Brooklands and the Brickyard

Hugh Fortescue Locke King was a worldly Englishman and wealthy landowner at the turn of the 20th century. That sometimes painful vantage point allowed him to see a troubling truth about the state of his country’s automobile industry.

An early days race at the Brooklands race track in England.

Having adopted a luddite-like mentality toward the noisy, dangerous machinery, Britain, the empire that arguably invented global markets, lagged behind its international rivals in an industry poised to define the next centenary. British government officials imposed speed laws that in their earliest iteration required escorts to literally walk a car through a village.

Meanwhile French, German and Italian manufacturers surged ahead with state-of-the-art vehicles. A few were capable of traveling a mile-a-minute in the waning days of the 19th century. By some estimates France was producing about 50 percent of all the automobiles in the world.

Even after the British laws were liberalized by dispensing with the escort and raising the speed limit to 20 miles per hour, the juxtaposition of the English environment for improving the automotive breed with the climate in Europe was beyond dismal. For early Brit motorheads like Locke King it was inane.

On a mission, Locke King consulted with colleagues. The story goes that his original vision was a relatively simple road course, but the inspiration soon exploded to something big — indeed, bigger-than-big. What emerged was a concrete-paved, oval-like circuit a full 2.75-miles in length, 100-feet wide with sweeping corners banked 30 feet high in spots. It’s longest straightaway was a half-mile, but the banked corners extended the distance a driver could mash the throttle.

This marvel of the age opened in June 1907 and at last England had her testing ground for automobiles. Companies could put their engines and the chassis that carried them to the test. The world’s first purpose-built super speedway was born.

Meanwhile, across the expanse of the Atlantic plus nearly another 1,000 miles Carl Graham Fisher regularly employed his immense vocabulary of blasphemy to describe the state of America’s roads.

“Jesus Christ! God Damn bogs and ruts is what they are!”

Infrastructure was an issue of that era, too, and the age-old debate of advocates for small government versus proponents of the public good jousted over a transformation of roads from dirt to various forms of pavement — and who would pay for it. The proliferation of automobiles even by 1905 cast a spotlight on the need for change if the new form of transport’s economic impact on productivity was to be realized.

Fisher’s business success was only exceeded by his ability to attract attention. He dropped cars from multi-story buildings in downtown Indianapolis and rode a bicycle on a tightrope stretched across those same structures. He flew an automobile attached to a balloon and sailed over the Hoosier capital’s skyline. In 1905 he got the bright idea to bring the world’s 24 hour distance record for automobiles to his hometown.

The venue of choice for the top automobile exploits in Indianapolis at that time was the Indiana State Fairgrounds mile dirt horse track (a place where racing still takes place today) where the immortal stallion Dan Patch earned his pacer cred. It’s not like the place had in any way adapted for horseless carriages, but the smooth running surface was immeasurably superior for speed to the craggy, rutted terrain that passed for public roads in the countryside.

The big alteration Fisher made to the track was to account for lighting through nighttime pitch. With his partner James Allison he had a year earlier founded the Concentrated Acetylene Company, the makers of Prest-O-Lite, the first effective headlights. The devices were affixed to the railings on the inner edge of the Fairgrounds circuit at 25-foot intervals. They proved at least adequate illumination for two National Motor Vehicle Company cars — the products of a company founded by another of Fisher’s cohorts, Arthur Calvin Newby.

The men organized the appropriate witnesses and officials for a timed run spanning the days of November 16 and 17, 1905. Newby hustled up the cars and the drivers. A testosterone fueled 17–year-old Charlie Merz blended with a savvy “old-timer” born just after the close of the Civil War, W.F. “Jap” Clemens. Each mounted one of Mr. Newby’s mechanical steeds. Merz’ car broke just after dusk, so the two men tag-teamed the remaining vehicle to brave sun-forsaken cold and establish a new mark for the world to shoot at: 1,094.56 miles.

