Madison, Ind. resident Carl Hungness has been around the auto racing industry for much of his life, mostly as publisher of a weekly auto racing newsletter in the late 1960s. He eventually convinced the U.S. Auto Club, the sanctioning organization for the Indy 500, to expand his publication into a weekly newspaper. In addition, Hungness spent the next 25 years producing the Indy 500 Yearbook. The Yearbook was published from 1973-1997.
Carl G. Fisher’s
name is not known
to many, but his accomplishments
During this time of his involvement in auto racing, Hungness became familiar with Carl G. Fisher, a tireless pioneer and promoter of the automotive, auto racing and real estate development industries, despite having severe astigmatism or blurred vision. Born in Greensburg, Ind., Fisher is credited with inventing the Indianapolis 500, the nation’s first transcontinental highway – the Lincoln Highway, which is the first road for the automobile across the United States – and developing Miami Beach. Lincoln Highway led President Dwight D. Eisenhower to develop the nation’s interstate highway system.
Hungness was fascinated with Fisher and tried to get Fisher’s life story made into a movie. He even approached the late actor and auto racing enthusiast Paul Newman about producing it. Although that effort failed, Hungness has now written a biography of Fisher that he recently released for sale to the public. “I Love to Make Dirt Fly” is the 192-page biography that Hungness has self-published.
Hungness said he spent 16 years researching Fisher’s life. The book contains 251 colorized photos dating from the late 1800s to Fisher’s death in 1937. The hardcover book is presented in landscape format and printed in full color.
Fisher was a bicycle enthusiast who opened a bicycle shop with his brother in the early 19th century that became the largest bicycle shop in Indianapolis. He also became involved in bicycle racing and later many activities related to the emerging U.S. auto industry in the early 20th century. He later became the largest auto dealership owner in Indianapolis.
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In 1904 Fisher and a friend, James Allison, bought an interest in a U.S. patent to produce acetylene automotive headlamps. The purchase made them rich when their company, Presto-O-Lite, soon supplied headlamps for nearly every automobile made in the United States, replacing the kerosene lamps used by most cars of the day.
The duo’s racing endeavors led them to form Allison Engineering Co., which ultimately sold to General Motors and thrives to this day.
The men cashed in by selling their company to Union Carbide in 1913 for $9 million, which is equivalent to $210 million in 2014. Fisher used his proceeds to invest in Florida swampland, transforming it into Miami Beach. A monument in Miami Beach in honor of Fisher proclaims, “He carved a great city from a jungle.” He tried to duplicate the real estate feat when he tried to make Montauk Long Island, N.Y., “The Miami Beach of the North,” but he lost millions in the process.
Fisher invested in a wide variety of inventions, ranging from solar-powered refrigerators, travel trailers, diesel engines, sand impregnated tires and store mannequins whose eyes rolled at passer-bys. He also built Fulford-by-the-Sea board speedway, a high-banked 11/4-mile wooden track facility in Miami Beach that held only one event. Famed driver Pete DePaolo recorded the fastest auto race ever run, averaging more than 129 mph for 250 miles. The track was destroyed in 1922 by a hurricane that ravished Miami Beach. He once owned Fisher Island, an exclusive property near Miami Beach that is named after him.
Fisher lost his millions in the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed. Yet, he was considered a successful man in the long view of his life. He was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 1971. In a 1998 study judged by a panel of 56 historians, writers and others, Fisher was named one of the 50 Most Influential People in the history of the State of Florida by The Ledger newspaper. PBS labeled him “Mr. Miami Beach.”
Shortly before his death, in what turned out to be his last project, Fisher developed and built Key Largo’s Caribbean Club, a fishing club for men of modest means, “a poor man’s retreat.” Ever the promoter, Fisher, would probably have appreciated the value of the publicity as, about eight years after his death, the Caribbean Club became famous as the filming site for the 1947 film “Key Largo” starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Almost 60 years later, in 2007, filled with Bogart memorabilia, it is still in business as a tourist attraction.
Fisher was inflicted with alcoholism and died in 1939 in Miami Beach at age 65 after a lengthy stomach illness compounded by alcoholism. He is interred at the family mausoleum at Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis.
This is Hungness’ second book. His last biography, “GO! The Bettenhausen Story,” detailed the lives of racing Bettenhausens and was an American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association “Best Book of the Year” winner. Hungness is also an accomplished sculptor and violin player.
The Fisher biography retails for $59.95 and is available at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Historical Society, Amazon and Village Lights Bookstore in Madison and online at www.CarlHungness.com.