Love of competition was a dominant factor in Carl Fisher's life from the time he was old enough to walk. As a youngster in Greensburg, Indiana, he derived his greatest pleasure from the victories he scored in informal races against his boyhood chums on roller skates and ice skates.
Eager to make his own way in the world, he quit school at the age of twelve, when his family moved to Indianapolis in 1886, and got a job in a grocery store. Five years later, while he was working as a "butcher boy" on trains operating through the Hoosier capital, the development of the "new safety bicycle" started the cycling craze which was destined to sweep the nation during the next decade; and Fisher jumped into the highly competitive business with both feet on the pedals.
In addition to investing all of his meager savings in his own bike repair shop, he became a professional rider and toured the state for a series of exhibition and match races each weekend. Every county-seat community in the area around Indianapolis had its own cycle club. Intense rivalries resulted in the construction of enclosed board tracks, so that admission could be charged to watch the "speed kings" compete against each other; and almost every spectator left the track with the desire to have a bike of his own.
Fisher built all of his own racing equipment, experimenting with various types of bearings as well as with many different gear ratios. He was almost unbeatable. With the assistance of such riders as Barney Oldfield, "Plugger Bill" Martin, and Tom Cooper he put on an exciting show for the crowd wherever the group appeared.
His repair shop and exhibition schedule enabled him to make a very good living. It didn't take Fisher long, however, to realize the big money in the bicycle business was made only by the manufacturers and the dealers. The role of manufacturer definitely was out of his reach, because he lacked the necessary capital. But he could become a dealer—and on a large scale, too—if he could find a manufacturer willing to carry him, financially, for a few months. The demand for new bikes in Indianapolis was far greater than the supply.
Never one to write a letter when a face-to-face discussion was possible, Fisher was shaking hands a few days later in Columbus, Ohio, with George C. Erland, one of the nation's four largest bicycle manufacturers.
"I've been running a little repair shop in Indianapolis for several months," said Fisher. "I've got all the business that three of us can handle. Now I'd like to get into the selling end, too."
"We'll be glad to fill your order," said Erland. "But aren't you rather young to be in business for yourself?"
"I don't think so," replied Fisher, "and certainly not for this particular kind of business. Fellows my age are the ones who are buying most of the bikes."
"How large an order would you like to place?" asked Erland.
"That depends on how many you'll let me have on a consignment basis for sixty days. Frankly, I don't have any money that I can afford to have tied up in stock.
"My present place is too small," he continued. "I'm planning to move to a new location on Pennsylvania Street, where there's a vacant showroom I can rent at a reasonable figure. I'll need all of the money I've saved to make the move. But, if you'll give me a little time to pay for them, I know I can sell a lot of bikes for you."
"We don't usually do business in that manner," said Erland. "But I like your confidence and enthusiasm. I'll gamble on you for thirty days to the extent of a dozen bikes and see how the deal works out."
Fisher, always ready to take full advantage of the slightest opening, quickly became even more enthusiastic: "I can sell two or three times that many every week—if you'll give me plenty of stock to start with. Indianapolis is wide open for a dealer who can put on display a full line of models and sizes, so that a customer can be sure of finding exactly what he wants and be able to ride it home."
Thirty minutes later Fisher was on his way back to Indianapolis with Erland's assurance that ten dozen bikes would be delivered on consignment within a week.
Another young businessman with whom Fisher became acquainted through his bike shop was Arthur C. Newby. Born in Monrovia, Indiana, Newby had spent several of his boyhood years in California before coming to Indianapolis with his parents in 1882. His first job in the Hoosier capital was as office boy at Nordyke & Marmon Co. Within a year he was promoted to timekeeper and then to assistant bookkeeper.
By 1890, anxious to get into business for himself, he founded the Indianapolis Stamping Company to manufacture bicycle parts. Four years later he sold his shop; it became the Diamond Chain Division of the American Bicycle Company. Newby immediately invested all his profits in the Hay & Willite Manufacturing Company, which built the Outing bicycles, and often talked with Fisher about ways to promote even greater interest in cycling.
Newby had organized the Zig-Zag Cycling Club of Indianapolis and also had formed the Outing Bicycle racing team, which consisted of Owen Kimble, Tommy David, W. L. Becker, Alex Craig, and Carl Thome. Charles Ward was the trainer.
