Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Indy's "30 Days In May" Starts Today

By Doug Vehle, For The Daily Bosco

"He was all speed. I don't believe he ever thought in terms of money. He made millions, but they were incidental. He often said, 'I just like to see the dirt fly.'"
Jane Fisher, Ex Wife of Carl Fisher

They used to call it '30 Days in May,' words that always gave me the same sense of anticipation as our Editor in Chief gets from 'Pitchers and catchers REPORT.' But with raceday scheduled for May 24th, the track officially opening today demonstrates that, no matter how much more goes into today's cars than in the past, the technology has also advanced to make them less tempermental. Auto racing continues to play its' role of sharpening the cutting edge of the development of the automobile, in this 100th year since the opening of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

2009 is proving a success through the concept of addition by subtraction. NASCAR has faced huge cuts in financial support to the teams, who have adapted well and performed at a much lower cost without a hiccup in the performance. Several forms of racing are giving up petroleum power and developing alternative fuels made from things like switchback grass. And even in failure, Formula One racing has provided a valuable service in the attempt to develop the KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery System) technology this year.

As ten separate teams with their own technological approach struggled to put the tantalizing prospect of regenerative braking to use in converting the energy lost in slowing the car into electricity to accelerate again, they proved that current technology is currently too heavy to build an effective system. Even with some of the greatest automotive developers in the world bringing multimillion dollar budgets to previously under funded study groups that had worked on the problem for decades, only the mechanical flywheel system of the Williams team has showed promise. And yet we can expect the photostatic and thermostatic technology to just keep getting lighter, as time goes on. The Formula One approach of giving the teams regular engineering questions to solve in building each years' car will continue to provide answers, though not always the answers we were hoping for.

So Indy has completed rookie/refresher testing and advances to practice at large with the darkest of the looming economic storm clouds hanging over the American automotive industry. 'Americans just can't build cars like the foreigners can.' Any idle tongue wagger can tell you that. 'It's only a matter of time before the overseas automakers push the U.S. out of the market completely.'

But as the saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. That's exactly what the wags were saying in 1909 when the Indianapolis Motor Speedway held its' first race. That's the reason the track was even built. The American automotive industry may owe its' salvation to the same man who brought us 'The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.'

Carl Fisher made his place in competition and in racing at a very young age. His success in bike racing on the old board tracks, the forerunner to the Velodrome, gave him the opportunity to open his own bicycle shop at the age of 17. At that time, the bicycle craze was sweeping the nation, and who better to buy your bike from than the local reigning champion? This was a time when your bicycle was bound to have been built by the shop itself. And Fisher was promoting the new 'Safety bike' design, the front wheel smaller and the rear wheel larger than the old style bicycle that people were falling off of. Fisher quickly became a wealthy young man.

A trip to France found Fisher a new passion, as he brought home a French made car. He may well have become the first 'Car Guy,' as he immediately contracted the construction of his own 'Hot Rod' for show as well as for racing. He did open what is believed to be the first automotive dealership in the United States, located in Indianapolis, Indiana. To promote the Stoddard Dayton car built by John Stoddard in Dayton, Ohio, Fisher would push a full size car off the roof of an 8 story building in front of a gaping crowd, who watched the car bounce and come to rest right side up. Fisher then came down to the car and started it up, hoping to drive for the crowd but in fact being trapped as they clustered about. You had to feel safe in this car, was the message Fisher was getting across.

Later, Fisher told the public that he'd be flying his Stoddard Dayton overhead with a balloon for a great distance, then would drive the car back into town, with the folded balloon tucked into the back. Indeed, the people of Indianapolis looked up to see Fisher waving from his car, suspended from a hot air balloon. As he drove into town, he told the gathering throngs that he in fact had to drive back in a different car, it had been necessary to remove the engine to make it light enough to be lifted. The advertising message became "The first car to fly over Indianapolis should be YOUR first car."

Fisher's automotive success was moving far faster than the bicycle industry ever had. With his bike racing friend James Allison, he founded Presto-Lite, the first automotive headlight system you would see on all cars with headlights before World War I, the tank on the front of such a car providing the acetylene gas for the lamps. When he sold the company (For $9 million) to Union Carbide, he then accidentally drove them from the automotive business (They still exist in the welding industry) by developing an electrical system for automobiles to enable the use of a starter motor, thus making possible a less dangerous headlamp that didn't need to be refueled. He would eventually help set up an engine company with Allison at the helm to provide service at the racetrack. This being the Allison Engine division of General Motors.

