This article was originally published in 2011—Ed.
When the field for the first Indy 500 left the starting line more than 100 years ago this month, a big, white Stoddard-Dayton touring car led the way. At its wheel was a man now forgotten by most Americans, but in his day he was a regular in the sports and business pages of newspapers from coast to coast. Carl Graham Fisher drove the pace car in the first five installments at Indy, and for good reason: Fisher spearheaded the creation of both the 500 and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Motoring America's debt to him goes far beyond that, though. Fisher also organized two of the country's earliest interstate auto roads, helping to kick-start the nation's first primitive highway network. He marketed the first practical automotive headlight, which turned car travel into an all-hours proposition, and he may also have made one of the first lengthy road trips by auto.
So why haven't you heard of him? Because after taking on a couple of additional projects—creating the city of Miami Beach and the Montauk settlement on the eastern tip of Long Island, N.Y.—he lost everything and faded to historical footnote.
Fisher's contributions began on two wheels. Born in 1874, he quit school at age 12 to make his fortune, and in five years amassed enough cash to open a bike repair shop in the midst of a national craze for pedal power. He advertised the business by spending a lot of time on a bike himself, as part of a traveling race team led by a friend and fellow speed demon named Barney Oldfield. The pair pedaled hell-for-leather at county fairs throughout the Midwest. The shop thrived.
Still, by late in the decade, new machines were attracting his attention: carriages and bikes fitted with lightweight gasoline engines. Fisher bought a three-wheel, French-made horseless carriage, packing all of 2.5 horsepower. It was reputedly the first automobile in Indianapolis.
In January 1900, Fisher and Oldfield visited the nation's first auto show at New York's old Madison Square Garden. Both bought cars and, according to two Fisher biographies, both drove them back to Indiana, thus becoming pioneers in the automotive road trip.
The auto show changed both men. Oldfield would emerge as America's first car-racing star, becoming such a celebrity that his name entered the lexicon for a full quarter-century: A cop's standard greeting to speeding motorists in the teens and '20swas, "Who do you think you are, Barney Oldfield?"
Fisher returned to Indianapolis with a new business model. He closed the bike shop and opened the Fisher Auto Company, which was among the nation's first car dealerships.
The horseless carriages of the day were fragile, wheezy and wide open to the elements. An afternoon jaunt to the country involved flat tires, breakdowns and as much digging as driving. The first land-speed record, set in 1898, was a hair over 39 mph, and most cars couldn't manage 10.
Still, excitement surrounding the machines was infectious. In 1900, 8000 autos were registered in the United States. The count quadrupled by 1903 and doubled again by 1905. With cars practically selling themselves, the Fisher Auto Company's owner was not long content to simply move product. Early in the new century, he and Oldfield took up auto racing and toured county fairs, much as they had on bikes.
Fisher became a regular on the track, too, his favored ride a powerful, long-snouted Mohawk on which he sat high, unstrapped and bare to the wind. The car was deafening, top-heavy, unstoppable and terrifying to behold. Fisher won races throughout the Midwest. In the summer of 1903, when Oldfield achieved the long-sought grail of covering a mile in a minute, Fisher wasn't far behind. Horseless Age numbered him among "the best-known track racers" in 1904.
That same year, an inventor named Percy C. Avery approached Fisher with an idea. Until then, automotive headlights had been lifted, unchanged, from horse-drawn carriages; they relied on kerosene or candles, which blew out at any speed above a horse's trot. Avery hit on a new design: compressed acetylene fed to gas lamps from a small tank, producing a hard, white light that outshone anything Fisher had seen. That September he, Avery and one of Fisher's old cycling friends, James Allison, incorporated as the Concentrated Acetylene Company, better known as Prest-O-Lite, and started making the first practical headlight.
It was revolutionary. The driver turned a valve to start the gas flow, turned it off to kill the lights, and when the tank ran low turned it in for a refill. Photos of just about any high-end car taken between 1905 and 1913 show this design. Fisher and Allison became rich beyond their dreams.
And then, Fisher started thinking even bigger.
"It seems to me," he wrote to Motor Age magazine, that "a five-mile track, properly laid out, without fences to endanger drivers, with proper grandstands, supply stores for gasoline and oil, and other accommodations would net for one meet… a sufficient amount to pay half of the entire cost of the track." It would be a big, high-speed proving ground where new cars and ideas could be put through their paces, a place where reliability, speed and strength could be tested. He was convinced, too, that Indianapolis, which at the time vied with Detroit as an automotive center, was a logical place for the track.
In the fall of 1908, Fisher bought a farm northwest of the city, and the following February incorporated the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Company with Allison, Arthur Newby and Frank H. Wheeler. The four hired a New York engineer to design a 2.5-mile track with banked corners. Having ruled out concrete or brick as too expensive, they decided on a driving surface of crushed stone and asphalt laid over clay.