"If we had a good place to race," said Fisher, "we could bring some big attraction to Indianapolis—something like the National Championships. I know enough members of the League of American Wheelmen to interest them in coming here, but I wouldn't want to ask them unless we could offer a good board track with a grandstand for ten or fifteen thousand people."
By the spring of 1898, the Newby Oval was a reality on the northeast edge of the city, near what is now the intersection of Central Avenue and 30th Street. Designed by Herbert Fultz, Indianapolis architect, it was a quarter-mile board track with a football gridiron in the infield and a grandstand seating 15,000 spectators.
The League of American Wheelmen held its National Championships there in July of the same year before capacity crowds. Twelve months later, however, Newby and his associates were talking about dismantling the track because of lack of interest.
Almost overnight, the racing segment of the bicycle fraternity had focused its eyes on a new toy—the horseless carriage. The same men who had been the bicycle's most ardent promoters were quick to forsake it for the automobile.
Fisher himself was the first resident of Indianapolis to own one of the "newfangled contraptions," importing a 2-1/2-horsepower de Dion motor tricycle from Europe at a cost of $650. By 1900, in quest of more speed and power, he had purchased a Mobile Steam Wagon. But a trip to New York the same year, to attend the nation's first automobile show in Madison Square Garden, convinced him the entire future of the automobile industry was tied up with the development of the internal combustion engine.
R. E. Olds, first manufacturer to announce plans for mass production of automobiles, was looking for dealers to sell the 1,500 curved-dash Oldsmobiles his company would build during the next twelve months. Fisher jumped at the opportunity and abandoned his bicycle interest completely to start the Fisher Auto Company.
With exciting and profitable memories of his bike-racing days, he also ordered a one-cylinder Winton race car from Alexander Winton. By the summer of 1901, Fisher was barnstorming the Middle West again—this time with a four-wheel vehicle capable of almost 60 miles an hour on a straightaway speed test.
"For $500 a performance," Fisher told county fair officials, "I'll give you the most exciting attraction you've ever had at your fair. I'll guarantee to beat any horse you want to run against my automobile, for any distance of 200 yards or more. If you don't take in more than $500 at the gate, at a dollar a head, you won't owe me a penny. You can make at least a thousand dollars off the deal without turning a hand."
Fisher's confidence and persuasive arguments swept aside skepticism. During the months of July and August he was busy almost every day weather conditions didn't interfere. Spectators not only were given their first look at a "horseless carriage," but also were treated to a thrilling race made to order for their enjoyment.
Regardless of the distance stipulated, the crowd always had something to cheer about. The horse invariably grabbed a lead of 40 or 45 yards during the first 100 yards of the event. Then, timing his finishing surge perfectly, Fisher would manage to get the nose of his noisy Winton out in front a few feet before the wire, to win with a typical Fisher flourish. It wasn't unusual for him to race four or five different horses at varying distances during the afternoon, always starting with the longer event and reducing the distance gradually to make each finish a little more spectacular than the previous one.
A "record run," one trip around the track against the clock, was also a part of every performance, after which Fisher would bring his iron steed to a dramatic stop in front of the grandstand and invite the crowd down on the track to inspect it.
The many questions fired at him always gave Fisher an opportunity to wax eloquent; like a carnival spieler he would describe the excitement of traveling at high speed. He would almost have to fight off the customers when he reached the psychological moment of his sales talk: "And for one ten-dollar bill, I'll take you for a ride around the track faster than any of you ever has traveled before. Who wants the first ride?"
By the end of the fair season, Fisher had cleared more than $20,000, which he used to expand the Fisher Auto Company. Plans for another barnstorming tour during the summer of 1902, however, received a cool reception from county fair officials. The automobile rapidly was climbing out of the novelty class. Production figures for the United States had "soared" to approximately 200 cars a week; and the ordinary citizen could at least see one of the gasoline buggies without paying for the privilege. A new type of attraction was necessary to capture the public's interest.
To meet the changing conditions, Fisher joined forces with Barney Oldfield, Louis Chevrolet, Tom Cooper, Walter Winchester, and Earl Kizer for a series of exhibition auto races on the mile and half-mile dirt tracks of the Middle West. From the spectators' standpoint, the show was a big success. Gate receipts were even greater than the previous year, but definitely not large enough to make a six-way split very profitable for any of the men involved. It didn't take Fisher long to realize he would be better off, financially, if he would devote much of his time to his own automobile company.
Oldfield and several other members of the group continued their barnstorming activities with Oldfield setting a new world's record of 60.4 miles an hour for a single trip around the one-mile dirt track at the Indiana State Fairgrounds on June 19, 1903.
