100 Years of the Indy 500 Began With the Dream of a Visionary

40 cars lined up for the 1st Indy 500; The Winner Started in the 28th position-no winner has started farther back

On This Date In History: Not all success stories are college graduates or even college drop outs. On this date in 1909, entrepreneur Carl Graham Fisher was looking ahead to a big day. In just a 3 days, he was going to stage the first race at the Indianpolis Motor Speedway . Four days later he was scratching his head because the opening of his Indianapolis Motor Speedway with a three day, 300 mile race didn’t go very well. Drivers were blinded by the dust kicked up from the gravel roadway and 5 people were killed. Fisher abruptly stopped the race. But, he didn’t give up. He had the 2.5 mile oval set with brick and in 1911, the first Indy 500 was held.

Fisher didn’t give up on a lot of things. He was born half blind but didn’t know about it until he was 31. He started a small bicycle business and promoted it by riding a bike across a tightrope. He opened what is thought to be the first auto dealership in America and promoted that business in Indianapolis by floating across the city in a hot-air balloon. Part of the reason he opened the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was that he wanted to try to make Indianapolis the hub of the auto-industry instead of Detroit. He also went into business making auto headlights. He later sold that in 1912 to Union Carbide for $9 million. Perhaps buoyed by the success of making Indianapolis Motor Speedway the “Brickyard”, he conceived of the idea and helped develop the nations first coast to coast highway, the Lincoln Highway, named for his favorite hero. He went a step farther and pushed for the Dixie Highway from Indianapolis to Florida, which John Mellencamp made famous later.

Fisher's Elephant

In Florida, he became a real estate mogul and bought an overgrown island off of Miami. He had it cleared of mangroves, filled in the swamps and built a bridge to what is now known as Miami Beach. As part of a promotion, he once used an elephant with a baseball player on its head, which I have no idea how that promotes a real estate development. But, Fisher is considered a genius while that moniker has escaped me. He also began a “Miami of the North”, developing what would become Montauk on the eastern tip of Long Island. At one point he was worth $100 million in 1920’s dollars. But..easy come easy go.

Miami Beach Memorial Honoring Fisher

Miami Beach Memorial Honoring Fisher

Before the hype of Global Warming, a number of hurricanes devastated Florida and just hammered the real estate market in Florida. That took a toll on Fisher’s fortune. Then the stock market crash of 1929 wiped him out. He ended up in a small cottage on Miami Beach, but he didn’t stop. He developed the Caribbean Club in Key Largo. He died in 1939 with an estate estimated at just $40,000. But, he is credited with helping to inspire President Eisenhower to develop the interstate highway system. He was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame and was named one of Florida’s 50 most influential people of the 20th Century.

From rags to riches to rags again….yet he left a legacy of benefit for the entire nation. Ever wonder what you can do if you try?

5 Responses

  1. I think that Journey made “Dixie Highway” famous before John Mellencamp, Mr. Symon.

  2. What? Pls explain.

  3. Hmmmm.. Maybe we’re talking about two songs. Mellencamp’s “Our Country” is known to some as “Dixie Highway” because of its refrain. I didn’t even know about Journey’s “Dixie Highway”, but I’m no musical guru!

    I did enjoy this post. I’ve never been a racing fan, but you can bet the Indy 500 was part of every Memorial Day celebration when I was growing up. I’m not sure anybody in the house even watched it, but it was on radio and tv everywhere.

    It’s so interesting to learn about the folks behind events like this. And now I know why it’s “the brickyard”!

  4. I don’t get the Journey reference either.

  5. It’s a song from Journey’s “Captured” live album from 1981. Here’s a link to a poor quality Youtube video if you care to watch it:

    The lyrics are a bit more “suggestive” than I remembered to be honest–so I apologize for that.

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