Sometimes Folklore Isn't Good Enough


Do you know of the 1905 Premier racer Carl Fisher commissioned for Vanderbilt Cup competition that is on display at the IMS Museum? The history of the car has gotten garbled through the decades. For years, the placard in front of it said it was developed for the 1903 Vanderbilt Cup.
The problem with that alternative fact is that the Vanderbilt Cup did not start until 1904 - a fact the museum finally acknowledged just a couple of years ago. Also, there is a widely-told story that the car competed only once, at a race meet Fisher and partner Arthur C. Newby organized at the Indiana State Fairgrounds in 1905. Let's get to that point at the close of this post. First, more background on the original purpose of the car.
Fisher, who attended that inaugural Vanderbilt event as an observer, recognized the superiority of European marques - Panhard, Clement-Bayard, Renault, de Dietrich, Mercedes, Fiat - as they dominated the event. The hodgepodge of American entries, in particular, Pope-Toledo and Packard, actually showed reasonably well in the final results capturing third and fourth through a strategy of plodding along and surviving in the face great attrition.
Fisher, ever patriotic and ambitious, was determined to teach the Europeans about Yankee know-how that could stage a full frontal, toe-to-toe attack. He returned to Indianapolis to commission hometown manufacturer Premier to produce a literal world beater. Apparently, he gave them few other details. Engineer George Weidley must not have checked the rulebook.
Maybe that was "rule page," as in those days there were few restrictions on car design. The most notable one was weight. Unlike today, with limits on how light a car can be, the concern of the time was how heavy the car was. The logic there pertained to engine size. The weightiest basic structure of each car was its cast iron block. In order to prevent teams creating outrageously huge power plants that were totally irrelevant to consumer product, there was a weight restriction.
It's hard to fathom, but Weidley's design brought the car in at about 2,500 pounds, about 300 over the rule limit. A frantic exercise of drilling holes through the car's frame and just about any appendage that could tolerate a little drilling ensued. Fearful the structural integrity would be comprised by further drilling, they stopped. The massive, 923 cubic inch engine - the largest air-cooled motor of the day - was simply too heavy for a weakened frame to support.
They were still 80 pounds over the limit. Instead of drilling further, Fisher pleaded his case to William K. Vanderbilt, Jr. and other officials but it was to no avail. The Premier had run out of time and was disqualified.
Fisher and Premier purchased full page advertisements castigating the officials for what they saw as an unreasonable stance. That strategy yielded little more than for the affected parties than to vent their emotion and perhaps gain some modicum of satisfaction in any stain they could cast on the Vanderbilt organizers.
About 14 months later Fisher raced the car in a handicap event at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. He started the Premier from scratch, which means he gave the field a head start. It was a five-mile race but he managed to catch up and pass for the win. For decades, largely due to a yarn documented in the folklore-quality book, "500 Miles to Go," everyone just accepted that the Premier never raced again.
Except there we go again with alternative facts. The truth is the car was raced at least two more times in the hands Alfonso "Al" Webb, a reasonably prominent driver who won the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Trophy at the St. Louis Fairgrounds and also competed in that first Vanderbilt Cup for Pope-Toledo.
That's the man you see sitting in the car here - Webb. You can learn a lot more about him and see further information about the truth about this intriguing car if you click thru. At First Super Speedway we take this history seriously and we think you agree. Sometimes Folklore isn't good enough.