INDY TRACK IN JEOPARDY 75 YEARS AGO
by Larry Roberts
May 22, 1998
The 2.5 mile oval track at Indianapolis has had stormy days during its 89 years. When the first race was held in 1909, the track conditions were so bad that the last event of the three-day meet was called off part way into a 300-mile race. A driver and riding mechanic were killed on the first day, but when a "mechanician" and two spectators lost their lives on Sunday, the track owner, race driver cum entrepreneur Carl Fisher, pulled the plug and went back to the drawing board.
It was obvious that a track that big had to have something more substantial than dirt to run on and in 1911, the first Indy 500 was held on a track that consisted entirely of paving bricks except for one. That single brick was gold plated and it was valued at $800 at the time.
Fisher had originally envisioned his track as a testing ground for the fledgling American auto industry but by 1923, it was apparent that the single event held there - the Memorial Day 500 mile race - was an entertainment spectacle. If it was a test of anything mechanical, it was high-speed race car engine technology that had little to do with the low-revving production cars of the day.
There were other aspects of Indy cars that distanced them from passenger cars in 1923. Aside from the first 500 winner, a Marmon Wasp, all the previous Indy cars were two-seaters built to accommodate a driver and a riding mechanic but for the 1923 race, the new formula called for single seaters with 2.0 liter supercharged engines. There were a couple of Mercedes and a Bugatti in the lineup and although a report of the race in Motor Age magazine stated that "...there appeared to be no prejudice against them.." it was obvious that the concept of an all-American testing ground was over.
Carl Fisher was a rags-to-riches speculator who, after 15 years of being tied to the Indianapolis track, was tired of it and went looking for greener fields. According to Motor Age, Fisher wanted to dispose of the track in order to build his "retirement" home on Long Island. Later events were to go contrary to this report and Fisher built the city of Miami Beach almost single-handedly out of an alligator-infested Florida swamp. According to the report, his business partners James Allison of Allison aircraft engine fame and Arthur Newby, were anxious to pull out too. If the auto makers weren't interested in using the track to test cars, said Fisher, it would be dismantled and the land offered for sale.
There were other reasons for the announcement that the track might be closed down. After 15 years of use without major work, the track was in need of upscaling. Spectators found it necessary to camp out a few days in advance of race day to be first in line for the best viewing spots. For many days before the '23 race, no tickets were available and many Indianapolites who had become accustomed to attending the race simply stayed home. Fisher and his associates estimated that it would take a quarter-million dollars to expand the grandstands and infield seating and they wanted to make sure that participation and utilization by the auto industry would defray the costs.
It was also noted in the story that the track and its operators were under attack by the state legislature but local Indianapolis newspapers came to its defense by pointing out that the race even then generated a considerable amount of out-of-town money for the city's economy.
The ploy worked and although Fisher kept a financial interest in the track, he turned its day-by-day operation over to Allison who in turn sold the facility to World War I flying ace "Captain" Eddie Rickenbacker in 1927. Rickenbacker had been an Indy driver before that war and had retained connections with the auto industry moguls who financed the buy.
Rickenbacker sold the derelict speedway at the end of World War II to Tony Hulman, grandfather of its current president, Tony George.
The trials and tribulations of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway have been many but fortunately that first one in 1923 ended happily. Otherwise, the track might be a residential housing development today.