The founders of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway hatched their scheme for a giant track around a campfire at the Indiana State Fairgrounds in November 1905. The occasion was a 24-hour speed record attempt on the one-mile dirt horse track. The dots of light depict Prest-O-Lite headlights affixed to the railing to light the way. This art was featured in a 1917 National Motor Vehicle Company brochure.

More significant than the record, more important than promoting National, Prest-O-Lite and Fisher’s auto dealership, was something the men discussed that night by a campfire. Joined by a fourth man, Frank Wheeler, the co-founder of the Wheeler-Schebler Carburetor Company, the quartet played off one another’s imaginations dusk to dawn.

Given Fisher’s furiously kinetic mind, which was as compressed and volatile as his explosive acetylene gas headlights, the discussion turned to a big track with stretches long enough for engines to unwind until they annihilated records or themselves. The men’s shared interest in the proliferation of the automobile tuned their ears on the ready for even the most impractical scheme to be hatched. Carl would want you to remember that date: November 17, 1905.

Like most late-night problem resolution discussions, enthusiasm for the risk and the effort receded with the light of day. Fisher and his colleagues were busy with a multitude of other business interests. There was National, Wheeler-Schebler, Prest-O-Lite, Perfection Pens and the Fisher Automobile Company. Taking on the task of constructing a massive auto racing facility would be a major endeavor, especially if someone in the East was willing to effectively do it for them.

Someone, like a guy born into a family with more money than he could count. Someone not entirely unlike Locke King.

William K. Vanderbilt Jr. was a talented racer. For the best source of information on him and the Vanderbilt Cup check out www.vanderbiltcupraces.com.

William K. Vanderbilt, Jr., aka “Willy K,” the scion of a railroad empire and one of the richest men in America, had, at just 26 years of age, founded America’s first major auto race in 1904. Held on the public roads of Long Island the inevitable happened less than a year after that campfire pie-in-the-sky conversation way out west in Indiana.

Those un-policed roads in rural Long Island lined with tens of thousands of spectators should have killed dozens of them. The marvel was that it took three runnings of this insane Russian Roulette to pick off one — hapless Curt Gruner, a 33-year-old mill foreman from Passaic, New Jersey — who stepped in front of the Hotchkiss racer driven by Elliot Shepard. He never had a chance.

It would be two years before the Vanderbilt Cup would resume. The reasons get complicated, but the initial delay was the commitment by Vanderbilt and the American Automobile Association (AAA) to transition the contest’s venue to a private tollway. The railroad man had launched this initiative with the formation of the Long Island Motor Parkway Company just after Gruner’s death and the unwelcome publicity it generated.

The problem was the Parkway had yet to be built. Setting aside the challenge of construction, obtaining rights of way proved onerous. Add to that the reality that no one had ever done what they were proposing before, to construct what essentially was a modern highway, the learning curve was steep. Promise after promise was broken as Parkway leadership continuously underestimated the mountain they had to climb. The 1907 edition of the Vanderbilt Cup became one of those races that never was.

There can be little doubt Fisher and his colleagues were watching carefully. If the guy born with a silver spoon in his mouth could rally enough support to give them the proving ground they wanted, why not let him build it? The Indiana auto industry with a dozen or so manufacturers at the time pushed for a race on Willy K’s track along with the Vanderbilt Cup. When Vanderbilt failed to deliver on schedule they set about planning one of their own north and west of Indianapolis for June 1908 — again, on public roads.

That was another still-birth. Probably because by the spring of 1908 it looked like the Parkway was about to deliver. Finally, at least nine miles of the 23.46-mile course consisted of the concrete-paved thruway. Not only that, a new race reserved exclusively for stock cars was planned — the Long Island Motor Parkway Sweepstakes.

The result was underwhelming. The struggle to attain rights of way resulted in a meandering and narrow passage through the corn and cabbage fields of rural Long Island. Not only that, the crazy effort to protect onlookers from themselves was just as impossible as before. The result, after years of waiting, was dismal disappointment.

