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The founding of Speedway, Ind. is the story of the “disruptive technology” of the early 20th century—the automobile—and had impacts on Indy and beyond.
Speedway and IMS: How it all began
Carl Fisher and James Allison, two of four co-founders of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, were early tech enthusiasts and in 1904 began producing the first headlights for automobiles at a plant in Indianapolis. An acetylene gas explosion led them to relocating the plant to a rural area five miles northwest, which is now the Town of Speedway.
Fisher founded what is believed to be the first automobile dealership in the United States. He was known for elaborate publicity stunts, like attaching a hot air balloon to an automobile and flying it over downtown Indianapolis.
This type of promotional vision led Fisher to conceive the idea of a test track—a safe place to test new automobile technology while attracting people willing to pay to watch it. He crafted the name “Speedway,” and this was the first facility to use that term.
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway was founded in 1909 by four partners: Arthur Newby and Frank Wheeler along with Fisher and Allison. They purchased 328 acres for $72,000 (about $1.9 million today). Allowing space and capital for grandstands and other improvements, they settled on a track designed as a 2.5-mile oval (approximately one mile long by one-quarter mile wide). Their total investment was $250,000 (about $6.7 million today). The speedway was paved in bricks, not because that was just the standard road surface material of the day, but because the partners researched and tested materials and determined that was the best surface to use.
In 1912, the four partners also collaborated to develop a residential neighborhood south of the track, recognizing a need to house workers for their growing businesses. Ever forward-thinking, they also conceived it as a place where the residents would drive automobiles versus horses.
Evolving Businesses: Then and Now
Fisher and Allison’s original headlight business, Prest-O-Lite, was sold to Union Carbide in 1913 for $9 million (the equivalent of approximately $230 million in 2020), but Allison and Fisher continued in related businesses, producing parts for military aircraft in WWI, armored tanks in WWII, and commercial vehicles such as delivery trucks and buses in the post-war era. Acquired by General Motors in 1929 (following Allison’s death in 1928), their business eventually became two divisions of GM, one focused on aviation and the other on land vehicles. Today, three descendants of the original company operate in Speedway and Indianapolis:
Development outside of Indianapolis
From 1912-1914, Fisher was engaged in developing the first cross-county US highways, the east-west Lincoln Highway and the north-south Dixie Highway in 1914. In 1915, he led a caravan from Indiana to Florida. Also included in that caravan was Dwight D. Eisenhower, who later—as President—created the Interstate Highway System.
Fisher was one of the most active promoters of the Florida land boom of the 1920s. With two partners, John Graham McKay and Thomas Walkling, he was co-developer of Miami Beach. Unfortunately, Fisher’s fortune was lost in the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and resulting Great Depression. However, Miami’s Fisher Island, which he once owned and which is named after him, remains to this day one of the country’s most wealthy and exclusive neighborhoods.
Recent History: Investments and Redevelopment
The 20th century was the century of the automobile, and the Town of Speedway was largely able to roll with the times, but by the turn of the 21st was showing its age. In 2000, a group of local leaders met and expressed a goal to bring Speedway into the 21st century. Their first task was to gain authority from the State of Indiana to implement tax increment financing (TIF), a process that took six years but resulted in substantial revenues. Besides local businesses Allison Transmission and Prax Air, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is also a taxpayer—the only major sporting event in the U.S. to pay taxes.
The Town of Speedway and IMS have spent the last several years making valuable property improvements and creating a stronger sense of place.
Sources: Wikipedia, ULI Indiana events, and various online articles