A History of the Indianapolis 500 Owners
There are only three sports, bull fighting, motor racing, and mountain climbing; everything else is just a game. While historians may argue if this famous quote should be attributed to author, Earnest Hemingway or his contemporary, Barnaby Conrad, it is difficult to ignore the truth in its message. The truth is that competitors who gamble their lives to compete deserve some extra measure of respect. It is fitting that we acknowledge this very important distinction in honor of those who ante up.
For more than 100 years drivers from around the world have come to Indianapolis to test themselves and their machines. There is no place on earth that gives more in triumph and takes more in tragedy than the two and a half mile oval at Indianapolis. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway turns dreams into legends. None of that, however, would be possible without the loyal and fanatical support of the spectators who come each year to witness the greatest spectacle in racing.
The Indianapolis 500 mile race is the largest one day sporting event in the world. Attendance, which has never been officially published, is currently estimated at approximately 400,000 thrill-seeking spectators. There are no contenders for this throne. The Indy 500 is the undisputed king of motor sport races. Fittingly, its history is equally astonishing.
THE FOUNDING FATHERS
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway was the brain child of an energetic entrepreneur named Carl Fisher. Born in Greensburg, Indiana in 1874, Carl grew up in a broken home of modest means. After dropping out of school at the age of 12 to help support his mother and two brothers, he held several menial jobs before opening his own business at the age of 17. His entrepreneurial began with a bicycle shop he opened in Indianapolis with his two brothers in 1891. The bicycle shop was very successful due in large part to Carl's talent for outlandish promotion. He soon steered his partners into the automobile business by turning the bicycle shop into what is believed to be the first automobile dealership in the United States.
When approached by an inventor of an acetylene lamp for use on automobiles, Carl Fisher designated the opportunity to begin manufacturing head lights for the auto industry and through a series of plants around the country supplied the headlights for most every vehicle and truck made in America.
Carl Fisher's dealership sold, Oldsmobile, Packard, Stutz, and the Stoddard-Dayton automobiles. On a trip to Europe in 1909 or shortly prior thereto, Carl discovered the European automobile manufacturers were building superior automobiles. He took a special interest in a large automobile test track he visited in Surrey England and came back home with plans to build one himself.
Carl was well on his way to becoming a wealthy man by this time. He had several successful ventures including a company which manufactured the Prest-o-Lite lamps installed on virtually every truck and car built in the United States. He forged friendships with other local entrepreneurs and registered three of them to be his partners in this
new venture. James Allison, Arthur Newby, and Frank Wheeler signed on, invested their money with Carl and soon formed the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Company. They purchased a 240 acre farm a few miles northwest of Indianapolis and later expanded it to include the 530 acre property it is today.
James Allison, the inventor of the Allison Perfection Fountain Pen, met Carl Fisher through their mutual interest in the bicycle craze. Together they formed the ZigZag bicycle club. Later they joined as partners in the Prest-o-Lite venture. James Allison then formed the Indianapolis Speedway Team Company, which evolved into the Allison Engine Company that is now the Allison Transmission Company of General Motors. Rolls Royce acquires the engine building division of Allisons in 1995.
Arthur Newby was the president of National Motor Vehicle Company, located in Indianapolis. His company began its venture by manufacturing electric automobiles. Although the company faltered in 1924, it managed to produce the winning entry for the 1912 Indianapolis Motor Speedway, before closing its doors forever.
Frank Wheeler, the fourth founding member of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, was a partner in the Wheeler-Schebler Carburetor Company, which manufactured carburetors for automobile manufactures throughout the United States. Frank Wheeler and his partner George Schebler commissioned the Wheeler-Schebler Trophy, which was the first trophy presented to winners of the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race, and the predecessor of the Borg Warner Trophy.
The farm they purchased, known by the locals as the Pressley Farm, sat near the corner of Crawfordsville Pike (now known as 16th St.) and Georgetown Rd, five miles west of downtown Indianapolis. However, another farmer named Levi Munter owned 80 acres, which sat directly on the corner of what is now 16th and Georgetown Road. The Fisher partners purchased an option on the 80 acres in December 1908 and exercised the option sometime shortly after filing their articles of incorporation for the new Indianapolis Motor Speedway Company on March 20, 1909.
In the spring of 1909, the land around the speedway was large pasture land, but a few factories, located just south of the site of the new Indianapolis Motor Speedway, had been in operation for several years prior. These factories included the Prest-o-Lite company built and operated by Carl Fisher. James Allison's machine shop was also located just south of the site of the new speedway. The Allison machine shop that later became the Allison transmission and engine company is still in operation at or near the same location today. The town of Speedway was founded in 1926 and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway now sits entirely within the city limits of Speedway, Indiana.
Automobile racing was not popular at that time. Building a race course for the sake of holding vehicle races, was not Carl Fisher's plan. His plan was to build a testing ground for American automobile manufacturers to test their machines and make them faster and more reliable. The races he organized in 1909 were part of his plan to promote the track and encourage auto makers to take up the challenge. Better cars mean happy buyers which in turn bought about enthusiastic sales. Carl Fisher and his partners were anyway better able to benefit from the anticipated boom of automobile sales than any other persons in the world. With the first automobile dealership and a manufacturing plant that made running lights for virtually every automobile made in the United States at that time, Carl Fisher was poised to make an intense fortune.
Since 1911 when the first Indianapolis 500 mile race was run, many stories turned to legend and helped insure that the history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway would be recorded for posterity. Flamboyant drivers, owners and mechanics came to Indianapolis to compete for the prize of fortune and fame. Some have faded into the pages of history constantly risking their life, fortunes and reputations and are these days nothing more than a footnote in history. Others, however, made their mark although success or tragicy and are memorialized on the pages of historical books, photographs and film.
There is perhaps no race driver in history who did more to capture the attention and admiration of the world, than Barney Oldfield. Born Berna Eli Oldfield, in 1878 near Waseon, Ohio, Barney started his racing career by competing in bicycle races across the country. He transitioned to automobile racing by joining a friend and fellow racer Tom Cooper in a racing venture, which sprang from a short interlude with future automobile titan, Henry Ford. Ford, who's two prototype cars were difficult to start, sold both of his cars to Cooper for $ 800.00. Cooper put Oldfield behind the wheel and entered the car in the 1902 Manufacturer's Challenge Cup. When Oldfield beat Alexander Winton, the defending champ and odds on favorite by more than a half mile in a car built by Henry Ford, both men were catapulted into automobile history. Oldfield became familiar with speed and Ford got the financial backing he needed to start his automobile manufacturing company. Barney Oldfield was the first man to break the 60 mile per hour barrier in a mile run at the Indianapolis State Fair Grounds a few years later. He raced in the Indianapolis 500 in 1914 and 1916, finishing 5th in both races. He never won the Indy 500, but he became a close friend and business associate of Carl Fisher.
For many years, motorcycle cops around the country, were fond of asking "who in the hell do you think you are, Barney Oldfield?", When stopping motorists for exceeding the speed limit. Oldfield, with his trademark cigar and thick black mustache, was one of the most celebrated drivers in the early years at the Indianapolis 500. His barnstorming thrill shows and record setting speed exploits also helped give international prominence to the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race.