1971 AHF Inductee Carl Fisher was behind the wheel of his Stoddard Dayton waving at people, including his future wife, far below him as he hovered 100 feet in the air. The car was suspended below a hot air balloon, floating above the city where he would pace the first lap of the inaugural Indianapolis 500 in 1911. Fisher was a promoter extraordinaire and a businessman who made things happen.
Carl Fisher was born in 1874. As a teenager he convinced the Pope-Toledo bicycle company’s owner to set him up as a distributor based solely on his dynamic personality. The bicycle business gave way to cars and more stunts to sell them. One such stunt included dropping a car from a four-story building and driving it away to demonstrate its durability.
Fisher helped to bring nighttime driving to early horseless carriages. After a chance meeting with Fred Avery, who had a novel patent, the two formed the Prest O Light company. Fisher’s success brought him the means to pursue his dream of creating an automobile speedway.
Together with his business partners Jim Allison, Art Neuby and Frank Wheeler, Fisher drew out plans for a test track on farmland west of downtown Indianapolis. The layout included long one-mile straights and a road course in the infield. After opening the track in 1909, they planned a series of races to allow auto manufacturers a chance to demonstrate the durability of their automobiles. In 1911, they zeroed in on one big race with prize money of $25,000 and an unheard-of length of 500 miles in about seven hours. The race attracted the best talent in the world and more than 100 years later it is still “the greatest spectacle in racing.”
In 1912, Fisher decided that automobiles needed better roads in order to flourish in the United States. He started lobbying President Wilson for a federal highway across America. The beginnings of the Lincoln Highway included Fisher staging cross-country promotional drives with caravans of cars traveling between towns that would be included on the highway. The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1921 was the result. With support for building the route from New York to San Fransisco secure, Fisher turned his attention to places to travel.
He built a yacht for his honeymoon and traveled down the Mississippi to the Florida Gulf. He docked at a swampy area that he decided he could develop. Clearing alligators and swamps for hundreds of acres of sand he pumped up from the ocean floor, Fisher created Miami Beach.
He went on to develop other communities including Montauk, New York. Fisher never stopped dreaming even as his health failed him. He passed away at relatively young 64 years, but lived a fascinating life. He was a mogul in every field he tried – sales, development, and promotion. This 20th century visionary developed institutions and landmarks across America. We especially remember him each year on Memorial Day as thousands of horsepower roar to life at his Indianapolis 500-mile race.