Author Sigur Whitaker Reviews, "The Legend of the First Super Speedway"


So honored that Sigur Whitaker chose to write this wonderful review of, "The Legend of the First Super Speedway" in her e-mail newsletter. Sigur is an outstanding racing historian and author of a number of books, including the biographies of James Allison and Tony Hulman. You can subscribe to Sigur's newsletter through this address.

Here's the review:

Mark Dill has ventured back in time in his book The Legend of the First Super Speedway, The Battle for the Soul of American Auto Racing. Set in the early 1900s, he delves into the emerging sport of automobile racing. His well-crafted book skillfully blends the facts and the larger-than-life personalities of Barney Oldfield, Carl Fisher, Alexander Winton and others into easily read history. It portrays the excitement and danger in early auto racing as well as the skill, determination, and bravery needed to drive the temperamental racers primarily on dirt horse racing tracks and Carl Fisher’s vision and tenacity to create the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

When Alexander Winton, the owner of the Winton Motor Carriage Company, had the sought-after Bullet racer, Barney Oldfield, who would become the king of auto racing, challenged the Bullet with Henry Ford’s 999, a bright red racer at Grosse Pointe, Michigan, While Oldfield set a track record for the mile and lapped the field, the Bullet dropped out of the race after having mechanical issues.

Carl Fisher, who owned an automobile dealership in Indianapolis, was intently interested in auto racing. Fisher had gone to Europe to race automobiles only to discover his racer wasn’t competitive. Fisher knew the American-made autos desperately needed improvement and feared that if the European auto manufacturers were to ship vehicles to America, they would crush the emerging American automobile market.

Determined to act upon his desire to improve the American automobile, Fisher arranged for an automobile race at the Indiana State Fairgrounds in June 1903. Key to his plan was to have speed records set at the races. Oldfield was the perfect person to break the mile a minute on the one-mile dirt horse track. By offering Oldfield $250, Fisher’s dream was fulfilled.

The Winton Bullet remained the car with the most potential to set new records which both Winton and Oldfield desperately wanted. After participating in races at Ormond Beach, Florida, in January 1904, Oldfield broke AAA’s rules by unauthorized barnstorming. That led to Oldfield’s sudden departure from Winton’s employ and being banned from AAA races. Not to be deterred, Oldfield joined Lou Mooers’ team driving a Peerless.

The book chronicles both the authorized races and the barnstorming Oldfield did across the country. Oldfield would often have match races at county fairs which were exciting for the spectators but frequently, there was an agreement between Oldfield and his foe to put on a good race but allow for Oldfield to win at the finish line. The book also reflects how dangerous auto racing was in the early days.

Car manufacturers knew the demand for their autos would be increased if they were to win races and set records. In November 1905, Carl Fisher and Art Newby, vice president of National Motor Vehicle Company in Indianapolis, went to the horse track at the Indiana State Fairgrounds with two Nationals and set a new record for a 24-hour endurance run. While there, Fisher told Jim Allison, his partner in Prest-O-Lite, and Frank Wheeler, a local carburetor manufacturer, his belief that a larger oval track would not only show the weaknesses of the American automobiles but would be safer for the drivers, riding mechanics and spectators.

Fisher was determined to bring his dream of a superspeedway to life. A 1908 visit to Brooklands, a superspeedway constructed with concrete in England, furthered his dream. Returning to Indianapolis, local realtor Lem Trotter challenged Fisher to stop whining about the quality of the American automobiles and to take action. Fisher, Allison, Newby, Wheeler agreed to build a superspeedway. After purchasing 320 acres, about five miles west of Indianapolis, construction of the track began in late 1908.

Fisher was putting the finishing touches on the crushed stone and oil track in preparation for the Federation of American Motorcyclist national convention in early August 1909. The motorcyclists were accustomed to racing on board tracks, beaches or dirt tracks. When they saw the massive track, they were skeptical of its safety. When motorcyclists started withdrawing from the races, Fisher talked two racers into a dual match. The two were circling the track when suddenly, one tumbled and was badly injured. Desperate to please the paying customers, the next day Fisher arranged for Eddie Lingenfelder and Jake DeRosier to a championship race despite F.A.M.’s leadership wanting to cancel the remaining races. DeRosier crashed after his front tire blew, ending the races.

Oldfield and others were practicing while workers were still trying to smooth out the track. When questioned by Fisher, Oldfield gave him the unvarnished truth. The track was very dangerous. The drivers were being pelted with flying stones and the track was breaking up, particularly in the corners. Despite the warnings, the first auto races were held on August 19, 1909. Throughout the series of short races (5, 10, 25 miles), the track was torn up by the heavy cars requiring repairs to the track between the contests. The 250-mile Prest-O-Lite Trophy race would be Fisher’s worst nightmare. Just beyond the half-way point of the race, William Bourque lost control of his Knox racer and rolled into the fence. Both Bourque and his riding mechanic, Harry Holcomb, were thrown from the speeding racer and died. The race continued and was won by Bob Burman. Afterward, the AAA officials stated that there would be no more racing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway unless the track was improved.

Fisher promised to fix the track, move the fencing back, and to fill in the ditches which lined the outside of the track. Two days later, the meet resumed. Unfortunately, the Prest-O-Lite race was a precursor of the disaster that unfolded during the 300-mile Wheeler-Schebler Trophy race. At 175 miles, Charlie Merz’ National had a tire blow causing his car to spin out of control. Merz’ riding mechanic, Charles Kellum, and two spectators were killed. The race continued until Bruce Keene, driving a Marmon, hit a hole coming out of a turn and hit a support for the bridge crossing the Speedway. At that point, AAA official Fred “Pop” Warner stopped the race.

The four owners of the Speedway knew that the future of the Speedway was in peril. After testing both brick and concrete as a surface, 3.2 million bricks were laid on the Speedway surface. The Speedway reopened on a bitterly cold day in December with some brave racers taking to the track. When racing resumed in May 1910, Fisher called upon Oldfield to set a new record on the track. This was important to Fisher to have the record at the Speedway and not at the rival Playa del Rey track in California or the Atlanta Speedway. Despite a gale-force wind blowing, Oldfield succeeded with a speed of 101 miles per hour assuring the future of the Speedway.