Indianapolis, Miami and Carl Fisher

by Russell Jaslow

You probably couldn't pick two cities in America that are on such opposite extremes as Indianapolis, Indiana and Miami, Florida. The Midwest versus the South. The snow versus the sun. The industrial economy versus the tourist market. The Americana image versus the Latin American influence.

Yet, these two cities have something very much in common. It could be said that one man is responsible for putting them on the map -- Carl Fisher. It was his idea to build the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in order to try to help his city win the battle with Detroit as the premier automotive manufacturing center. Afterwards, he went to Miami, and dreamed up the idea of putting grand hotels on the beach, thus turning it into a Mecca for sun worshipers.

Carl Fisher didn't stop there. He also dreamed up the concept of the transcontinental highway system. Carl Fisher can rightfully hold his place as one of the greatest promoters in American history. Will Rogers claimed it was Fisher that, "rehearsed the mosquitoes till they wouldn't bite you until after you'd bought." Once, during 1908, while working for the auto manufacturer Stoddard-Dayton, Fisher concocted the idea of hauling one of their cars up by a hot air balloon to sail it over the city of Indianapolis.

Even though Detroit won the battle for the capital of the automobile industry, Indianapolis became the center for the auto racing world. Even though Miami has since had to deal with huge immigration influxes, crime, racial tensions and drugs, it is still the city that others try to emulate when attracting the cold weather visitors. The transcontinental highway system gave birth to the modern interstate highway system.

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway

It all started with the Prest-O-Lite company owned by Carl Fisher who was President and founder. Before the accessories on automobiles were all run by electricity, headlights were powered by acetylene, and Prest-O-Lite, as the leading supplier of this gas, had the corner on the market. Fisher made a fortune, and then looked to make another fortune somewhere else.

Just after the turn of the century, Indianapolis was a booming town in the midst of the Industrial Revolution. Numerous car makers were producing the newfangled horseless carriage in the hub of the Midwest. Some of the top industrialists in the city besides Carl Fisher were A. C. Newby, James A. Allison and Frank A. Wheeler.

They all had the same vision -- to build the world’s greatest race track to be used for testing by the local automotive companies to spur Indianapolis to be the automobile capital of the world.

Fisher, who got the ball rolling, was named President of the consortium. It was to be a track that the country had never seen before. Land was purchased -- 328 acres outside the city in what was then the "country."

The initial layout called for two courses, an inner and outer. The outer course was to be a rectangular configuration two miles in length. The inner course was to be a road circuit totaling 5 miles in length when connected to the outer course. The cost for this project was to be $250,000, a massive expenditure for those times. The projected completion was set for June 1, 1909 when a balloon meet was scheduled.

The plans soon changed. Based on a re-surveying of the land, the outer course was changed to a 2.5 mile configuration with broader turns capable of handling speeds of "70 mph." The tighter turns of the inner course were done away with, making that a 2.5 mile stretch of roadway still equaling 5 miles when combined with the outer course. Forty buildings were to be built on the complex. The cost was now up to $350,000.

The surface of the track was originally crushed stone and tar, common for that era. It required 300,000 gallons of asphalt oil. Half a million yards of dirt had to be removed with about 1,500 yards being handled every ten hours. An army of over 400 workers lived in camps on the grounds. The turns were banked 14 feet with a 15,000 foot radius. The facility was lighted by, naturally, Prest-O-Lite gas. It was being hailed as "The Brooklands of America."

E. A. Morass, contest director of the Speedway, declared that races over the new track will be vastly more attractive than road races such as the Vanderbilt, Savannah, and Cobe events, as the spectators will be able to watch the contestants almost from start to finish.

The track opened a few days later than planned, June 5, with a balloon meet that attracted 50,000 spectators. However, the reason for the track was for car racing. That debut, originally scheduled for July, would come on August 19-21 with a 3-day meet consisting of approximately 100 cars and 20 different events.

It was a disaster. A tragic disaster.

The main event for the first day of racing on Thursday was the fifth and final race, a 250 mile affair for the Prest-O-Lite Company Trophy valued at $1,500. At the 150 mile mark, the lone Knox entry driven by Wilfrid Bourque with Harry Holcombe as the riding mechanic was running second to a Buick driven by Bob Burman.

What happened next has never been determined. Eyewitnesses state that while the Knox was desperately chasing the Buick down the main straight, the two men suddenly turned and looked behind. At this point the steering wheel slipped from Bourque's hand. He raised his arms apparently showing his helplessness.

The Knox veered, left the track, crashed through the fence, and overturned crushing its occupants. Bourque and Holcombe both died on the way to the hospital from multiple injuries.