Imagine how galling it was for Fisher when Locke King staged the grand opening of this Brooklands speedway in June 1907. He and his boys had come up with the vision in 1905, for Christ’s sake!

As if to dance in Carl’s end zone, Brooklands’ first event was a record-shattering 24-hour run. Selwyn Edge with a Napier covered the ground at the then-astounding average of nearly 66 miles per hour.

When Fisher announced his plans for America’s great speedway early in 1909 not only were the comparisons inevitable, but so were the charges that he was a copycat. Carl Fisher had stolen the idea! That speculation still exists today and if people really could spin in their graves, old cussing Carl would have his mausoleum at Crown Hill Cemetery rocking like an old station wagon with a pair of teenagers in the backseat at the drive-in back during the Summer of Love.

Despite Carl Fisher’s denial, Brooklands was easily the fastest speedway on Earth in the first decades of auto racing.

Fisher bought 320 acres of farmland on the westside of Indianapolis in the autumn of 1908 but kept it under wraps until he could launch into construction the following February. From there it was the typical Fisher-style hustle, the frenetic rush infused in a man who could not fathom sitting still.

He was behind. He was over-extended.

His dream was of a massive speed complex with a three-mile oval containing a road course in the middle. Speedway architect Park Taliaferro “P.T.” Andrews talked him back a few steps to reality. The constraints of even 320 acres made something that massive impractical if you wanted grandstands. The pressure of recovering his investment and those of partners Allison, Newby and Wheeler compelled him to an act as distasteful as vomit at the back of his mouth: Fisher had to compromise.

Fisher and his partners set aside the road course for the moment and focused on a 2.5-mile oval of graded dirt with a coating of a “taroid” substance gluing crushed limestone in place. With nine degrees banking in the corners any hope that the course could contain racers at speeds rivaling the concrete wonder across the sea was fantasy.

Another around-the-clock manic endeavor illuminated by Prest-O-Lite headlights ensued. Steam rollers, teams of cart-hauling mules and three shifts of hundreds of laborers swarmed over the grounds to literally carve out America’s first purpose-built speedway from soil formerly tilled for cornfields. It was the the industrial age gobbling up the agrarian lifestyle.

In his urgency for cash flow and adventure Fisher organized the first national championship balloon races on June 5th as work was still underway on the grounds. Imagine the vista high above with the clouds of the half-completed plant with humans, animals and machines scrambling about below in toil.

Nine of the most famous balloonists in the country ascended into the sky, including Fisher and his mentor “Captain” George Bumbaugh. The venue’s founders attempted to fill the already erected grandstands with spectators. The event did attract the curious, but predictably many chose not to enter the confines of the new facility. Instead they opted to marvel at the departing colorful balloons from the comfort of their wagons and cars or simply planted their butts on the ground along Crawfordsville Road outside the gates.

All through the months of construction the destitute residents of a last resort “poor house” on a cooperative farm adjoining the Speedway grounds watched from the veranda as 41 white-with-green-trim buildings sprouted up in the foreground of their horizon. Make no mistake, the place was beautiful. The crushed white limestone glistened so brightly in the sun it could bruise retinas. The verdant, neatly trimmed grass complemented the colors of the wood buildings. Nothing looked rushed into service.

While the purpose of the new complex symbolized a dramatic departure from what had been before, the entire grounds took its cues from the familiar and most grand American horse tracks such as the Mecca that was and still is Churchill Downs in neighboring Kentucky. Like people and things, appearances can be deceiving.

Despite poor eyesight, Carl Fisher was a very capable racer. Here he is seen in one of his early Premier Motor Manufacturing Company track-racing cars.

