On May 30, 1911, an aerial bomb exploded over the Speedway to signal the start of the first Indianapolis 500. But the first real auto race on the new track started with something less than a bang.
As opening day approached on August 19, 1909, Speedway organizers were in a bit of a quandry over how to get the wheels rolling for the inaugural race. Fred J. Wagner, who would later rise to fame as the dean of racing starters, was brought in from New York to serve as official starter. Wagner ruled out the use of a starting gun, because its bang would be inaudible over the noise of the engines. Instead, he planned to dart between cars as the starting time approached, leaning over to tell each driver how many seconds remained until the start of the race.
Shortly after noon, five cars lined up under the bridge as nearly 15,000 spectators roared with excitement. Two Buicks, two Stoddard-Daytons, and a Velie were vying for first place in a five-mile sprint around the freshly oiled macadam track. Wagner first tried a running start, but quickly waved the drivers back with a yellow flag. He then started the race from a standstill.
Five minutes and 13 seconds later, a 29-year-old engineer named Louis Schwitzer became the first driver to cross the finish line on what would soon become the world’s most famous oval. The next day, The Indianapolis Star ran a small photo of the winner on page 12, misspelling his name as “Schnitzer.”
Schwitzer’s victory was quickly overshadowed when French driver Louis Chevrolet shattered the 10-mile world record in the next race. Later that day, Barney Oldfield and his powerful Benz broke the world record for the mile. In the ensuing years, Schwitzer became a footnote in the storied history of the Speedway, largely forgotten by all but his fellow engineers and the most ardent race enthusiasts.
That is, until a month ago.
Schwitzer’s name lit up social media in early May when Indiana Landmarks posted a link to an upcoming auction of fixtures and architectural salvage from the Art Deco-style house that Schwitzer built in 1939. At last count, the post drew 216 comments and was reposted by 275 other Facebook users. The general tone of the comments ranged from puzzlement to shock to downright nastiness, as commenter after commenter expressed dismay that the home was slated for demolition by its new owners.
So I’ll just make one more comment on the issue. A wise man once said that the true meaning of life is to plant a tree with the knowledge that you will never sit beneath its shade.
Nearly 50 years after his death, the real legacy of Louis Schwitzer is not the house that he built, but the trees that he planted.
Louis Schwitzer arrived in America in 1905 with $18 in his pocket. By the time he died in 1967, the Austrian-born engineer had built a successful business, spearheaded scores of technological advances, and donated millions of dollars to further the education of Indiana youth.
Schwitzer was born in Silesia on Leap Year day in 1880. He earned master’s degrees in electrical and mechanical engineering from the Universities of Darmstadt and Karlshrue, and then served in the Austrian Army under the late Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose 1914 assassination was the spark that ignited the first World War.
His grandson, also named Louis Schwitzer, recalls that his grandfather’s aristocratic family expected him to have a career as a military officer, but the young engineer longed to use his engineering skills. So he immigrated to the United States and landed a job in Boston, where he designed the pneumatic doors that are still used on subways and buses today. But automotive design was where the real action was.
Schwitzer got his start in the automotive industry as an engineer for Pierce Arrow, working on the first six-cylinder engine in America. He then went to the Canada Cycle and Motor Company as chief engineer, designing Russell motor cars. Soon a chance meeting with industrialist Howard Marmon led him to Indianapolis, where Schwitzer quickly earned his place in Speedway history – not only as the winner of the first race but also as the designer of the famed “yellow jacket” engine that powered Ray Harroun to victory in the inaugural Indy 500.
Schwitzer raced again in 1910 and 1911, but left the driver’s seat in 1912 at the insistence of his wife, Sophie, who was pregnant with their first child. He then joined Empire Motor Car Company as chief engineer. His career at Empire was cut short by the prospect of war. In 1914, the former Austrian army officer joined the United States Army Motor Transport Corps, where he designed military trucks and gun mounts. He remained active in Ordnance affairs for the rest of his life, winning five Army-Navy “E” awards during WWII for his company’s production of aircraft shell casings and components for military vehicles.