It's doubtful if any other individual accomplishment ever stimulated interest in the automobile in the Hoosier capital to the same extent. Dealers couldn't get delivery of cars fast enough to satisfy the demand.
One of Fisher's customers during the boom was James A. Allison. Like Fisher, he was a young Indianapolis businessman. His father, a printer, had founded the Allison Coupon Company soon after moving to Indianapolis from Niles, Michigan, in 1880, when Jim was only eight years old. Instead of participating in the family business, however, Jim was manufacturing and selling Allison Perfection Fountain Pens. He and Fisher had known each other casually for some time; and their association developed quickly into a close personal friendship after Allison was bitten by the automotive bug while watching Oldfield's mile-a-minute performance.
Allison, consequently, was Fisher's first choice as partner in a daring new business venture when opportunity knocked in the spring of 1904.
P. C. Avery did the knocking.
"Mr. Fisher," he said, "I believe you'll agree that one of the principal drawbacks to motoring is the danger of driving at night by the poor light of kerosene lanterns and carriage lamps. I've developed a new kind of light, ten times as bright, and I'd like to show you how it works."
Opening a small handbag, he took out a metal cylinder about twelve inches long. Attached to one end of the cylinder, where a small hand valve had been installed, was a three-foot length of copper tubing with a forked tip. On the inside of each tip was a tiny opening.
"Watch." Avery struck a match on the sole of his shoe, held it between the little holes in the forked tip and opened the valve.
Fisher heard a sudden pop, similar to the noise made by a child's toy gun, and saw a flash of light which instantly became a steady flame as Avery adjusted the valve.
"I'll be damned!" exclaimed the amazed Fisher. "How do you do it?"
Avery explained that the cylinder was filled with compressed carbide gas, which could be manufactured at a cost within easy reach of anyone who owned an automobile. He told Fisher his experiments already had consumed all his working capital and that he needed financial backing to get his invention on the market.
"How many people know about it?" asked Fisher.
"Quite a few," admitted Avery. "In fact, I've demonstrated it for several automobile manufacturers, and they all turned me down because they thought it was too dangerous. That's why I finally came to you. You've been a race driver for a number of years. You're used to taking chances. This carbide gas is tricky stuff. It's likely to explode and burn if it isn't handled exactly right when it's being put into the containers. But all I need is a little more money to develop a safer way of doing it and Earl Kizer said he thought you might provide it."
"How much?" asked Fisher.
"I haven't got that much right now, but this idea of yours is something I think Jim Allison might be interested in. I'll get Jim over here tomorrow, if you're willing to give him a demonstration. Maybe the two of us can swing it."
Avery had everything ready for a repeat performance when Allison arrived the following morning, but Fisher brushed the inventor aside in order to make the demonstration himself.
"This is all you have to do, Jim," he said, holding a lighted match to the forked tip as he opened the valve, "and, presto, you have a fine bright light without any smoke."
"And you've just given it the perfect name," declared Allison, as the gas ignited instantly. "We'll call it Prest-O-Lite."
After discussing all the factors involved in the manufacture and sale of such a product, they adjourned with the understanding that Allison and Fisher would give Avery their decision before the end of the week.
"I think he's really got something," said Fisher as soon as Avery had left. "But how are we going to raise $5,000 without letting too many people in on the deal? My money is tied up so tight that I'll be lucky if I can scrape together a thousand dollars in actual cash.
"I thought I was all through racing," he continued. "But I simply can't get it completely out of my system. Although I have no desire to hit the county fair circuit again, I've made up my mind to race for the Diamond Cup at Chicago next summer and then enter the Vanderbilt Cup race on Long Island. In fact, I've already ordered the Premier Company to build me the finest race car money can buy in this country."
"Maybe it won't take as much as Avery thinks it will," said Allison. "Frankly, I haven't a cent of my own that I can spare. But I want in on this—if it's safe—and I believe I can borrow a thousand.
"Everybody is going to want this light as soon as it's on the market. I know we can sell them as fast as Avery can make them—and at a good price, too. I'll bet two thousand dollars will be enough to swing the deal."
"But how are we going to determine whether or not it's safe?" asked Fisher. "If a metal container like that one happened to explode, it might kill somebody."
"Let me take it along tonight and I'll find out how safe it is."
"I'll tell you tomorrow," replied Allison. "In case anything happens, you'll be better off if you don't know what I have in mind."
