IMS Founders: Fisher, Allison, Newby, and Wheeler
Strong, stable leadership has been a hallmark of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for more than 100 years, as just four groups/individuals have owned the facility since it opened in 1909. IMS was built in the spring of 1909, the result of a creative vision of Carl G. Fisher and his three partners in the venture, James Allison, Arthur Newby, and Frank Wheeler.
The track’s original purpose was to serve as a common testing facility for the rapidly growing local automobile industry. With dozens of companies like Marmon, Cole, National, Marion, Overland, and American Underslung operating in and around the city limits – Stutz and Duesenberg would come later – Indianapolis had by 1908 risen to fourth in the country in terms of numbers of automobiles produced. By 1913, it ranked second. Indiana roads were generally not yet developed, and automotive technology had increased so rapidly that many passenger vehicles had become capable of greater speeds than any dirt road would permit.
Recognizing that something far more substantial was needed for testing purposes, local businessmen Fisher, Allison, Newby, and Wheeler joined forces to build a huge “motor parkway” on which long straightaways and gradual turns would permit any automobile to be stretched to its fullest extent. In addition to private testing, they reasoned, occasional automobile racing events in which the entrants were the manufacturers would give the public an opportunity to witness competition by stripped-down versions of the same vehicles one could purchase from the showrooms for personal transportation.
The founding partnership was spearheaded by Fisher, a Greensburg, Indiana, native who would eventually develop Miami Beach from swamplands into an exotic resort city. Later, he would form the Lincoln Highway Commission, which built the first drivable highway across the United States that connected New York City to San Francisco.
Fisher’s partners in the track project were Newby, head of the prestigious National Motor Vehicle Company; Wheeler, of the Wheeler-Schebler Carburetor firm; and Allison, who six years later started the operation destined to become the massive Allison Engineering Company. While IMS was built in 1909, Fisher’s vision of such a facility was outlined to the public as early as November 1906 in an issue of Motor Age magazine. A detailed letter that he wrote appeared in the magazine, describing the advantages of a circular track of 3 or 5 miles over the traditional 1-mile fairgrounds ovals of the time.
In autumn 1908, Fisher and his friend Lem Trotter drove from Indianapolis to Dayton, Ohio, in an automobile. It was a tough trip, as the rough roads required numerous stops to repair punctured tires. Frustrated, Fisher insisted that his proposed track would help solve the problems of low-quality tires and automobiles. The next day, Trotter and Fisher went for another automobile ride from Indianapolis, this time about 5 miles northwest of the city into the countryside. They arrived at the corner of the Crawfordsville Pike and a little cart track that eventually became Georgetown Road and saw four adjoining 80-acre tracts of land that were for sale.
The outgoing Fisher then convinced Wheeler, Allison, and Newby to become his partners in the purchase of the land. The land was purchased in December 1908, with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Company officially formed on March 20, 1909. Fisher originally wanted the track to be a 5-mile oval, but his plan was modified to feature a 3-mile, rectangular-shaped oval, with a 2-mile road course inside that when linked to the oval would create a 5-mile lap.
New York civil engineer P.T. Andrews, who was hired to oversee the project, said a 3-mile outer track was possible on the available land but that the outside of the straightaways would be so close to the edges of the property that there would be no room for grandstands. Andrews suggested an outer track of 2.5 miles would fit perfectly. The road course section was abandoned soon after grading began at the site in March 1909, leaving the 2.5 miles that became the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, The Greatest Race Course In The World.
The Eddie Rickenbacker Era
In 1927, American World War I flying ace Captain Eddie Rickenbacker and his associates purchased the Speedway for $750,000.
While Rickenbacker was a decorated pilot who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, he first was a race car driver. After serving as a riding mechanic and relief driver in the first Indy 500 in 1911, Rickenbacker competed in four 500-mile races between 1912 and 1916. He placed 10th in 1914, and, after starting second in 1916 and leading the first nine laps, later took over a team car to finish sixth.
Rickenbacker presided over the Speedway for 18 years, but the mark he left on IMS can still be seen today. In 1929, Rickenbacker took the suggestion of track founders Fisher and Allison and installed a golf course along the backstretch as a year-round source of income. Although the course layout has changed, Brickyard Crossing Golf Course remains to this day.
On Dec. 29, 1941, just three weeks after the United States suddenly found itself drawn into World War II, Rickenbacker canceled the 1942 Indy 500, stating that there would be no further activities at the Speedway until after the hostilities had been resolved.
Rickenbacker served as an aviation advisor to the United States government during the war, and he offered the facility to the government for use just like it had been used as an aviation depot during World War I when Fisher offered the track to the government. The government politely declined this time as the Speedway’s infield was considered not spacious enough to accommodate the much larger and faster aircraft of the time.
