Happy Birthday Carl Fisher


Just 136 years ago today Carl Graham Fisher, the leader of the founding team at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was born in Greensburg, Indiana. The son of an alcoholic father who essentially left his wife to raise their three sons with little means, there was nothing about Carl's upbringing that portended the influential role he would have in shaping America during the first quarter of the 20th century.
Struggling with uncorrected astigmatism Carl was saddled with a reputation for being "stupid" in elementary school but such an assessment discounted his kinetic mind that fired an endless succession of ideas bouncing off the walls of his skull until the best ones exploded and enveloped all of Indianapolis. Or Miami Beach. Or Montauk Point. Or the entire continent with the first highways to span America from east to west and again from north to south.
A born entrepreneur who loved the game - win or lose - he played as hard and as fast as he could. He hustled candy, peanuts, and magazines to bored railway passengers before he was a teenager. By 17 he was smack in the middle of America's 1890's bicycle craze with one of the most successful bicycle shops in Indianapolis. Never intimidated, he negotiated contracts with Colonel Albert Pope, a decorated Civil War veteran officer and a 50-year-old chief executive of the Pope Manufacturing Company to act as an agent for one of the country's top bicycle brands.
Pure genius, he was alert and one step ahead - like when he chugged down an Indianapolis street amazing his neighbors with the first automobile they had ever seen. The 20th century had barely begun and Carl converted the bicycle shop into the first auto dealership in Indianapolis.
At just 30 he founded Prest-O-Lite Company which would become a major corporation launched to such lofty heights by producing the first viable automobile headlight with compressed gas technology. A millionaire, he moved into Indianapolis real estate development, founded a car company and his most enduring legacy - the glorious Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Determined and passionate, he demanded the best for himself, the people he cared about, his hometown and his country. Frustrated that America lagged Europe in automotive technology, he not only built the Speedway for manufacturers to run their motors to the breaking point and beyond but poured his considerable energies into the development of the first transcontinental highway - the Lincoln Highway. He followed that up with Dixie Highway, linking Chicago and Indianapolis to Miami.
The Dixie Highway was not without ulterior motives for Carl had imagined Miami Beach while on a Floridian vacation and set to work literally dredging up a beach from the adjacent Atlantic shore. In some ways, this led to his undoing as his reach always stretched the limits of his grasp. Northward to Montauk Point, he ventured, leveraging the value of his Miami land holdings to finance yet another ambitious development project aimed at creating yet more wealth by providing another escape for the well-heeled. A hurricane dashed these hopes and pulled the rug out from under his empire not long before the 1929 stock market collapse struck a near fatal body blow to the aging tycoon.
The Great Depression raged through the 1930's and Fisher, now suffering the consequences of a bawdy lifestyle that included excessive ingestion of whiskey and cigar smoke, plummeted down a decline from which he would not recover. Even in his final years he could not sit still, creating Key Largo's Caribbean Yacht Club, an earthy bar designed for the everyday man - the kind of person I don't think Fisher ever lost touch with. Today it is a tourist attraction, but not for its famous founder, more for Hollywood icon Humphrey Bogart and its connection to his movie, "Key Largo," filmed nine years after Carl's death of a gastric hemorrhage in 1939.