In Fisher’s impatient pursuit of his passion to change the world and recover his investments he pressed the facility into service too soon. If there was a prayer of a crushed stone and gooey tar surface holding up under the relentless savagery from the earth-scorching wheels of 2,000 pound race cars it could only happen after allowing such a mix to cure.

There was no time.

Not only was there money to be made but Fisher, perhaps without telling even himself, had emotionally taken the weight of responsibility for saving the American automobile industry solely onto his shoulders. He “knew” it in his heart if not his head.

Only he had the wisdom to see the necessity of a proving ground for American automobile industry. For Indianapolis industry. Only he had the energy, the determination, the flat-out guts to raise up a modern test facility where corn formerly grew. Besides, risk was something you accepted as a cost of doing business and doubts were for people who fall short.

When observers questioned the IMS team’s ability to finish the track in time for the August motorcycle and automobile races, Fisher bristled. Challenged by an inquisitive reporter from the Indianapolis Star, he blurted:

The Speedway will positively be in finished condition and ready for record time. The track is better now than the Brooklands ever was. We have double the force of men working day and night smoothing out the few remaining defects and there is no reason records cannot be broken. The records on the track tomorrow will demonstrate the truth of this assertion as the practices have already done.

There goes that Brooklands thing again. Man, did that whole deal tick him off.

First motorcycles came for the Federation of American Motorcyclists (FAM) national championship meet. The loose gravel was treacherous and almost immediately local police officer Albert Gibney earned the distinction of being the first competitor to be injured at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Predictably losing traction on a turn due to the loose gravel, he fell from his bike and landed in a hospital bed.

Many riders balked and FAM wanted a last-minute relocation to the Indiana State Fairgrounds. Most of the riders packed up and headed to the next stop on their dangerous lifestyle’s schedule. Fisher and the FAM officials called them “yellow.” Some of the two-day event’s races were cancelled, so many so, that an impromptu confrontation between two of the most daring was concocted as a kind of showdown between daredevil champions of the West and the East.

Jake DeRosier, one of the few souls less comprehending of risk than Fisher, readily accepted the role of “Champion of the East,” and squared off against Californian Ed Lingenfelder. DeRosier had won many races but that success came with a price as he had broken nearly every bone in his body at one time or another. He was a guy who still mounted one of his Indian motorcycles to charge full tilt into competition despite evidence of internal bleeding.

In the most spectacular calamity of the entire August weekend DeRosier was thrown literally heels over head across his front handlebars when a tire exploded and jammed his front wheel. People were horrified.

People were horrified to be sure and were feverishly ready for more as tens of thousands of them formed the largest sports crowd in Indiana history and elbowed their way through the Speedway’s gates just a week later. Almost incomprehensibly today, Fisher and his team charged full-on with the AAA to stage their first auto race meet the very next weekend. The result was beyond disastrous as one driver, two mechanics and two spectators lost their lives in two massive accidents during the three day meet.

In the wake of the carnage Lieutenant Governor Frank Hall called for legislation to ban the sport from the State. He was in the minority as the economic impact boosting Indianapolis was too evident, and the value of the proving ground for product development to the city’s flourishing auto manufacturers was too apparent for those in power to let that forfeit happen.

Fisher and his partners brought Engineer Andrews back to the scene to do what should have been done the first time, essentially what Locke King and his team had done at Brooklands — pave the track in a manner worthy of a modern speedway. Carl Fisher’s frenzied nature had not been tempered however and within a few weeks of more round-the-clock exertions the running surface had been redefined as “vitrified” — smooth as glass.

Hyperbole aside, the bricks were smoother than packed clay coated with stones. More importantly, they could withstand the constant grinding of behemoth race cars.

Track officials employed superlatives in references to speed and safety. Along with the bricks, sand traps and concrete barriers were installed at the running surface edge. Assurances were pronounced in vehement confidence that it was now impossible to have deadly accidents. Apart from that preposterous claim, it was equally disingenuous to assert that the track was the fastest in the world. Its relatively modest banking compared to Brooklands assured that at best the Hoosier speedway would only compete for the fastest venue in the New World.