A rear wheel was found a few hundred feet from the scene prompting the theory that the axle nuts had not been properly tightened when the wheel was changed at a previous pit stop. The two of them probably felt that come loose which is what prompted them to look rearward. The Buick driven by Burman went on to win the race.

This crash overshadowed earlier events of the day which included three new speed records at various distances. A strong crowd of 10,000 showed up.

With fear that Thursday's deaths would force the postponement of the remaining weekend, the AAA announced that they would not withdraw sanction for the event after a careful inspection of the track.

Friday’s races went on without a hitch. More distance records were broken, and a crowd of 20,000 attended.

However, Saturday would be even worse than Thursday and would nearly end racing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway forever. The feature event was the sixth and final race of the day, a 300-mile affair for the $8,000 Wheeler and Schebler trophy.

Charles Merz was driving a National with Claude Kellum as his riding mechanic. He was running along the outside of the track because it was smoother. At the same time that he ran over a bridge that spanned a small stream the right front tire blew. This launched the car in the air, through the fence and landed in a spectator area. Merz was pinned under the car but miraculously survived. Kellum was thrown from the wreck and hit a pole. He died an hour later. Two spectators were killed and one was injured from the flying car.

The race continued, but soon another crash occurred. This time it was a Marmon driven by Bruce Keene. The car ran into the side of the Overhold bridge opposite the bleachers. Keene was injured in the wreck.

Immediately afterwards, the AAA ended the race early.

Despite many new speed records broken on Saturday, they paled in comparison to the tragic events of the three days. The sport of automobile racing, already under heavy scrutiny with deadly crashes at the Vanderbilt Cup races, came under more criticism.

Editorials blaring headlines such as "Useless and Barbarous," "Slaughter As A Spectacle," "Commercial Murder," and "Sport or Slaughter" began popping up in major publications of the day.

The Cincinnati Auto Club formally protested all forms of track racing. Copies of the resolution were sent to all automobile clubs in the country asking that a movement against such events be enacted at once.

Even the stately New York Times resorted to prose better suited for pulp fiction novels in describing the accidents: "...women fainted and the faces of men blanched as they saw the car leave the track..." and "Cries of horror from the grandstand rent the air as the car went over..."

Fisher's Folly was what the local papers were calling the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. However, Carl Fisher was not a man who became successful by giving up on his ventures. He immediately went into action and believing that the surface of the track and its inability to hold up to be the cause of most of the accidents, he decided to repave it. With bricks. Lots of bricks. 3,200,000 paving bricks to be exact. And thus was born the nickname, The Brickyard.

Three major events were scheduled for the following year around Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day. Although the races were a lot safer (only one driver, Thomas Kincad, was killed during all the track time in 1910) and many new speed records were set, interest in the track began to wane. Top drivers were not necessarily entering the Indianapolis events choosing other tracks with conflicting dates.

With talk of other super speedways being built in Chicago, Atlanta and elsewhere, Carl Fisher, ever the promoter, knew he had to do something to keep his track at the top of the sport.

On September 7, 1910, the following was announced. It would prove to be one of the most historical decisions in motor racing history.

"Officials of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway today announced plans for an automobile race to be run May 27, 1911, in which American cars will be pitted against the best of Europe for a purse of $25,000. The contest, as announced will be for 500 miles, and is to be known as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway 500-Mile International Sweepstakes."

The Lincoln Highway

With the success of the Indianapolis 500, Fisher turned his attention to other ideas. In September of 1912, he announced plans to raise money from auto makers and suppliers as well as the motoring public to build a road across the United States. He figured that 25,000 Americans would be driving cross country to visit the San Francisco Exposition in 1915.

After just a few months, $4 million was raised including $5 donated by President Wilson. Interestingly, the man who would most benefit by this venture, Henry Ford, refused to give even a penny. The project was named the Lincoln Highway. (Ironically, the road would never pass through Lincoln, Nebraska nor the birthplace of the 16th President, Springfield, Illinois.)

Other highways were also planned. Fisher thought up the Dixie Highway, a north-south route on the East side. Others thought up the more ambitious, but never completed, Jefferson Highway which was to go between New Orleans and Winnipeg.

However, like any major national undertaking, politics would rear its ugly head. Just about every city and town expected the road to pass through them, and Fisher was bombarded with requests from mayors, governors, senators, and congressmen.

The highway was never completed in 1915, and it would be the Federal Government that would eventually take over the effort in 1923. The route was refurbished and the gaps were closed.