The following morning he walked into Fisher's office and set the battered container, still intact, on Fisher's desk.
"It's okay," he said with a big grin on his face. "And now I'll tell you how I found out, if you still want to know. I took it to the West Washington Street bridge over White River and threw it on the rocks down below. If it can withstand a jolt like that I don't believe we have anything to worry about."
Avery accepted the two-thousand-dollar proposal, and the first Prest-O-Lite factory was established a few days later in an old frame shed on the rear of a corner lot at the intersection of Pennsylvania and Twenty-Eighth streets. It was staffed by Avery and one assistant. But its growth was phenomenal despite frequent fires and explosions which forced the company to seek new quarters regularly.
Public criticism reached such a peak after a disastrous blast at 211 East South Street that the Indianapolis City Council met in emergency session and passed an ordinance banning the charging of Prest-O-Lite tanks inside the city limits. Workmen immediately converted the entire building into office space for the rapidly growing staff needed to handle the details of fifteen Prest-O-Lite branches throughout the United States; and a new Indianapolis "charging plant" was constructed on the bank of White River southwest of the city.
By 1917, only thirteen years after starting the business on a $2,000 shoestring, the combination of Fisher's salesmanship and Allison's business judgment had resulted in such tremendous success they were able to sell the Prest-O-Lite company (including another huge new plant near the famous Speedway they had built during the intervening years) to the Union Carbide and Carbon Corporation for nine million dollars.
Despite his added responsibilities—as the production power of the new company was doubled or trebled almost every month during the early weeks of its existence in order to keep pace with the flood of orders—Fisher made almost daily trips to the Premier factory during the summer of 1904 to watch his race car take form.
"It's about time for some of us in this country to show the Europeans we can build cars as good or better than theirs," he had told Premier engineers at the very beginning of the project. "I want something with lots of guts and stamina."
And that's exactly what they were giving him. They had tackled the assignment with enthusiasm, ignoring all other factors in an effort to attain the ultimate in power and endurance. The result was a big, ugly brute of a machine. But it lived up to all of Fisher's expectations during preliminary tests, and he filed his entry early for the International Road Race planned by William K. Vanderbilt and heralded as the first major competitive event of its kind in this country.
Instead of accepting the entry promptly, race officials requested additional information concerning the car and sent him an official form with a copy of the rules under which the event was to be run. After one quick glance, Fisher stomped out of his office for a hurried trip to the Premier factory.
"How much does this damn thing weigh?" he demanded, without even passing the time of day with members of the crew engaged in putting the finishing touches to the car.
"Probably close to 2,500 pounds," one of the men estimated.
"That's about what I figured myself," said Fisher. "But I hope we're both wrong. Let's get it on the scales."
"Okay, Mr. Fisher," said the chief mechanic. "But what difference does it make if the car does weigh 2,500 pounds? It's got plenty of power for that much weight and I honestly believe it will run all day at 60 miles an hour."
"Maybe it will, here in Indiana," snapped Fisher. "But it isn't eligible to run even that first mile in the Vanderbilt race if it weighs more than 2,200 pounds. Put it on the scales."
Together, they watched in silence as the bar finally was balanced at well over 2,500 pounds.
"How much weight can you trim off?" Fisher finally asked.
"Not enough," was the reply.
"The least you can do is try," said Fisher. "Get rid of everything on the car that isn't absolutely necessary and then cut some holes in the frame. The frame members certainly don't have to be as heavy as you've made them. Get busy and I'll see you again next week."
When he returned, the car's appearance reminded him of a huge slab of Swiss cheese. Two hundred and fifty-six holes as large as half dollars had been cut in the frame. One hundred and ninety holes, ranging in diameter from a half inch to one and a half inches, could be counted in the sturdy supports for the four-cylinder 923-cubic-inch engine. Closer inspection revealed 28 three-quarter-inch holes in the solid rear axle and half of the original 12 lugs on each wheel were missing. But the car still was approximately 200 pounds too heavy.
"We've done everything possible," the mechanics told Fisher. "We've even lightened the spring structure and removed every ounce of excess metal. The damn thing is likely to fall apart if we cut one more hole any place."
"Pull some canvas over it and let it set," said Fisher. "The Chicago Auto Club also has placed a weight limit on the Diamond Cup entries. But maybe they'll both change the rules next year."
