In front of some 12,000 spectators, automotive engineer Louis Schwitzer wins the two-lap, five-mile inaugural race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Indiana, on August 19, 1909.
Conceived by local businessmen as a testing facility for Indiana’s growing automobile industry, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway would later become famous as the home to the now world-famous Indianapolis 500 race, which was first held in 1911. In that inaugural race, Schwitzer (then the chief engineer at Stoddard-Dayton) drove a stripped-down Stoddard Dayton touring car with a four-cylinder engine. He achieved an average speed of 57.4 mph on the new track, which was then covered in macadam, or crushed pieces of rock layered and bound by tar. Later, the speedway would be covered with 3.2 million paving bricks, which earned it its enduring nickname, “The Brickyard.”
Born in Silesia in northwestern Austria in 1881, Schwitzer earned advanced degrees in electrical and mechanical engineering before immigrating to America around the turn of the century. His first job in the auto industry was with Pierce Arrow, as an engineer, working on one of the very first six-cylinder engines; he then began working for Canada Cycle and Motor Company, designing the Russell motor car. There, he met the prosperous automaker Howard Marmon (of the Marmon Motor Car Company), and would later earn lasting fame as the designer of the famous “Marmon Yellow Jacket” engine, which powered the vehicle of Ray Harroun, winner of the first Indianapolis 500 in 1911.
After leaving racing, Schwitzer remained active in the sport’s development, joining the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Technical Committee in 1912 (he was its chairman from 1919 through 1945). He served in the United States Army Motor Transport Corps during World War I, then returned to Indianapolis to start his own business, which later became Schwitzer-Cummins. After developing improved automotive cooling systems and water pumps, Schwitzer began producing superchargers for gasoline and diesel engines, which helped both truck and boat engines produce increased horsepower. He then moved on to so-called “turbochargers,” the first of which was introduced on a Cummins diesel-powered racing car which won the pole position for the 1952 Indianapolis 500.
In 1965, Schwitzer suffered a stroke while riding a horse on his farm. He was paralyzed, and for a time lost his ability to speak English, reverting to Hungarian. He died in 1967.
To honor Schwitzer’s legacy, the Society of Professional Engineers now presents an individual or group involved with the Indianapolis 500 with the annual Louis Schwitzer Award for Engineering Excellence.