The first Indianapolis 500
By Ken Zurski
Carl G. Fisher was a bicycle enthusiast. He built them, he raced them, he even delicately guided one across a tightrope just to prove there versatility. He was nicknamed “Cripple,” or “Crip” for short, because his friends thought he was destined to suffer a permanent injury. As one worrisome acquaintance described: “He frequently, in bursts of speed, took spills and ended up with many bruises and cuts.”
Undeterred, after dusting off, Fisher would try it again.
That was his style.
Born in Greensburg, Indiana in 1874, as a young boy Fisher moved to Indianapolis with his mother after his parents separated. Due to a severe case of astigmatism, he dropped out of school early and worked odd jobs, like a grocery store clerk, to support his family. At age 17, along with his two brothers, Fisher opened a bicycle shop.
With the advent of the automobile, Fisher saw another business opportunity. “I don’t see why an automobile can’t be made to do anything a bicycle can do,” he told a friend. In 1904, Fisher converted his bicycle business into an automobile repair shop. To promote his new venture, he asked a crowd to gather at a downtown Indianapolis building. He then pushed a vehicle off the roof. The vehicle landed on its tires, still upright. The crowd roared its approval. It was showy and effective, similar in style to a more famously known promotional trickster named P.T. Barnum. Fisher later admitted he deflated the tires so the car wouldn’t bounce.
Despite his knack for self-promotion, Fisher had more serious concerns about the newfangled motor vehicle. First was being able to drive it safely in the dark. He invented a headlight that used compressed gas to light the way. It was a revolutionary idea. Soon, the Fisher-patented lights were being manufactured in plants throughout the Midwest. The process however was not safe for workers. The chemical tanks kept blowing up. “Omaha left at four-thirty,” one wire read announcing the unfortunate closing of another plant. The tanks were eventually lined with asbestos and the blasts stopped. The headlights became the standard and Fisher in turn became a very wealthy man.
With money and power in his hands, Fisher took to the automobile like he did the bicycle – with deering-do. He raced a modified Mohawk on small tracks at fairgrounds in Indiana mostly built with wooden boards. But Fisher wanted more. He wanted more speed. more thrills and more excitement. Inspired by European tracks that had long straightaways and sweeping curves, Fisher suggested a proving ground track in Indianapolis would be beneficial to the automobile industry as a whole, testing the limits of engines and body styles. Plus, the racing would be a hoot too.
He and other local financiers put up $250,000 in capital to build the track, a two-and a half mile oval, that became known as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. On Aug 9 1909, the first car races took place. It was a disaster. Six drivers were killed along with two spectators. The race was scheduled for 300 miles, but Fisher mercifully stopped it at 235 miles. The drivers and their machines, Fisher explained, were not the issue. The problem was the track, made of crushed stone, was too rough. The frequent tire blow outs led to disastrous and deadly results. Fisher had to make a change.
He recommended they pave the tracks with bricks instead. But it was costly. So he convinced his investors to help pay for it. Over 3-million bricks were laid. On Memorial Day 1911, the first 500-mile race was run. Driver Ray Harroun in a vehicle named “Wasp” won the inaugural contest with an average speed of just over 74 mph. “There were but four tire changes,” the winning vehicle’s manufacturer boasted the next day. “Three of the original tires finished the race.” The bricks, they subtlety implied, made the difference.
The track later picked up the moniker, “Brickyard.”
Fisher didn’t stop with improvements to racetracks however. He felt everyday drivers were being shortchanged by the lack of public roadways. At the time, most roads were just dirt paths and few went long distances. In 1912, at a dinner party for automobile manufacturers, Fisher unveiled an ambitious plan to build a highway that would span the country, from New York to California. He urged the auto executives to come aboard. Within 30-minutes, he had hundreds of thousands of dollars in support.
Ironically, the one man who refused to contribute was an automobile pioneer from Detroit who thought the automakers should stick to making automobiles, not roads. The government, he explained, should be responsible for that.
His name was Henry Ford.
Thanks to Fisher’s persistence, however, Lincoln Highway (today it’s portions are more formally aligned with the coast-to-coast Interstate 80), became the first transcontinental highway for motor vehicles.
But Fisher’s testament, such as it is, lie in the bricks. Still a fixture at the track’s finish line.