Still determined to drive again in competition, he made arrangements with Premier officials to enter a stripped-down Premier Comet in the five-mile Diamond Cup event on the Harlem race track in Chicago on October 1, 1904, and won in 5 minutes 15.4 seconds. Fisher took the lead from Frank Kuleck of Detroit before the end of the first lap, finished the second trip around the course in 2:02 flat for what the Chicago Tribune hailed as a new world's record for two miles, and remained in front without being challenged seriously at any time.
From Chicago, Fisher hurried to Long Island for the first Vanderbilt Cup race, which was scheduled eight days later. He had high hopes of purchasing one of the official entries at the last minute in order to participate, but no opportunity of that kind presented itself. He did help Herbert Lytle make the final adjustments on Lytle's 24-horsepower Pope-Toledo and then watched the event from one of the control points on the 28.4-mile course.
The acknowledged supremacy of European cars was emphasized by George Heath's impressive victory in a 90-horsepower French Panhard with an average of 52.2 miles an hour for the 10 laps (284 miles). By talking with many of the European drivers, Fisher reached the conclusion that competition among factory-sponsored teams on the Continent was chiefly responsible for the fact their equipment was so superior to the American automobiles. He listened to exciting accounts of the famous James Gordon Bennett road races held in Europe annually since 1900—with France, Germany and England monopolizing the laurels. Then he returned to Indianapolis to look after his own business affairs.
Expansion of Prest-O-Lite's facilities continued, and Fisher worked untiringly during the winter months to help Allison take care of the steadily increasing business. With the approach of another racing season, however, Fisher again showed signs of restlessness.
"I won't be satisfied," he told Allison, "until I see for myself what's going on in the auto industry on the Continent. If you can handle things here without me for a month or so, I'd like to make the trip this summer in time to see the Bennett Cup race on July 5."
"And drive in it, too, I suppose," said Allison.
"Maybe, if I can get a good car. But the main thing I want to do is find out why their cars are better than any that are being built on this side of the ocean."
"There's plenty to keep both of us busy right here at home," said Allison. "But I know you well enough to realize you won't be worth a damn until you get the racing urge out of your system, so go ahead and book passage."
Fisher made some inquiries among his automotive acquaintances and learned the Pope-Toledo Company was planning to enter two cars in the race. He offered his services immediately as a driver, only to learn that Lytle and Bert Dingley already had been designated. Fisher pursued the matter further and obtained Lytle's assurance he would be given first consideration if a relief driver became necessary.
Fisher's enthusiasm for the race had waned, however, by the time the American cars reached the Circuit de l'Auvergne, on which the event was to be run. He had arrived a few days earlier and driven the entire course of 85.35 miles in a borrowed touring car to become familiar with the conditions under which the event was to be run.
"The possibility of an American victory was so remote," he told friends later, "that I lost interest completely because I valued my life far more than the little prestige and honor I might have gained by finishing behind the leaders.
"The course was the most hazardous ever selected for any race. It twisted its way through the most mountainous part of France. In many places the roadway was so narrow it was impossible for one car to pass another. Several of the turns were protected only by low stone walls, on the other side of which were chasms many hundreds of feet deep.
"Only the French and Italian drivers, who had covered the course two or three times a day for at least four months prior to the arrival of the American team, were sufficiently familiar with the dangerous route to travel it at maximum speed. Certain death awaited the inexperienced driver who failed to gauge his speed exactly right or who made even the slightest error on one of the sharp turns cut into the side of a mountain wall."
French and Italian entries swept the first four places, all of them finishing more than a full hour ahead of the fifth-place car, which was a German Mercedes. Lytle was a poor last among the 12 contestants able to complete the four required laps. The other American entries were eliminated early by mechanical trouble.
Fisher's trip wasn't one of complete disappointment, however. He thoroughly enjoyed his inspection trips through the European automobile plants and also became so entranced with lighter-than-air travel that he made several exciting balloon ascensions before sailing homeward.
Then, with the zeal of a crusader, he challenged the American automobile manufacturers to "get busy and do something about the situation" if they didn't want their products to be completely overshadowed by European cars before the end of another year.
"You are being outdistanced so rapidly by your rivals across the ocean," he told them, "that they can take over the entire American market any time they decide to export cars in sufficient quantity to meet the demand.
"If you don't start building cars the public can buy with confidence, you won't even be able to give 'em away. The only way to gain the public's confidence quickly is to prove the dependability of your products on the race track. You'll learn ten times as much racing against each other as you will from listening to the complaints of your customers.
