With the 2011 Indianapolis 500 Mile Race celebrating its 100th anniversary, I believe Indianapolis residents owe a thank you to Speedway founders Carl G. Fisher and James A. Allison.
Before the inaugural running of the Indianapolis 500 on May 30, 1911, Indianapolis was a bucolic city with very little to distinguish it. 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.
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. This concentration of manufacturers attracted the supporting ancillary machine shops and businesses. General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler went on to build operations in Indianapolis.
James 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. 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 supplement Allison operations. Skilled machinists and tool makers moved to Indianapolis to work in these shops. I know my father moved to Indianapolis in the mid-1930’s to work in various machine shops and retired with over 25 years at Allison.
Thank you to Carl Fisher and James Allison for your grand vision with these manufacturing endeavors and the creating the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which drew people to our great city for employment and enjoyment.