INDIANAPOLIS – Our top speed in a spin around America’s most famous racetrack was about 200 mph slower than the big boys.
“We got up to 37 there, coming into Turn 3,” said John Baker, who drives the bus that takes paying guests on a lap around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “Racing is in my blood, I just couldn’t hold off.”
Sports, both amateur and professional, play a major role in keeping downtown Indianapolis vibrant. The town has four pro teams and has built a reputation as a welcoming host to many amateur events.
But the granddaddy among the sporting venues is the speedway, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.
On our brief bus ride, Baker explained that the track was built in 1909 as a testing ground for the auto industry. Two years later, the first race was held and the Indy 500 was born.
“We are riding on the same 2 1/2 miles used by the first drivers 100 years ago,” Baker said. “Only the surface has changed.”
The track is known as the Brickyard because the crushed stone and tar surface was covered with 3.2 million bricks shortly after it opened. By 1961, all but a 36-inch-wide strip had been paved with asphalt.
Winning drivers traditionally kneel and kiss that “yard of bricks” that serves as the starting and finish line, but Baker advised against that on our visit because the track recently had been used for a pet parade.
While Indianapolis is proud of its sporting connections, I recently spent three days there and didn’t see one athletic event. Instead, I filled my time museum hopping. The city has a mother lode of those, too, beginning with the speedway’s own Hall of Fame Museum.
John Fisher is one of the gents who patrols the speedway’s museum and makes sure kids don’t climb on the expensive machinery. The collection contains about 400 cars, with 85 on display.
“There’s 10 stories to each and every car,” he said.
One of the best stories is about the Marmon Wasp that Ray Harroun drove to victory in the first Indy 500 on May 30, 1911.
Harroun decided to cut weight by leaving behind the mechanic who normally rode along. The other drivers complained it was a safety issue, so Harroun bolted a mirror just ahead of the cockpit, thus inventing the rear-view mirror.
“They went to Firestone for tires and were told not to go over 80 mph,” Fisher said. “He had an average speed of 74.59 mph. Other cars went faster, but he had less pit stops.”
Speeds increased over the years until Arie Luyendyk turned in an official lap of 237.498 mph in 1996.
“That’s like covering the length of a football field in nine-tenths of a second,” said Baker, the bus driver.
Track officials responded by modifying the rules and slowing things down for safety’s sake.
The Speedway’s is not the only birthday in Indianapolis this summer. The Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, which will turn 20 years old June 24, is a classic in its own way.
Indianapolis businessman and philanthropist Harrison Eiteljorg became enamored with Native American and Western art when he visited the Southwest during his career as a coal broker in the 1940s. He donated his collection of African and South Pacific art to the Indianapolis Museum of Art but decided a new museum was needed to house his 2,000 Native American objects.
Eli Lilly, the pharmaceutical company that is also a benefactor to Indianapolis arts, established an endowment for the new $14 million museum. The result is a building designed to recall the pueblos and canyons of the Southwest, with two floors filled with fine art and artifacts, and a fellowship program for aspiring Native American artists.
“Our contemporary Native and Western art collection is called the finest in the world,” said Anthony Scott, who showed me around.
The first-floor galleries of paintings and sculpture display works by Frederic Remington, Charles Russell, Georgia O’Keefe and the Taos Founders, including E. Irving Couse, Joseph Sharp and Oscar Berninghaus.
The second floor has Anasazi pottery, excellent California baskets, beaded war shirts and bonnets and other artifacts, plus a section that shows the past, present and future of the three tribes indigenous to Indiana: the Miami, Potawatomi and Delaware.
“We’re trying to show Native Americans are still alive, still active in the community,” Scott said. “You have no idea how many people come to this museum who have no clue that Native Americans still exist.”
The Eiteljorg is in White River State Park, an urban park that also is home to an IMAX theater, the Indiana State Museum, the Indianapolis Zoo, minor league baseball’s Victory Field and the NCAA Hall of Champions. Scott gave a reason for stopping at the Eiteljorg first.
“You can park once and walk to all the other attractions,” he said. “And we’re the only one that validates your parking ticket.”
The Indianapolis Museum of Art boasts a Rembrandt self-portrait among its European works, a wide-ranging contemporary collection, plus galleries showcasing Eiteljorg’s donations of African and South Pacific art.
It also has a connection to the Lilly family. A walk outside across a bridge through the gardens leads to Oldfields, the former estate of Josiah K. Lilly Jr., the late businessman whose grandfather founded the family business.
A French chateau-style mansion is the centerpiece of the 26-acre estate and has been restored to its 1930s splendor. The first floor has period furniture, while the second is devoted to exhibits about Lilly history.
The art museum, which celebrated its 125th anniversary last year, recently completed a $74 million expansion, adding three wings and 50 percent more gallery space. Next spring, it is scheduled to open a sculpture park on 100 acres of woodlands and meadows. The museum says the addition will be the largest contemporary art park in the country.
The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis has a carousel ride, a terrific dinosaur display where kids can make their own creatures and a rock-climbing wall. The museum’s central stairway winds around Fireworks of Glass, a 43-foot-tall tower containing 3,200 blown pieces of glass designed by Seattle-area artist Dale Chihuly.
But the museum is not all fun and games. One of the most poignant exhibits is “The Power of Children: Making a Difference,” which tells the stories of Anne Frank, Ryan White and Ruby Bridges through live theater, real artifacts and their own eloquent words.
The exhibit re-creates the secret annex of rooms where Anne hid in Amsterdam in 1942 and quotes her writing: “It seems to me that later on, neither I nor anyone else will be interested in the musing of a 13-year-old schoolgirl.”
Using 500 artifacts acquired from his family, the exhibit re-creates Ryan’s room in his Cicero, Ind., home where he retreated after being forced out of school because he had AIDS. When the courts returned him to the classroom, he wrote, “Being back at school was almost as lonely as being at home.”
Also re-created is the New Orleans classroom integrated by Ruby in 1960. The schoolgirl said of her experience:
“Racism is a grown-up disease, and we should stop using our kids to spread it.”
“The Power of Children” drew plenty of young visitors, but it was easily the quietest place in the museum.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.