In its 10-year history, the Stoddard-Dayton automobile — known for its performance, innovation and dependability — achieved lofty status.
But never more so than on Oct. 30, 1908.
In a stunt to sell the horseless carriages, Carl G. Fisher — the man who a year later would create the world’s most popular 2.5-mile oval, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway — replaced a basket on a gas-filled balloon with a Stoddard-Dayton and floated it over Indianapolis to promote his dealership. Fisher and balloonist George Bumbaugh rode in the Stoddard-Dayton for nearly 90 minutes reaching an altitude of 2,800 feet, according to next-day accounts in the Indianapolis Star.
Once on the ground, Fisher and Bumbaugh — to the delight and amazement of those who witnessed the stunt — drove the Stoddard-Dayton back to Fisher’s dealership. With one catch: Fisher, according to accounts, removed the airborne Stoddard-Dayton’s engine to lighten the cargo, and upon landing, pushed it behind some bushes and drove a different Stoddard-Dayton back to the cheering crowds.
It wouldn’t be the last time the Stoddard-Dayton made history in Indianapolis.
Setting the pace
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway — whose creation has a quirky connection to Dayton — was two years old in 1911 and about to launch what many consider the greatest race in the world, The Indianapolis 500.
Wanting a way to eliminate dangerous standing starts, Fisher — nicknamed “Crazy Carl” for his stunts — brought over a Stoddard-Dayton from his dealership for a rolling start. The Stoddard-Dayton, with Fisher behind the wheel, led the field to the starting line to become racing’s first pace car on May 30, 1911.
Reports say Fisher was nearly run down by the roaring field as he sped toward the pits as the green flag dropped.
“They decided they had too many cars for a standing start, so they decided to do a rolling start behind a passenger car,” said Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian Donald Davidson. “It’s believed that is the first time it’s ever been done for a major automobile race. They just needed a car, it wasn’t a publicity thing at all.”
The Stoddard-Dayton also served as the Indianapolis 500 pace car in 1913-14.
Racing into history
The first race in IMS history wasn’t the Indianapolis 500. It was a five-mile race on Aug. 19, 1909.
And a Stoddard-Dayton won.
Nearly 15,000 people poured into Indianapolis Motor Speedway that day — more than 250,000 will attend today’s 100th anniversary of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing — and witnessed Austrian engineer Louis Schwitzer pilot a Stoddard-Dayton to the win by averaging 57.4 mph (the average speed at the 2010 Indy 500 won by Dario Franchitti was 161.623). Schwitzer, a chief engineer for Stoddard-Dayton, made the two-lap, 5-mile trip in 5 minutes, 18.4 seconds.
Schwitzer’s Stoddard-Dayton was a stripped-down touring model with a four-cylinder engine.
Stoddard-Dayton officials reportedly pulled out of the auto racing business when on the third and final day of racing Charlie Merz’s car blew a tire on the rough and often dangerous track of crushed rock and tar, plowed into the crowd and killed two spectators and his riding mechanic.
John W. Stoddard, his son Charles and his brother Henry Jr. are credited with starting the Stoddard Manufacturing Co. in 1904 and a few months later the Dayton Motor Car Co.
John, who found success in the agricultural business with hay rakes, decided to join the fast lane. The company stayed in business until 1913 or relatively soon after as the Flood of 1913 washed away many business records.
Before that happened the Stoddard-Dayton had a reputation of quality cars and powerful engines and raced successfully in sprints, hill climbs and dirt races.
The company merged with the United States Motor Company in 1910 but was bankrupt by 1913 competing with Ford and General Motors products that were mass produced.
“When the flood came in 1913 his whole facility got flooded out. The patterns, the designs and the plans of how they built the car were destroyed,” said Dayton’s John W. Stoddard, who is convinced he’s related to the family but is trying to find the decisive link. “When he died he really had no heirs to the company, and the company pretty much went away.
“I think the flood had a lot to do with it. It was kind of the end of the era. There was nobody to take it over and it just ended.”
100 years of history
Dayton’s history with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway goes beyond the Stoddard-Dayton.
The story goes that in the fall of 1908, Fisher and friend Lem Trotter were returning from a trip to Dayton on rough roads that punctured a tire. After a tirade about both the state of the roads and the poor cars, Fisher said auto companies needed a place they could test and even race. Trotter told Fisher to do it, and soon after Fisher, along with some backers, had the land for his track off Crawfordsville Pike in Indianapolis.
In other historical connections between Dayton and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway:
• The Wright brothers brought their airplanes over for a display in June of 1910.
• Racing was canceled in 1917-18 for World War I, but the speedway was used as a refueling stop for airplanes traveling between Dayton and Illinois.
• Arcanum’s Harry Stutz — who founded the Stutz Manufacturing Company in Dayton — entered a car in the first Indy 500 in 1911, and driver Gil Anderson finished a very respectable 11th for an American car. The Stutz also served as the Indianapolis 500 pace car in 1912.
• In 2001, the Oldsmobile Bravada, built in Moraine, was the first sport utility vehicle to pace the race cars.
Contact this reporter at (937) 225-2400, ext. 6991, or gbilling@DaytonDailyNews.com.
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