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Meet "Crazy" Carl Fisher, the father of the Indy 500

The Indianapolis 500 calls itself "the greatest spectacle in racing"
Indianapolis 500 to mark 100th running 03:49

The salesman, showman and visionary who dreamed up the Indianapolis 500 would be proud: The 100th running this weekend will host the first official sellout and one of its largest crowds to date.

But "Crazy" Carl G. Fisher -- an Elon Musk-level innovator of his era, mostly forgotten by history -- wouldn't have been satisfied. He was always searching for the next big thing.

Fisher was a driving force behind the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and later the construction of the first interstate highways -- the Lincoln and the Dixie -- which opened large swaths of the U.S. to travel by car. And he went on to develop Miami Beach out of swampland and the resort town of Montauk on Long Island, seeing his fortune swell as high as $100 million.

Fisher lost most everything when the "Great Miami" hurricane hit in 1926, and the stock market crashed in 1929. He died at 65 in 1939.

Carl G. Fisher U.S. Library of Congress

"He was going 100 miles per hour all the time, but never seemed to stay with anything for long," said Donald Davidson, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian. "Fisher was an idea guy. He had a fire burning in his stomach."

He also was one of the greatest salesmen of his time: "He could take Death Valley and turn it into a sunken garden," Will Rogers was quoted as saying in a 1925 newspaper account, according to the Indiana Historical Bureau.

Fisher was 17 when he opened his first business, a bike shop in Indianapolis, at a time when bicycles had a reputation as a risky toy rather than reliable transportation. He had a knack for marketing stunts, like riding a bike across a wire between two buildings to promote his shop -- and presumably show off the bicycle's road-worthy stability.

Naturally, he procured the first gasoline-powered vehicle in Indianapolis -- a motor tricycle, Davidson said.

"He drove it around town, and everyone thought he was a nutcase," Davidson said. "It would scare all the horses. Then he put those vehicles in the bicycle shop for sale."

His next lark was inspired by a trip to the first U.S. Auto Show, in New York in 1900. Fisher was hooked, for a while at least.

Like bicycles earlier, cars needed advocates to persuade a public worried about safety and reliability. Fisher again turned to marketing gimmicks at the fledgling Fisher Automobile Co., one of the nation's first car dealers.

In one such promotion that reinforced his "Crazy Carl" nickname, Fisher ferried a Stoddard-Dayton across town using a hot-air balloon, according to an account by the Indiana Historical Society. In another, he pushed a car off the roof of a downtown building (its tires underinflated to prevent it from toppling over) and had his brother drive it off, still running like a champ.

After securing access to a French patent involving the use of compressed gas in headlights, Fisher and business partner James Allison launched Prest-O-Lite, which expanded with manufacturing facilities in five other cities. Union Carbide paid $9 million to acquire the company in 1911.

In 1905, Fisher began ruminating about his biggest idea to date, telling newspaper reporters of his plans for an automobile proving ground to test out new features, help American car companies compete with European rivals and capture the imagination of the masses. At the time, Indianapolis was as much of a car hub as Detroit.

Fisher bought farmland for the track on the west side of Indianapolis in 1909 and incorporated with fellow local investors James Allison, Frank Wheeler and Arthur Newby (whom Fisher met years earlier as fellow members of the Zig-Zag Bicycle Club) to build the track at a cost of about $3 million.

The first races ran on a surface of crushed stone to deadly results: Six people were killed, including two spectators, in wrecks blamed on the poor surface. So Fisher and his team ordered 3.2 million bricks to pave the course, creating what became known as the Brickyard, and the first Indianapolis 500 ran on Memorial Day in 1911.

For the Indy 500's 1ooth running this year, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway completed $100 million in improvements to the track and grandstands, funded by a state loan set to be repaid by tax revenues generated at the facility. IMS generates $510 million annual economic activity for Indiana, according to a 2013 study by the Indiana University Public Policy Institute. This year's winner is expected to collect about $2.5 million of a total purse of about $14 million.

The current, private owners of the IMS have never provided official attendance figures, but CEO Mark Miles gave a strong hint a few days before the 100th running.

He said the facility this weekend will host the equivalent of the entire population of Indiana cities Fort Wayne and South Bend -- about 350,000 people.

It will be the largest crowd in at least 20 years to see a race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and possibly one of the largest ever, said Robin Miller, a veteran motorsports journalist who covers the IndyCar series for NBC Sports Network and Racer Magazine.

Given that the average ticket price (face value) is about $135, a gate of more than $40 million is likely for a crowd of 300,000. Tickets available on the secondary market range from about $135 for general admission to $9,800 for a penthouse suite with one of the best views of the track.

Plenty of people helped make the track and race what it is today -- among them Tony Hulman, the Terre Haute businessman who revitalized the facility after it fell into disrepair during World War II, and whose family owns it today.

But without "Crazy" Carl Fisher, it's hard to imagine the world's highest-capacity sports venue and largest single-day sporting would reside in Indianapolis.

"He was the driving force," Miller said. "The guy was amazing."

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