For all his own success, Fisher was well aware the automotive industry wasn't taking hold in the United States. The average family could never hope to afford the 3 years income it would take to buy a Stoddard Dayton or similar car. By the time he left on a trip thru Europe in 1907, the most common motorized transportation in America was an old buckboard wagon with a less than one horsepower engine fitted by "Friction drive" to one wheel, and a steering arm attached to the yoke where the horses were supposed to pull. Briggs and Stratton had responded by offering the "Power wheel," a fifth wheel much like an outboard motor for the back of a wagon, and the "June Bug," a small cart with a steering wheel driven by the power wheel. Motored transportation in America was remaining as primitive as the horse drawn wagon, which was still prevalent.

After marveling at the overseas cars that could "Go uphill faster than ours can go downhill," at a price the less than wealthy could afford, he had the chance to tour several test tracks, used as automotive proving grounds. While American autos had gone racing on the same short circles used for horses, turning left for a mile or less to determine a winner, the Europeans were accustomed to "Steeple Chases," horse and rider enduring an obstacle course at a greater distance. This gave birth to the traditions of Americans racing ovals and Europeans on road courses, but also provided a sterner test for European racers. And the Europeans had indeed built proving ground tracks, some over 3 miles over the closed course. Fisher would return home not only to see that increasing numbers were having foreign cars shipped to America, as he'd done 4 years earlier, but that Ford's answer had been the Model T, an inexpensive car that is regarded, all aspects of the era considered, the worst mass produced car ever made throughout history.

Fisher was a man like many Americans: Just couldn't stand the thought of another country beating us at ANYTHING, especially something that we created. And the man who was deciding to tackle this problem had overcome near blindness as a child to become one of the great bicycle racers of his era. Possibly the rigorous life he had overtaken caused the inexplicable improvement in his vision, or perhaps it was just his sheer determination to see things clearly. So now he had found his next mountaintop to look to: He was going to save the American auto industry.

Indianapolis, at the time, was the epicenter their manufacture in 1908. So it made sense to Fisher that his proving ground should be right there. And it should be bigger and better than anything the Europeans had, so he wanted a 5 mile track. But where could he find enough land, in one parcel, for his facility?

He would have to settle for a 2.5 mile oval track. Along with Allison, he enlisted Arthur Newby of the Indianapolis based National Motor Vehicle Company and Frank Wheeler of the Wheeler-Schebler Carburetor Company to build what amounted to a board track like none other seen. This accomplishment alone would make it possible four years later for Fisher to build the Lincoln Highway from New York to San Francisco, paid for solely by donations from auto makers and former Presidents of the United States.

But there would be a rough four years in-between. Being first to build the track meant being the first to learn the dangers. A crumbling track surface and other vulnerable aspects led to injuries and deaths to both the participants and spectators of that first race in 1909. Fisher had already suffered numerous injuries during exhibitions of his cars, and was already a champion for developing safety. The track was resurfaced with 3.2 million bricks, creating the still surviving nickname, 'The Brickyard.' Fisher personally began to drive a "Safety Car," which would take to the track to lead the other cars through the wreckage if there was an accident.

Racing cars, bicycles, motorcycles, and even balloons for paying audiences was supposed to pay for the operation of the track, as automotive testing would never be profitable. But grand as the new track was, it wasn't capturing the imagination of the public. Of course that would take time, but time was money, and they were running out of both. Yet the foundation was there. As new as auto racing was, what would be the true spirit of it was still to be discovered. But the Memorial Day weekend crowd in 1910 might be witness to history in seeing the sort of drama that most stirs racing fans to this day. On Saturday, a car tumbled ominously to a stop in front of a silent crowd, who cheered when local driver Ray Harroun stepped out of the wreck without serious injuries. His weekend seemed to be over.

Yet his car, built by local manufacturer Marmon, benefited from the closeness of the factory in being rebuilt over night and won the main event, the Wheeler-Schebler Trophy Race that was the first Memorial Day event the track would hold. 1910 would be his biggest year of racing, and while the American Auto Club was struggling with devising a method for picking a National Champion it would come as no surprise when the formula was settled years later that he'd be granted the title for that year. Auto racing was still just a hobby at the time, and Harroun would decide after 1910 to focus on his engineering career and leave the racing to others.

Carl Fisher would have other plans for Harroun, recognizing that a hero driver in a local car would go a long way in bringing fans to his envisioned automotive capital of the world, to see what he intended to be the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

"If you look at Fisher's entire life, it's a marathon. It's a race. It was a race to achieve the top of whatever field he was in at the time. Everything he did he went into it with his heart, his soul, his money, and he would not stop until he reached the end. He wanted to be there the quickest and first..."
-Historian Howard Kleinburg

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