Meanwhile, Brooklands struggled. While their auto companies appreciated the track and the core enthusiasts reveled at its platform for world record speed it was never a commercial success. Like Vanderbilt, Locke King was from an aristocratic class who struggled to be bothered with financial profit if his club members were entertained and smiling.

Back in Indiana, Fisher, the human juggernaut who had worked from childhood after his alcoholic father deserted his family, charged on with his revitalized speedway. Locals nicknamed it “The Brickyard.”

Impervious to obstacles Fisher ordered a time trials event in the face of unseasonably Siberian-like weather the week before Christmas. He of course wanted to charge admission but the flesh-biting atmosphere deterred anyone who was not obligated to be there to find a more appealing fireplace or cast iron, coal-stoked stove to have a warm, God Bless ‘em.

With National’s Johnny Aitken pounding the bricks along with Lewis Strang in a Fiat and J. Walter Christie at the wheel of a bizarre front-wheel-drive contraption of his own design, records fell. The event had the public relations value Fisher felt he needed. It also portended a successful first major race meet at the new Brickyard the following Memorial Day weekend in May 1910.

Again, that event set a new Indiana record for attendance, soaring as high as 60,000. Important to that profitability thing, that number was almost certainly the world record for paid attendance. The ability to control crowds for their safety and to extract money from their wallets were compelling reasons for the private, closed circuit design that was and is the American speedway.

While road courses such as Vanderbilt’s, most of them 20 or more miles in a lap’s distance, attracted more people, the business reality is that those folks did not pay. They simply stood unprotected at the side of the public roads, or worse, ran out onto them. There were even reports of “ticklers” being sold. These were long, thin sticks with a feather on the end so people could attempt to brush the drivers as they sped past.

With more death in the 1910 Vanderbilt Cup, Long Island and the auto racing community finally had enough. The quaint and insane days of the Vanderbilt Cup on Long Island were over. The contest was never the same and had only five more outings as a kind of traveling road show with stops in Savannah, Milwaukee, San Francisco and Santa Monica before Willy K pulled the plug after 1916.

Brooklands, too, was not a commercial success but a utilitarian venue for automobile tests or a sportsman’s playground. Circumstance such as the encroachment of World War II ushered in its demise. Unlike the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Brooklands’ fall into disrepair was not arrested after the war. Like Vanderbilt’s Parkway, remnants remain. Thankfully there is a Brooklands museum to perpetuate its important history.

Artist rendering from 1909 of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway — in original plan form.

The trajectory of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has generally pointed north and despite the natural turbulence of the the context of the larger economy and other ambivalent forces of nature holding no regard for its health, it remains today one of the greatest — and certainly most historic — motorsports venues on the planet. It is the survivor of the three racing venues discussed here and while that reality is largely born of its commercial heritage some of it is like various successes any of us have had in life: just being in the right place at the right time. Praise God and don’t be arrogant about it.

One thing is for sure. The momentum created by Carl Fisher and his fellow founders has much to do with any success the Indianapolis Motor Speedway enjoys today.

As for whose idea it was to build a big speedway in the first place, that’s just fodder for a trivia game. The reality of the world in 1905 is that even with its nascent electrical communication systems people were largely isolated and regional in perspective. It’s no surprise that different people looking at the same problem from varying perspectives had original and similar ideas at essentially the same time. It is perfectly reasonable that people across the vast expanse of the globe came to similar conclusions about what to do next concerning issues they cared so fervently about.

This wasn’t the patent case or theft of intellectual property it might be today. More important is that Locke King, Fisher and Vanderbilt moved the needle. Perhaps they simply channeled a larger tide of mankind’s unceasing technological progression. They were the right vessels and should be remembered for answering their calling. They served their countries well in riveting attention through dramatic means to important work necessary for a better world. May we all be so inspired.

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