With that, Rickenbacker ordered the facility padlocked for the duration of the war. The Speedway sat empty from 1942-45 and fell into a state of disrepair. The infield was overgrown, the wooden grandstands were rotting and on the verge of collapse, and weeds had grown through the track’s brick-and-mortar surface. But the longest period of IMS ownership was about to begin, and the Speedway was saved from ruin.
The Hulman-George Era
On Nov. 14, 1945, Terre Haute, Indiana, businessman Tony Hulman purchased the famed but rundown 2.5-mile racetrack for $750,000 at the urging of Wilbur Shaw, who won three of the last five Indianapolis 500-Mile Races held there before the U.S. entered World War II. Once Hulman bought the track from Rickenbacker, he named Shaw as president and general manager.
Hulman immediately embarked on a massive renovation project of the dilapidated facility, with the track reopening in time for the 1946 Indianapolis 500. It was during this period of ownership that the most recognizable pieces of the Racing Capital of the World were built. From the mammoth grandstands that line the track to the Scoring Pylon, the Pagoda and so much more, the racetrack Hulman built is in many ways the racetrack fans still experience today.
The most ambitious project since the construction of the track in 1909 took place from 1998-2000 when the Pagoda control tower and Pagoda Plaza, pit-side garages, and a road course that included portions of the famed oval were built. Other world-class events also have been added to the facility since the early 1990s.
NASCAR raced at IMS for the first time in 1994, and the Brickyard weekend quickly became one of the crown jewel events of stock car racing. Formula One returned to America for the United States Grand Prix at Indianapolis from 2000-07, and MotoGP motorcycle racing came to a new, 2.591-mile road course for the Red Bull Indianapolis GP from 2008-15.
Tony Hulman passed away in 1977, and the stewardship of IMS was transitioned to his wife, Mary Fendrich Hulman. She served as chairperson of the board from 1977-88. Then, their daughter Mari Hulman George took charge in 1988 and held the position through 2016. Her son, Tony George, served as president of IMS from 1990-2009 and chairman of the board from 2016-20.
The Penske Era
On Nov. 4, 2019, the Board of Directors of Hulman & Company announced Penske Corporation would purchase the famed racetrack, INDYCAR and IMS Productions under the subsidiary Penske Entertainment Corp. The acquisition was made official on Jan. 6, 2020, and new IMS Chairman Roger Penske began leading the Speedway into new growth and the next generation as a modern-day racing facility.
Penske immediately went to work, announcing a multi-million-dollar fan experience investment that added 30 LED large-screen video boards around the track, the 100 feet wide by 20 feet tall IMS Media Wall on the base of the Pagoda facing the Pagoda Plaza, and the addition of Verizon and its 5G Ultra Wideband network that transformed the iconic Speedway into a first-of-its-kind technology-led entertainment complex.
Additionally, IMS was enhanced with noticeable infrastructure improvements that included more than 225 refreshed restrooms, paved parking lots that equated to nearly 400,000 square feet of asphalt and 3,000 tons of concrete, and nearly 5 miles of new fencing around the property. Plus, the iconic Victory Lane was redesigned to elevate the winner to the top of the Victory Podium to give fans a better vantage point for pictures and social media sharing of the most prestigious Victory Lane in global motorsports.
Under Penske’s leadership, IMS and INDYCAR began the “Race For Equality & Change,” a program that focuses on recruiting and developing a diverse workforce. Within six months, the “Race For Equality & Change” had already seen tangible results with the announcements of an expanded involvement in grassroots racing, the naming of Penske Entertainment executive Jimmie McMillian as chief diversity officer, an African American- led team ownership group in the Road to Indy ladder system and a female-led team ownership group in IndyCar.
The long history of community support in times of need also continued under Penske’s leadership. In 2020, the Speedway served as a host for community food distribution events with Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana to assist the millions of Hoosier residents who face food insecurity.
Additionally, much like how Fisher and Rickenbacker offered the Speedway to the government in unprecedented times of need, Penske offered the world’s largest spectator sporting facility to the state of Indiana during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In Spring 2021, IMS partnered with the Indiana Department of Health to host mass vaccination clinics. The Speedway’s pit-side garages were transformed to serve as a drive-through vaccination clinic, providing over 90,000 people with vaccinations. Under Penske’s leadership, the Racing Capital of the World has continued to build upon the legacy of the facility that is over a century old, prioritizing the fan experience and cementing the legendary racetrack’s status as one of the most historic sporting institutions in this nation and across the globe.