Carl G. Fisher, Photo courtesy LHA/University of Michigan
With the 2013 Indianapolis 500 Mile Race celebrating its 102nd anniversary, I believe Indianapolis residents owe a thank you to Speedway founders Carl G. Fisher and James A. Allison. Without their vision and entrepreneurial spirit, I don’t believe that our city would be anything like it is today.
Before the inaugural running of the Indianapolis 500 on May 30, 1911, Indianapolis was a bucolic city with very little to distinguish it. In 1909, when the founders built the track on a 320 acre parcel outside of the city limits, the Speedway was about five miles northwest of the city’s center. The Speedway would eventually fulfill Carl Fisher’s stated goal of a proving ground “to establish American automobile supremacy.” The result also helped grow the city’s manufacturing base.
The saga started when Fisher and Allison met during the bicycling craze of the early 1890’s as members of the Zig Zag Cycle Club. Their camaraderie grew over the years when they discussed business ventures and other matters. Fisher’s vision for grand ventures was first demonstrated when he and Allison obtained the rights to manufacture and market compressed acetylene headlight systems for automobiles in 1904. This firm, known as Prest-O-Lite, would become the cornerstone for their many automotive ventures. Today, an outgrowth of Prest-O-Lite is Praxair Surface Technologies, which employs more than 450 people at the Speedway Main Street site.
By 1911, Indianapolis claimed 11 operating automakers, with names like American Underslung, Cole, Empire, Ideal, Marion, Marmon, New Parry, National, Overland, Premier, and Waverley. Starting with this concentration of manufacturers, which grew to include Duesenberg and Stutz, these firms attracted the supporting ancillary machine shops and businesses. General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler went on to build operations in Indianapolis.
Allison built a new shop for the Indianapolis Speedway Team Company on Main Street in Speedway to prepare a fleet of race cars in late 1916. This venture provided the genesis for the Allison Engineering Company. When World War I erupted, Allison committed his shop resources to war production for crawler-type tractors, superchargers, and master models for the Liberty aircraft engines. Allison Engineering Company Plant 1, was built on the west side of Main Street south of 13th Street. The Allison empire spread south from this location.
In 1929, a year after Allison died, General Motors Corporation purchased the company. Under General Motors, the operation produced aircraft engines, transmissions, precision bearings, and superchargers. Its descendant companies, Allison Engine Company and Allison Transmission, are headquartered in Indianapolis. Combined employment at these plants totaled over 11,000 people in the late 1980’s, making them one of the city’s largest employers.
These companies spawned a number of local machine shops to supply additional services to Allison operations. Skilled machinists and tool makers moved to Indianapolis to work in these shops. In fact, my father moved to Indianapolis in the mid-1930’s to work in various machine shops. He retired with over 25 years at Allison.
Possibly this chain of events affecting my father can be attributed to Fisher and Allison, So, thank you to Carl Fisher and James Allison for your grand vision with these manufacturing endeavors and for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which drew people to our great city for employment and enjoyment. Every year we celebrate the world’s largest single-day sporting event because of their entrepreneurial spirit.