"Road racing is doomed. The farmers will fight you every inch of the way if you try to test your cars on the open highway. What this country needs is a big new race track designed for automobiles instead of horses. Until somebody builds such a track, the only thing to do is use the dirt tracks which are available. We can't continue to sit on our rumps and do nothing."
Automobile manufacturers outside of Indianapolis may not have paid much immediate attention to Fisher's warning, but the Hoosier capital already had staked a strong claim to being the hub of the rapidly growing industry. Such cars as the Marmon, National, Premier, Marion, and American were being built almost in the shadow of the towering newly dedicated Soldiers and Sailors Monument. Within a month, the Indianapolis Automobile Racing Association had been formed by a few industry representatives and several young Indianapolis sportsmen.
Fisher apparently refrained from taking an active part in the promotional work, because he preferred to be a contestant. But plans were formulated quickly for a 100-mile "open" race and several shorter events on October 21, 1905, at the Indiana Fairgrounds track. The huge Premier, still untested in actual competition, finally was to have an opportunity to fulfill Fisher's expectations. His first appearance with the car in practice, however, almost resulted in cancellation of the entire program. No one was willing to run against it.
"That thing is nothing but a monstrosity," shouted one of the Marmon officials. "No one except a fool would buy anything like it as a pleasure car. If our objective is to prove the dependability of our products in competition, we need some rules which will assure all of us a fairly equal chance of winning."
Fisher withdrew the Premier from the main event—reluctantly, and only after being assured by some of his friendly rivals they would compete against him in a shorter handicap event on the same day.
Three finally accepted Fisher's challenge; nine cars—including seven factory entries—were entered in the 100-mile event. Interest in the program reached such a peak throughout the Midwest that race officials were forced to ask the citizens of Indianapolis to make every spare bed available to out-of-town visitors demanding overnight accommodations after hotel facilities had been taxed to the limit.
Then came the rain. Three postponements were necessary before weather conditions permitted the program to be held on November 4.
Five miles was the distance designated for the handicap event, with Fisher giving Ray McNamara's stock Premier a head start of 78 seconds and each of two Nationals a handicap of 55 seconds. The handicap committee had done its job well, and not until the final lap was Fisher able to take the lead with an average speed of 59.21 miles an hour for the last mile.
The entry list for the feature event of 100 miles included Minor Farley in John B. Carter's Pope-Toledo, W. F. (Jap) Clemens in A. C. Newby's personal National, and seven factory cars. Driving the factory cars were McNamara in a Premier, Harry Stutz in an American, Charles Merz in a National, Fred Tone in a Marion, Edward Ash in a Marmon, Frank Moore in a Stoddard-Dayton, and Ben Briscoe in a Maxwell.
The superiority of the two Nationals was evident from the start. By the end of 50 laps they were many miles ahead of their outclassed rivals and engaged in a desperate battle with each other for the lead. The climax was reached on the 80th lap.
Merz, younger and more daring, kept his foot on the throttle a little longer than his rival to forge ahead as they charged down the backstretch into the northwest corner of the oval track. Suddenly the right rear tire on the Merz car exploded. It crashed through the wooden guard rail tail first, shattering the timbers as if they were matchsticks, landing upright on the narrow road which paralleled the track at that point. Merz wasn't even scratched.
Clemens, waved on by members of his crew who realized that a new international record was within his reach, roared through the remaining laps unchallenged. He was clocked officially in 1 hour, 53 minutes and 21.8 seconds, almost five minutes faster than the best time ever recorded for the distance on a one-mile dirt track anywhere in the world. His average speed was 52.93 miles an hour. McNamara, the only other driver to finish, didn't receive the checkered flag until 43 minutes later.
National officials were jubilant, and Fisher took advantage of the situation to urge them to seek even greater laurels. "Why don't you try for the twenty-four-hour record?" he suggested. "With the same cars—and drivers like Clemens and Merz—you should be able to cover 1,200 miles easily. The present record2 is only 1,015 miles."
"You certainly don't think we can maintain a fifty-mile-an-hour average at night, do you?" asked Clemens.
"I don't know why not," replied Fisher. "If you're willing to try, I'll get enough Prest-O-Lite lamps out here to place one every 20 or twenty-five feet around the entire course."
Merz and Clemens both expressed their willingness to make the attempt as soon as the lights could be installed. The record run started under IARA supervision at 2:45 P.M. on Thursday, November 16. Relief drivers were available for both men, but developments made their services unnecessary. Clemens' car was damaged badly when it hit the fence as the result of a broken steering knuckle on the 152nd lap; he alternated with Merz during the remainder of the tortuous attempt.
