Marmon recognized that weight was the enemy in car design. His early automobiles featured cast aluminum bodies, which weighed substantially less than other makes.

His engineer and driver, Ray Harroun had designed the number 32 Marmon Wasp with the rear-view mirror to replace the need for a riding mechanic to warn him of cars approaching from the rear. Eliminating the mechanic provided an aerodynamic and weight-saving advantage to his Marmon racer. He won the 500 in six hours and 42 minutes at an average speed of 74.6 miles an hour.

This was the first notable innovation made at the Speedway as an automotive proving ground. It all began with Carl G. Fisher’s foresight and continues today.

For more information on our automotive heritage follow this link.

Leave a Reply