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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.

1916 Johnny Aitken at wheel of a Peugeot

One of two Peugeot cars on the 1916 Indianapolis Speedway Team Drivers: Johnny Aitken (seated), and Charlie Merz (Photo courtesy Indianapolis Motor Speedway)

 

1916 Premier Tom Rooney at wheel

One of three 1916 Premier cars on the Indianapolis Speedway Team Drivers: Tom Rooney (seated), Gil Anderson, and Howdy Wilcox (Photo courtesy Indianapolis Motor Speedway)

 

1916 Eddie Rickenbacker in Maxwell

One of two Maxwell cars on the 1916 Prest-O-Lite Racing Team Drivers: Eddie Rickenbacker (seated) and Pete Henderson (photo courtesy Indianapolis Motor Speedway)

 

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.

Allison Race Car Shop in 1917

1916 Indianapolis Speedway Team Company racecar shop that became part of Allison Plant No. 1. (courtesy Rolls-Royce Heritage Trust – Allison Branch)

 

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.

Allison Race Car shop in 2015

Current view of the original Indianapolis Speedway Team Company racecar shop

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.

Allison State Marker side 1

Allison State Marker side 2

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.

8 responses to “100 Years of Allison”

  1. Ted Meek says:

    James Allison also built a building at 536 E. Market Street around 1895 that still exists today. It housed the Allison Coupon Company until the early 1960’s. My father, Donald Meek, purchased the building in 1967 to run his graphics arts supply business, Modern Photo Offset Supply, that closed in 2012. The property is still owned by our family

    I am sure a lot of the conversions that lead to creation of the companies mentioned in the article took place in our building.

  2. Steven Clark Goad says:

    It was my pleasure to work with Allison in the 60s for about 4 1/2 years. What an experience.

  3. Steven Clark Goad says:

    Outside my office we inspected the gun launcher for the Sheridan Tank used in Viet Nam. I remember at plant 3 going outside for lunch and watching Curt Day toss his horseshoes in the horseshoe pit just outside one of the exits. He was the reigning world champion. Good memories and good friends. If I knew how to edit my first post I would have. Alas.

  4. David Newill says:

    Thank you for properly recognizing James A Allison and his legacy in Indianapolis, Indiana and the USA.

  5. Paul Jablonski says:

    Steven,
    The Allison Branch of the Rolls-Royce Heritage Trust would like to add a Sheridan Tank gun launcher breech mechanism to our museum display. We have located several at the National Armor and Cavalry Heritage Foundation at Fort Benning Georgia. However we (the unpaid volunteers) have not had the time to work this project. It is on the back burner. If you are interested in helping to bring one of these special Allison product back to Indy, contact me at e-mail paul.jablonski@rolls-royce.com

    Paul Jablonski
    Project Coordinator
    Rolls-Royce Heritage Trust — Allison Branch

  6. Roy Mize says:

    Do you know if an auto was included in the 1917 sale of the Prest-O-Lite race team to Ruth Law’s airplane and race car barnstorming show? I’m an early aviation historian who is completing a bio of Law.

  7. Kathy Lauren Butner says:

    My father, Jerry Butner, worked as a Foreman at Allison in the 50’s and retired 37 years later. Sadly, he passed away June 7, 2021.

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