After WWI, Schwitzer returned to Indianapolis and opened a factory at 1125 Massachusetts Avenue that focused solely on the manufacture of automotive cooling fans. When asked by an interviewer why he selected fans as his first product, Schwitzer replied, “Because I know them better than anyone else.”
Apparently Henry Ford shared Schwitzer’s faith in his abilities. One afternoon the two men were standing on Ford’s front porch in Dearborn, and Ford said, “Louie, are you ready to take on Ford’s fan business?” A quick handshake, and the deal was done.
Improved cooling led to faster cars, which in turn led to more innovations by Schwitzer. The product line of the company, later named Schwitzer-Cummins, expanded to include cooling pumps, superchargers, ventilating fans and coal stokers. But Schwitzer’s accomplishments weren’t limited to auto racing. Two Schwitzer superchargers were applied to each Packard engine in Gar Wood’s “Miss America” boats, allowing Wood to break new world speed records on water. A later variation of these engines and superchargers powered PT boats during WWII.
Schwitzer and his son, Louis Jr., were both shrewd businessmen. The company made it through the Depression without borrowing a dime, all while developing new markets and investing in new technology. By the time Schwitzer retired in 1963, the company that he built from scratch was so profitable that he could no longer afford to leave it to his family. Inheritance taxes alone were estimated to cost millions, so the company was sold. Schwitzer turbochargers were later acquired by BorgWarner and are still used in engines today.
Schwitzer remained active in motorsports throughout his life, serving as chair of the Speedway’s technical committee for more than 25 years. In 1967, SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) recognized the automotive pioneer by establishing an award that is presented each year for design innovations at the Indy 500.
Schwitzer’s grandson had the opportunity to tour the Meridian Hills home after it was partially dismantled in preparation for the auction. He said the experience was “gut-wrenching.” But this is not the first time that Lou Schwitzer has seen a family home demolished by subsequent owners. His own childhood home, Schwitzerland Farms, was torn down by Conseco founder Steve Hilbert to build the massive estate now owned by Forrest and Charlotte Lucas. Schwitzer salvaged the front door and later incorporated it into his house in Bloomington.
During a recent phone conversation, Lou Schwitzer recalled his grandfather as a warm, compassionate man with a quirky sense of humor. One of his most treasured possessions is the 10-karat gold medal that was awarded to his grandfather for winning the first race at the Speedway in 1919. The front side has the original Wing & Wheel insignia and an imprint of Schwitzer’s car with the No. 19 on the radiator. On the reverse are the words “Opening Event, IMS, First, in Stoddard-Dayton, Aug. 19, 1909.” Lou Schwitzer received it as a gift from his grandfather when he graduated from Culver Military Academy in 1963. He also has the sterling-silver medal awarded for his grandfather’s second-place finish in a 50-mile race on the second day of racing at the Speedway.
Schwitzer died in 1967 after suffering a stroke that left him partially paralyzed. He is buried in Crown Hill with his wife, Sophie, who died of encephalitis in 1936.
While Schwitzer’s engineering genius left an immense mark on automotive technology and the sport of racing, his greatest legacy could be his gifts to Butler University and the University of Indianapolis. In 1964, Schwitzer funded the construction of the student center at the University of Indianapolis. While the amount was not disclosed until years after his death, Schwitzer’s contribution to then-Indiana Central College was said at the time to be the largest single donation in the school’s history.
In 1963, a contribution from Schwitzer to Butler University was sufficient to retire the university’s debt. In honor of his generosity, the recently constructed women’s dormitory was renamed “Schwitzer Hall.”
Schwitzer said he decided to contribute to educational institutions because everything in his life had been made possible through the education that he had received. I know that feeling. Ten years after Schwitzer Hall was dedicated, I received a four-year, full-tuition scholarship to Butler University. Throughout my four years at Butler, I probably passed by Schwitzer Hall a million times, never wondering who Schwitzer was or pondering whether his contribution to Butler started a chain of philanthrophy that funded my education. But now that I know who Louis Schwitzer was, I like to think that I am one of thousands of former and current students to sit in the shade of the trees that he planted during his long and well-lived life.