Goggles became useless during the night because of a heavy frost. Thirty minutes at a stretch was all either driver could stand at the wheel before their eyes became bloodshot and swollen almost shut by the icy wind. Friends massaged their arms and legs, bathed their faces with cold water, poured strong hot coffee down their throats and warmed their gloves over an open fire until the warm rays of the morning sun made conditions bearable.
Despite the many stops during the night to change drivers, they broke the old record a few minutes after 1 P.M. the following day and finished the 24 hours with 1,094 miles to their credit.
Indianapolis had gained added prominence in the automotive world and Fisher found at least a few influential individuals willing to listen to his plans for the construction of a great speedway. One was Tom Taggart, nationally known Democratic politician who had served three two-year terms as mayor of Indianapolis, starting in 1895. Taggart and his associates were looking for an attraction which would focus attention on their magnificent new spa and hotel at French Lick Springs among the hills of southern Indiana. The proposed Speedway sounded promising, but the adjacent terrain failed to offer a single level area suitable for a track as large as Fisher had in mind. Several conferences with interested members of the Indiana State Fair Board also proved unproductive.
Discouraged but not yet willing to give up hope entirely, he penned a letter to the editor of Motor Age magazine:
I note with considerable interest that you are taking up individual opinions regarding the advisability of racing on large tracks. As you are probably aware, a large track of 3 to 5 miles in diameter [sic], with a width of 100 to 150 feet, has been a hobby of mine for the past three years, and I have done a great deal of work toward a track of this kind. The proposed track at French Lick fell through, for the reason that enough level ground could not be secured for a track of sufficient size. After considerable time and investigation arrangements were made with our Fair Board in Indianapolis for the ground for a 3-mile track, but after a careful survey it was found impossible to put more than a 2-mile track on it.
Very few people understand what an immense difference there is between a mile track and a 3-mile track, and to do this it will be necessary to have a drawing to scale of 1, 3 and 5-mile tracks in order to convey properly to the average driver the respective sizes. I have been an interested spectator in most of the big track meets and road races in this country and France—including the Vanderbilt and Bennett—and it is my opinion that the only successful racing course, and the one which will ultimately find favor with both drivers and the public, will be a 3 or 5-mile circular course.
There is no question in my mind that track racing on mile tracks is doomed. The average horse track is narrow, has fences that are dangerous, and is always dusty or muddy, and with high speed cars, where wide skids are necessary, racing becomes so dangerous that frequently the fastest car, from a slow start or other temporary delay, gets off in the rear without chance of ever gaining the front on account of continuous seas of dust and skidding cars ahead that would make it too dangerous to attempt to pass. This condition would not exist on a 3 or 5-mile track.
To the spectators there is very little enjoyment in seeing a 25 or 50-mile road race, where immense crowds throng the course and where only fleeting glimpses can be had of the cars as they come and go down the road. There is no accommodation for the public in a race of this kind, and the thousands of dollars spent in advertising and for special privileges that go to private individuals could well come into the purse of the management of a 3 or 5-mile track. The American manufacturers annually spend thousands of dollars in building high speed racing cars to compete with French cars and without possible chance of winning, and I think this is largely due to the fact that American drivers do not have a chance to thoroughly test their cars continuously at high speed for weak spots in construction, or to become entirely familiar with and have their car under perfect control at very high speeds.
There is no question in my mind that it takes weeks and months of practice handling a car at 75, 80 and 90 miles an hour to be able to properly gauge distances, numerous road conditions, and the response of the car to such conditions. It has been my experience that quite a number of racing cars, when tested over the best roads we had in this country, seemed to have wonderful speed. There was no accurate way to time them for any distance, and the best anybody could do was to guess at what the cars were doing.
It seems to me a 5-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 such as the Vanderbilt Cup race a sufficient amount to pay half of the entire cost of the track. With the present record of 52 seconds on a mile track, I am confident a 3-mile track 100 feet wide will stand a speed of 100 miles an hour, and that a 5-mile track will stand a speed of 2 miles a minute.
In diagrams I have seen of a 5-mile track it is possible at any point of the curve to see in a direct line 800 feet ahead and a curve of this kind, when gradual and continuous, is not nearly so severe as some of the short, choppy curves at Ormond beach, where a speed of 2 miles a minute was made by a couple of contestants in the meet in the south last winter.
