New Book Chronicles Fascinating Life of Indianapolis Motor Speedway Founder James Allison

By Larry Edsall

So, you think you know a lot about the early history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway?

Having been the motorsports editor of a national automotive magazine and before that the auto racing reporter for a significant Midwestern newspaper, so did I. But then I read “James Allison: A Biography of the Engine Manufacturer and Indianapolis 500 Cofounder,” recently published by McFarland & Company and written by Sigur E. Whitaker.

 

Whitaker is the great niece of Allison’s first wife and grew up in Indianapolis hearing stories about Allison and his role in the Speedway’s founding and tales of his business success and the construction of the Riverdale Springs mansion. But the book is based on much more than family hearsay; there’s an extensive bibliography and chapter notes that detail Whitaker’s historical research.

For example, I knew the Indianapolis Motor Speedway had four founding fathers, but until reading Whitaker’s book I didn’t know they initially discussed the need for such a facility while attending a 24-hour race at the Indiana fairgrounds in 1905.

And remember how we all marveled when Musco set up temporary light fixtures for night time college football games and NASCAR races? Well, in 1905, Allison’s Prest-O-Lite company set up light fixtures every 25 feet around the fairgrounds’ one-mile dirt oval so the racers could see where they were going -- and could be seen by spectators -- between sunset and sunrise.

I’d heard before that, at first, the thought was to put the new track not just west of Indianapolis but downstate at French Lick, and to make the oval five miles around. Whitaker discusses that proposal and explains why the track was built where it was and why it’s 2.5 miles in length, and why its big annual event was set at 500 miles instead of another length.

She also writes about the role the riding mechanic played in early races, which, by the way, were started with a red rather than a green flag.

The book is full of such rich historical detail, and personally, I was fascinated to learn about the Speedway’s role in America’s aircraft industry during World War I.

And the Speedway isn’t the only subject of Whitaker’s book. The story of Prest-O-Lite would be great fodder for a business school case study. There’s the rise of Allison’s engineering and engine-building business. Allison also was involved in the development of Miami Beach, where he built the first aquarium and a luxurious hospital. And there’s the story of Allison’s personal and family life, from the construction of the Riverdale Springs mansion with its Tiffany stained glass-roofed aviary and a music room with an $18,000 organ to his divorce and death five days after his remarriage.

Buy it now so you can have time to read it before the Speedway opens its new season in May.

Larry Edsall is an accomplished author and journalist who blogs often for Racing in America.  Read more of Larry at www.izoom.com.