September 14, 2015 is a special 100th anniversary day in the history of Indianapolis. It was on September 14, 1915 that Frank Wheeler, Theodore Myers, Arthur Newby, James Allison, and Carl Fisher, filed the Articles of Association with the Indiana Secretary of State to create the Indianapolis Speedway Team Company. Allison, Fisher, and Frank Sweet in a separate filing also created the Prest-O-Lite Racing Team Company. Wheeler, Newby, Allison and Fisher were the four founders of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
In 1915, with automobile manufacturers going out of business or curtailing their racing programs, and the lack of participation from war torn Europe, the dwindling number of 1915 Indianapolis 500 race entries was a concern for Speedway founders James Allison and Carl Fisher. The two took quiet, behind the scene, actions to acquire several racecars and help fill the field.
For the Indianapolis Speedway Team Company, Allison and Fisher acquired two French Peugeots to be driven by Johnny Aitken and Charlie Merz. Allison and Fisher then commissioned a local automobile manufacturer, Premier Motor Corporation, to build three Peugeot copies which were similar but not exact duplicates. Former Indianapolis Stutz Motor Company race drivers Howdy Wilcox, Gil Andersen and Tom Rooney drove the Premier copies. The cars were staffed by then current and former Stutz personnel who initially worked out of a garage near downtown Indianapolis.
Also in 1915, Eddie Rickenbacker and George “Pete” Henderson drove for the Maxwell Motor Company racing team. Maxwell was withdrawing from racing and Rickenbacker sensed an opportunity. Investing $25,000 of his own money the cars were purchased from Maxwell. Allison and Fisher agreed to fund the racing operation’s spare parts, salaries, and travel expenses. The operation became the Prest-O-Lite Racing Team with Rickenbacker and Henderson retained as drivers and operating out of the Prest-O-Lite factory just south of the Speedway.
One third of the 1916 Indianapolis race starting field were Allison/Fisher entries. While the Indianapolis Speedway Team and Prest-O-Lite cars started in positions 1, 2, 3, 6, 7, 8, and 9, they did not do well in the race with 6th position the best finish. Dario Resta, also driving a Peugeot, won the race.
To support and service the Indianapolis Speedway Team Company at a location closer to the track, Jim Allison constructed a specialized machine shop just south of the track on the west side of Main Street in Speedway. This machine shop was the start of the Allison Transmission and Rolls-Royce aircraft engine businesses we know today.
Due to US participation in World War I, there was no race in 1917 or 18. In 1917 with declining use of the acetylene gas to power auto headlights, Allison and Fisher completed the sale of the Prest-O-Lite business to Union Carbide and Carbon Corp. The Prest-O-Lite race team was sold to Ruth Law’s airplane and racecar barnstorming show. The Indianapolis Speedway Team shop was renamed to Allison Experimental Company and took on US government war contract work including making two prototypes and tooling for the US Liberty aircraft engine plus other work.
For the 1919 race, Indianapolis Speedway Team entered two Peugeots driven by Howdy Wilcox and the 1913 race winner Jules Goux. The cars were maintained in the team shop on Main Street. Howdy Wilcox started from the 2nd position and won for the Indianapolis Speedway Team. Jules Goux started 22nd and finished 3rd.
With a full field of racecars in 1919 and the Indianapolis Speedway Team winning the race, there was no longer a need to help supplement the entries and Jim Allison dissolved the team. The racecar shop on Main Street a.k.a. Allison Experimental Company became the Allison Engineering Company in 1921. They took on special US government contract work on Liberty aircraft engine post war development and making of special transmission gear drives and bearings.
From its speedway race car beginnings and following James Allison’s directive “Whatever leaves this shop over my name must be the finest work possible”, Allison Engineering continued to expand and develop to the present as a major aircraft engine manufacturer under Rolls-Royce and the independent Allison Transmission, both still located in Indianapolis and world leaders in their fields.
The original Indianapolis Speedway Team racecar shop was expanded with the development of Allison’s government work. It still exists today under separate private ownership on the west side of Main Street between 12th and 13th Streets across from the modern racecar shops of Dallara and CFH Racing of Ed Carpenter, Sarah Fisher, and Wink Hartman.
The historical significance of the building was recognized on the 100th, anniversary of the forming of the Indianapolis Speedway Team Company, with the dedication of an Indiana State Historical Bureau marker on the corner of Main Street and 14th.
This narrative was written by Rolls-Royce Heritage Trust – Allison Branch (RRHT-AB) volunteer Paul Jablonski using information from the RRHT-AB archive, Donald Davidson (Indianapolis Motor Speedway Foundation Historian), and Allison Transmission archivists Lydia Spotts and Neil Rude.