Still, it was an extremely important quest as it helped convince Americans that an interstate highway system was crucial to the future success of the nation's economy. It also showed the need for the federal government to oversee such an undertaking.

Miami Beach

Early in the Century, all that connected Miami to Miami Beach was a wooden bridge. This was the only means that avocado farmer John Collins could get his crop to market. It was not a very successful way. He gave up and sold his 1,600 acre farm to Carl Fisher.

Fisher would end up meeting his greatest challenge yet. Already rich with his previous successes, Fisher poured money into this venture. He pumped the area out dredging sand from the bay bottom and built an artificial island we now know as Miami Beach.

However, Fisher's amazing efforts were ignored. Desperate that there were no takers, he offered to give oceanfront land away to anyone who would build a hotel on it. Still, there were no takers.

He decided to build the hotels himself. Then, when the Florida real estate boom took hold in the 1920's, suddenly everybody wanted that oceanfront land after all. This time, Fisher sold it to them. It is said that he acquired $100 million during this time period.

Then came 1929, and it is said he lost almost the same amount. But the trend had been started, and in the subsequent years, hotel after hotel was built on the beach. This former avocado farm was soon a sight never to be equaled, and gave birth to the annual rite of Spring Break.

Ironically, despite Fisher's involvement, Miami never became a racing hot spot until just recently. Other areas of Florida, thanks to its fine weather, latched on to the sport.

Up the coastline a few hours, Ormond Beach was the home of early land speed records. When technology exceeded the beach's safety, the speed demons moved their attempts to Utah and the Bonneville Salt Flats. But right next door to Ormond was another beach where Bill France, Sr. gave birth to NASCAR and the Daytona International Speedway.

On the Gulf side of the state, there was Sebring with a race track laid out on its airport. On it developed the longest running sports car race in America -- The 12 Hours of Sebring. The first United States Grand Prix was also run there in 1959.

Miami, however, was not part of the racing game until Ralph Sanchez, dreamed up a race in the downtown streets. Sanchez, a Cuban immigrant and self made millionaire, loved auto racing. He promoted the Miami Grand Prix for sports cars which was sanctioned by IMSA. He also talked his friend, Emerson Fittipaldi, who had given up racing after his horrid experience of running his own Formula One team and nearly going bankrupt in the effort, to come out of retirement.

With development encroaching on the downtown race, Sanchez knew he needed a permanent facility. After nearby Homestead was ravaged by Hurricane Andrew, Sanchez decided to use this venture to revitalize the area. He built one of the most modern racing facilities that includes a 1.5 mile oval and an infield road circuit. He also secured an Indy car race in the CART series as his premier event.

Appropriately, the track was designed the same way as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway -- a rectangular shape. It was a miniature version of the great Speedway. The circle of Fisher's legacy was complete.


For more details concerning this subject, consult the following:

"Automobile Racing At Brighton Beach This Season." New York Times, 11 July 1909, pt. 4, p. 4, col. 1.

"Condemns Speed Trials." New York Times, 27 August 1909, p. 5, col. 6.

"Fastest Cars and Most Daring Drivers in the Country Will Compete." New York Times, 15 August 1909, pt. 4, p. 4, col. 6.

Frommer's, Florida. New York: Prentice Hall Travel, 1992.

"Indiana's Auto Speedway." New York Times, 8 February 1909, p. 7, col. 3.

"Indianapolis Motor Speedway Opens This Week." New York Times, 15 August 15, pt. 4, p. 4, col. 1.

"Lower Records At Indianapolis Races." New York Times, 21 August 1909, p. 5, col. 5.

"New Auto Speedway Nearing Completion." New York Times, 2 May 1909, pt. 4, p. 4, col. 7.

"Protests Against Auto Track Racing." New York Times, 29 August 1909, pt. 4, p. 4, col. 1.

"Racing Autoist Killed." New York Times, 7 July 1910, p. 1, col. 2.

Sears, Stephen W., The Automobile in America. New York: American Heritage Publishing, 1977.

"Slaughter As A Spectacle." New York Times, 30 August 1909.

"Speedway Work Begun." New York Times, 4 April 1909, pt. 4, p. 4, col. 3.

"Three More Killed In Auto Carnival." New York Times, 22 August 1909, pt. 2, p. 1, col. 5.

"Topics Of The Times: Useless and Barbarous." New York Times, 21 August 1909, p. 6, col. 4.

"$25,000 In Auto Prizes." New York Times, 11 September 1910, p. 10, col. 5.

"Two In Racing Auto Killed Before 10,000." New York Times, 20 August 1909, p. 1, col. 7.

This article copyright 1997 by Russell Jaslow. All Rights Reserved.

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