(Signed) C. G. FISHER
Within a few weeks of the letter's publication, however, Fisher's constant craving for excitement and adventure involved him in a new project—the installation of automobile engines in speedboats. His enthusiasm was contagious, and many other members of the Indiana Motor Club built similar boats. By late summer, at least 40 powerboats of this type were in operation on White River at Broad Ripple, near the north edge of Indianapolis. Fisher and his close friend Bert Pierce centered their attention on the task of proving their superiority in this new field. They succeeded with a boat christened the EPH IV, powered by a six-cylinder 70-horsepower engine, and eventually made a clean sweep of every race they entered during a September regatta at Ottawa Beach, Michigan, after outclassing all local opposition.
Interest in automobile racing appeared to be increasing in other parts of the nation. A 100-mile race similar to the 1905 Indianapolis event was held on the Empire City dirt track at Yonkers, N.Y., October 26, 1906, with H. J. Koehler winning in a Buick at an average speed of 47.8 miles an hour. Many five-mile and ten-mile events were held elsewhere, and groups of sportsmen began to talk about building major speedways in their areas. But before any plans materialized, the financial panic of 1907 put an end to all discussions.
One of the few companies not affected was Prest-O-Lite. While other businesses retrenched or folded completely, Fisher and Allison continued to expand their operation steadily at a rate which caused concern among their friends such as Fred Willis of the Hershey-Willis Company.
"As long as Henry Ford continues to build his Model T with oil lanterns as standard equipment, in line with his announced policy of keeping the price of the car within reach of the ordinary workingman, we'll have as much business as we can handle," said Fisher. "And if I know Henry as well as I think I do, he's not about to make any changes."
The Fisher Automobile Company also continued to thrive. While other dealers were content to use conventional methods, Fisher would attract attention by giving away a new set of tires to the individual making the most accurate guess of the population of a hive of live honey bees inside a glass container at the center of his showroom. Of course many who came to guess the number of bees stayed to take demonstration rides in Fisher's cars.
His most notable stunt probably was the combination automobile-balloon ascension he made in the fall of 1908 with Captain G. L. Bumbaugh of Springfield, Illinois. Fisher persuaded Bumbaugh to bring his huge balloon, the Chicago, to Indianapolis for the introduction of a new model Stoddard-Dayton touring car.
The big bag, capable of lifting more than 2,500 pounds, was inflated at the Indianapolis Gas Company plant near the Northwestern Avenue bridge over Fall Creek on a day when the weather forecast called for a mild breeze out of the northwest. The basket in which the balloonists usually rode then was detached, and stout cables were used to fasten the car securely to the balloon.
A crowd of well over 5,000 curious spectators had gathered by the time all arrangements had been completed for the unusual ascent. Fisher took his place behind the wheel of the car, Bumbaugh climbed into the rear seat, where sand-bag ballast sacks weighing 700 pounds had been installed, and the signal was given to cast off.
The huge bag and the glistening all-white automobile rose majestically into the sky at 4:20 P.M., and floated lazily over the downtown area of Indianapolis at an altitude of approximately 2,000 feet. It's doubtful if a single resident of Indianapolis that day failed to get a good look at the unusual spectacle. Hundreds followed the balloon in automobiles, on motorcycles and bicycles. Some even followed on foot as the gentle breeze carried the balloon along at a speed of only four miles an hour.
Bumbaugh made perfect use of the ballast as the balloon neared Southport, seven miles south of Monument Circle. He dropped a long drag rope when the graceful descent was nearly completed. Dozens, including Dr. Frank Hutchins, who had followed by car, grabbed the rope and guided the Stoddard-Dayton to earth in a level pasture near the principal highway. Bumbaugh unfastened the cables and Fisher—still at the wheel—drove the car triumphantly to his showroom.
The entire trip took only three hours. For many days the Fisher Automobile Company was crowded with potential customers and curiosity seekers who wanted to make a firsthand inspection of the car which Fisher advertised as "the first automobile to fly over the city of Indianapolis."
With his profits from Prest-O-Lite and his automobile dealership, he was well on his way to becoming a millionaire, if, in fact, he had not already reached that status. He was in the enviable position of being able to "carry the ball" on almost any project that interested him.
Lem Trotter's casual challenge, issued on the hot and dusty return trip from Dayton, Ohio, had provided the spark that started Fisher on the path toward new adventure—as builder of the Speedway—at full throttle.