It was a decision they would come to regret, and one that nearly doomed the Indy 500 before it even began. When motorcycle racers showed up for the track's warmup weekend in August 1909, they immediately complained about loose rock. A three-day extravaganza of auto racing loomed the following week, and as the competitors started to practice—among them Oldfield and Louis Chevrolet, a Frenchman who'd become the namesake of a division of General Motors—the track's asphalt lost its tenuous grip on the gravel beneath. Deep gouges opened in the turns. Tires kicked up clouds of dust and stone.
By the first day of actual racing at America's first speedway—Aug. 19, 1909—the track's surface was shredded and the air filled with shrapnel. Just past halfway in a 250-mile race, a car carrying driver Wilfred Bourque and his mechanic, Harry Holcomb, veered off the track, nosed into a ditch and flipped, slinging Holcomb into a fence post that "laid bare his brain," as The New York Times put it, and trapping Bourque beneath his car. "The accident was witnessed by nearly 10,000 persons," the newspaper reported, "and women fainted and the faces of men blanched as they saw the car leave the track and turn over upon the daring occupants, crushing out their lives."
Fisher vowed to overhaul the track, and an army of workers and mules patched the speedway surface overnight. But in the last event of the meet's third and final day, the right front tire on a car driven by local boy Charles Merz exploded as he rounded the first turn. His big National rocketed off the track, through a fence and into a group of spectators. When the chaos calmed, two spectators and the car's riding mechanic were discovered dead in the dirt. The county coroner blamed Fisher and his partners for the first wreck, charging that the track-side ditch had likely made a survivable accident fatal. The coroner said that Merz's blowout happened because racing began before the track was truly ready for it.
Word reached Fisher that the American Automobile Association, which sanctioned early races, was thinking about washing its hands of the speedway for good. He persuaded Newby to underwrite paving the entire track with 10-pound bricks, then went to the papers. "We are ready to spend $100,000 or more, if necessary, to make the speedway safe for spectators as well as drivers," he announced. "When the job is completed, we definitely will have the world's finest and safest racecourse; and I'm sure everyone connected with racing will want to return to Indianapolis at the earliest opportunity."
Crews laid down 3.2 million bricks over the next two months. Turns were rimmed with concrete walls. The Brickyard was born. The first Indianapolis 500 took place two years later, and 80,000 fans showed up.
But while Indy's speedway had a brand-new racing surface, America's roads lagged behind. Outside a city's business district, roads dwindled to little more than wagon ruts, and a sprinkling of rain could turn them to bogs. The unfortunate buggy that ventured down such a muddy lane soon floundered in the ooze. Even on hard-packed roads, mud formed dark rooster tails behind surreys, spattered long skirts and caked shoes. American business was conducted in mud-soiled suits.
Fisher had little faith that government would fix the situation. "The highways of America are built chiefly of politics," he wrote to a friend, "whereas the proper material is crushed rock or concrete." No, it was up to the auto industry to get things started. In the late summer of 1912, Fisher began talking up a new project, a rock road stretching from New York to California. It would be a road built for the automobile, and for the future.
With Allison's help, he studied the cost of such a highway and devised a plan to raise the cash. It would follow existing roads for most of its length, new construction fusing just those stretches that failed to connect. Over time, the daisy chain would be upgraded to a uniform standard, broadened and straightened and beautified to meet the rising demands of traffic. The industry would supply the materials for the job; the public would supply the muscle.
In September 1912 Fisher and Allison unveiled their proposal at a dinner in Indianapolis. Fisher urged that work on the "Coast-to-Coast Rock Highway," as he called it, start without delay. "It can be done," he cried. "Let's build it before we are too old to enjoy it." Pledges rolled in. The Lincoln Highway Association incorporated in June 1913. Over the next ten years, its efforts inspired a host of imitators. By 1925, more than 250 auto trails crisscrossed the United States.
In the meantime, Fisher shifted his interests to real estate. He bought up a sand bar across Biscayne Bay from Miami, ripped out its mangroves, filled its swamps and created what we now know as Miami Beach. In the fall of 1925 he set out to construct a summer retreat on Long Island, building a golf, tennis, polo and yachting getaway at Montauk.
It would be his zenith. On Sept. 17, 1926, Miami woke to a breeze that ratcheted into a howl, and that night a hurricane smacked the resort square in the chops. Most of Fisher's properties were repaired by winter, but tourists shied away. Fisher's income dried up.
Scrambling to raise money, he sold his stake in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to auto racer and ace pilot Eddie Rickenbacker. It wasn't enough. Soon both of Carl Fisher's resorts were in trouble. He lost what he had left in the stock market crash of 1929 and found himself forced to work for friends he had once entertained on his yacht.
The tycoon of Prest-O-Lite, creator of Indy and the car buff who'd started America's first interstate auto roads slipped from the front page. In a little while, he vanished from any page at all.
Earl Swift is the author of Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways, from which this piece was adapted.