Inaugural 1911 Indianapolis 500 winner driven round track by Parnelli Jones during Pre-race festivities a hundred years later. (The Tomaso Collection)
As the Kansas song says; “We’re only Dust in the Wind!”
And thus in the midst of learning about the Blue Crown Spark Plug Specials, which were previously unknown to Mwah, my curiosity was further sparked towards “Ye days ‘O Yesteryear after my extensive story chronicling said three-times Indy 500 winning Blue Crown Spark Plug racers...
1900-09Pre-Quil:: Indy’s beginnings
It has been written by Donald Davidson, (IMS Official Historian) that without Carl Graham Fisher, there simply may have not been the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Fisher was a self taught man and amazingly began his business life at the age of 17, when he and his two younger brothers started a bicycle shop in downtown Indianapolis in 1891.
This was during the height of the nation’s bicycling craze and Fisher joined the Zig Zag Cycle Club, which had been founded in 1890 by Arthur Newby, who later would become partners in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway project.
The Zig Zag Cycle Club ran from 1890-96 and it was here that Carl Fisher met James Allison and raced bicycles against Barney Oldfield, later becoming part of a traveling troupe, Barnstorming the countryside with automobile match races.
As the bicycling craze was fading, in 1900, Carl rode a train to New York’s Madison Square Garden to attend an automobile show, where he befriended Ransom E. Olds and returned home with a contract as Olds agent (dealer) for the Indianapolis market and would quickly divest himself of bicycles to concentrate solely upon the selling of automobiles.
With his Automobile empire growing, while the city of Indianapolis was taking the automobile firmly into its consciousness, Fisher and many of his “chums” could be caught frequently discussing the future at a downtown “watering hole” where it came to light that some sort of new automotive testing facility was needed, as the current day automobiles were simply becoming too fast for the various dirt roads.
Although its believed that Fisher was dismayed how badly the American automobiles were being trounced by their European rivals when he participated in the Gordon Bennett races in 1905 as a relief driver. Carl also attempted competing in that year’s Vanderbilt Cup, yet his attempt was soon aborted and Fisher subsequently retired as a racing driver due to his poor eyesight.
Although Great Britain's famed Brooklands circuit debuted in June, 1907, beating Indianapolis by over two years, with its inaugural race meeting being held in early July of the same year. According to Davidson, Carl Fisher had long considered the idea of his own testing facility before the development of Brooklands, reportedly as early as 1903.
Lem Trottle, a real estate man found the property; 4 80 acre tracts, with 3 being sold for $200 per acre and the 4th eventually being obtained for $300 per acre, with the purchase being completed on December 12, 1908. As Fisher initially determines that $250,000 will be needed and he and four friends agree to put up $50,000 apiece: Newby, Allison, Frank Wheeler and Stoughton Fletcher, were the initial five partners, but Fletcher didn’t remain long as his Banking family persuaded him to not be involved with such a frivolous matter.
Fisher then determined the project could be completed for the sum of $220,000, with Fletcher’s bank financing $36,000 for the land, the remaining partners would now need to only come up with $46,000 apiece. Newby was hesitant and wished to only invest $25,000 and so Fisher and Allison split his remaining portion and became the major shareholders of the project.
Carl Fisher envisioned a three mile Oval with a two mile infield Road Course to make up his desired five mile test track, yet the three mile Oval would have clung to the outskirts of the properties edges and left no room for grandstands and hence a 2 ½ mile rectangular oval was suggested instead...
The infield road course was abandoned during construction as the creek on the property presented a major engineering challenge to the building of the course, yet two bridges were built and the creek still flows today, albeit underground. And although fisher’s overly optimistic inaugural racing event planned for July 4th, 1909 wouldn’t occur,
Having outbid several cities, The Aero Club of America’s US National Balloon Championships was to become the tracks very first event held on June 5th, 1909, with a total of nine balloons taking part. The July 4th date was cancelled as work continued on the track’s tricky surface, a combination of crushed rock and tar that would ultimately prove unreliable, with new dates of August being announced for a series of motorcycle and car races.
A major Federation of American Motorcycles event was scheduled at the track for August 13-14, 1909 and a week prior, while on their way to a contest in nearby Ohio, several motorcycle riders and officials dropped by the Indianapolis Speedway to reconnoiter the race track. But the riders were not at all impressed with the track’s surface, with Fisher assuring them improvements would be made.
Friday the 13th arrived and shortly became something known to us masses as a Rainout! Thus the competition was rescheduled for that Saturday and Sunday. When practice did occur the following day, the riders immediately returned completely covered head to toe in a white chalky dust from the tracks surface. In an attempt to cure this the entire track was coated in oil! To which the riders soon were covered in also... And as the track surface begins to break up, the event is cancelled early and the FAM pronounces it will never race there again.
A scant week later, the first Automobile races were held and many of these same problems occurred for all 65 entrants, as once again dust and oil obscure the drivers vision, while riding mechanics complain of having their goggles broken by flying stones.
After a series of short four lap dashes, tragedy strikes in the Prest-O-Lite trophy race, scheduled for a distance of 250 miles. Yet, approximately half way thru, Willfred Bourque’s car spins out of control, flipping thru the infield and finally collecting a fence post, killing both Bourque and his riding mechanic. On Sunday another riding mechanic plus two spectators would lose their lives and after the AAA Contest Board cancels the remaining events, vows not to return until substantial repairs are made.
Hence, the subsequent laying 'O Culver City "Pavers," i.e.; bricks, for which Thy Speedway gets its fabled moniker the Brickyard from, and the rest as they say is History!
If you enjoyed this story, and wish to read more about the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway, then you'll wish to find yourself a copy of Donald Davidson's wonderful book titled Autocourse: The Official History of the Indianapolis 500
- Having bought my first edition copy 'Wayback in '08; YIKES! Which has subsequently sold out, yet I believe Y'all can still find its second edition available? As I'm still lethargically racing' thru my first edition copy of, whilst you can read a 'lil ditty 'bout Mr. Davidson in;
(Photo Courtesy of No Fenders ‘Offical Photographer ‘CARPETS)