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The story of how it all began at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Editor’s Note: This feature celebrates the anniversary of “Founder’s Day.” On this day 111 years ago – March 20, 1909 – Carl Fisher, James Allison, Arthur Newby and Frank Wheeler founded the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Company. Shortly thereafter, the four men broke ground on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and changed the course of automotive history forever.

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway was built in the spring of 1909, the result of a creative vision of Carl G. Fisher and his three partners in the venture, James Allison, Arthur Newby and Frank Wheeler.

 

The track’s original purpose was to serve as a common testing facility for the rapidly growing local automobile industry. With dozens of companies like Marmon, Cole, National, Marion, Overland and American Underslung operating in and around the city limits – Stutz and Duesenberg would come later – Indianapolis had by 1908 risen to fourth in the country in terms of numbers of automobiles produced. By 1913, it would rank second.

 

Indiana roads were generally not yet developed, and automotive technology had increased so rapidly that many passenger vehicles had become capable of greater speeds than any dirt road would permit.

 

Recognizing that something far more substantial was needed for testing purposes, local businessmen Fisher, Allison, Newby and Wheeler joined forces to build a huge “motor parkway” on which long straightaways and gradual turns would permit any automobile to be stretched to its fullest extent. In addition to private testing, they reasoned, occasional automobile racing events in which the entrants were the manufacturers would give the general public an opportunity to witness competition by stripped-down versions of the same vehicles one could purchase from the showrooms for personal transportation.

 

The founding partnership was spearheaded by Fisher, a Greensburg, Ind., native who would eventually develop Miami Beach from swamplands into an exotic resort area. Later, he would form the Lincoln Highway Commission, which built the first drivable highway across the United States.

 

Fisher’s partners in the track project were Newby, head of the prestigious National Motor Vehicle Company; Wheeler, of the Wheeler-Schebler Carburetor firm; and Allison, who six years later started the operation destined to become the massive Allison Engineering Company.

 

While IMS was built in 1909, Fisher’s vision of such a facility was outlined to the general public as early as November 1906 in an issue of Motor Age magazine. A detailed letter that he wrote appeared in the magazine, describing the advantages of a circular track of 3 or 5 miles over the traditional 1-mile fairgrounds ovals of the time.

 

In autumn 1908, Fisher and his friend Lem Trotter drove from Dayton, Ohio, to Indianapolis in an automobile. It was a tough trip, as the rough roads required numerous stops to repair punctured tires. Frustrated, Fisher insisted that his proposed track would help solve the problems of low-quality tires and automobiles.

 

A short time later, Trotter and Fisher went for an automobile ride from Indianapolis, this time about 5 miles northwest of the city into the countryside. They arrived at the corner of the Crawfordsville Pike and a little cart track that eventually became Georgetown Road and saw four adjoining 80-acre tracts that were for sale.

 

The outgoing Fisher then convinced the flamboyant Wheeler and more reserved Allison and Newby to become his partners in the purchase of the land. The land was purchased in December 1908, with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Company officially formed March 20, 1909.

 

Fisher originally wanted the track to be a 5-mile oval, but his plan was modified to feature a 3-mile, rectangular-shaped oval, with a 2-mile road course inside that, when linked to the oval, would create a 5-mile lap.

 

New York civil engineer P.T. Andrews, who was hired to oversee the project, said a 3-mile outer track was possible on the available land but that the outside of the straightaways would be so close to the edges of the property that there would be no room for grandstands.

 

Andrews suggested an outer track of 2.5 miles would fit perfectly. The road course section was abandoned soon after grading began at the site in March 1909, leaving the 2.5 miles that became the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, The Greatest Race Course In The World and the place “Where America Learned to Race.” 

To read more about the four founders of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway – Carl Fisher, James Allison, Arthur Newby and Frank Wheeler – who were true entrepreneurs and innovators of their time, click here.

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