As the Super Bowl was played in Indianapolis (Giants Win! Giants Win!), and Indianapolis always billed itself as the World Capital of Motor Racing, here are some thoughts about that city:
- When I wrote above that it was the capital of motor racing (past tense), that’s true. it really isn’t any more. The Formula One race has gone off to what it thinks are greener pastures and although the Indianapolis 500 seems – seems – to be recovering its former glory, interest in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race has fallen off dramatically.
But Indianapolis cleaned up real good, and put on its best bib and tucker, and produced a Super Bowl celebration (never mind the great game) that was smashing by all accounts.
Which means that while they can continue to call the 500 "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing," from now on Indy will be known as Super Bowl City.
The reason they got the Super Bowl in the first place is because it’s officially a football town. It’s an Indy 500 town for the month of May and there’s still interest in basketball (primarily at the high school and college level throughout the state) but as IndyCar driver James Hinchcliffe of Oakville, who lives there now, told me last summer:
"Eleven months of the year, this is a Colts town. It’s Colts, Colts and more Colts."
Football City, U.S.A.
- When I first made the trek to Indianapolis in 1967, it felt like a holy pilgrimage. My heart started beating faster the moment – the moment – I first caught a glimpse of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a place I’d seen in photos and in the movies and on TV.
It was two days before the 500 and I was with friends and we drove over and parked the car about a mile away because you couldn’t get near the place. If they thought there were crowds in downtown Indy the last few nights, they should have been outside the Indianapolis Speedway the first day I was there because – although you could move – you were nearly always bumping into somebody.
Sixteenth St. was closed, as was Georgetown Rd. (for anyone not familiar with the place, the Speedway is at that intersection) and all you could see were people.
It was glorious.
- Some things never change.
I do have to say that they gouge the hell out of you in that town. With the exception of Montreal at Grand Prix time, I have never seen a place so nastily expensive as Indianapolis for the 500.
When we first went, we had to take a room for three nights at about double the regular rate. That was situation normal until the late 1990s when, because of the IRL/CART split, people pretty much stopped travelling to Indy for the race.
So, for a few years there, they couldn’t give hotel rooms away. Not only did they scrap the minimum stay, the hotels and motels were undercutting each other to get people to register.
But now that the race is regaining its lustre (and with the arrival of ex-F1 stars like Rubens Barrichello ratcheting up the talent level, it should start attracting the Europeans again), they’ll soon be up to their old tricks and will start gouging again. You watch.
I say this because of what happened for the Super Bowl. As Andrew Brandt wrote for the Huffington Post:
"The one complaint appears to be with the scarcity of hotel rooms, especially downtown. Less exclusive hotels with rooms still available (nearly an hour away from the city) require 4-night minimums and are charging premiums upwards of seven times typical rates."
What? $500 a night for a Super 8 room in Anderson, Ind.? I’d sleep in my car first.
- That, of course, is the rub. Indianapolis is not a big city. It doesn’t have that many good hotels downtown. And it’s not a particularly healthy place economically. The suburbs might be okay - Carmel, and the like - but the city itself is suffering.
Yes, it has a mammoth – and extremely well-to-do – medical research facility (Methodist Hospital) and several large universities (Purdue, Butler) but the manufacturing is mostly gone and large parts of the near-downtown are places where, frankly, you don’t feel all that comfortable.
In fact, when there isn’t football on, the area around Lucas Oil Stadium is not someplace you could describe as tourist-friendly at certain times of the day.
Having said that (and yes, there are places in every big city – including Toronto – where you’re not going to go unless you absolutely have to), Indy still has a big pull for me.
It’s breathtaking to walk into the State Capitol building. Ditto the five-block area around the national headquarters of the American Legion, which is called the Indiana War Memorial Plaza. The Soldiers and Sailors Monument is a wonderful place to visit. (The international pharmaceutical company we all know as Eli Lilly was started by a young soldier, a Civil War veteran and pharmacist named – you guessed it – Eli Lilly, who worked in a small drug store. His story is on display in that monument). And the White River Canal Park is close to downtown and a delightful place to go for a walk.
Of course, I always have to drive around to see where Jim Hurtubise’s speed shop was located on Sixteenth St. (the building is still there) and where the legendary White Front tavern stood (I parked behind it once, after it closed, and walked over to the Speedway), the addresses in the city where Johnny White and Bob Sweikert lived decades ago when they were both alive and racing and, yes, several times to Crown Hill Cemetary to visit the graves of Ronnie Duman (one of my all-time favourite racers) and Chuck Rodee (I met him when he raced a midget at the CNE back in the Sixties).
But no, I have not been to the grave of John Dillinger, which is at Crown Hill, nor to those of Benjamin Harrison (he was once President) or James Whitcomb Riley (although it’s kind of hard to miss his) but I have been to Tony Bettenhausen Jr.’s and Cannonball Baker’s and that’s good enough for me.
- Talking about the name Bettenhausen, on the second day of that first trip way back in 1967, on the day before the 500, we noticed a large crowd gathered in a circle around something near the back of a parking lot at a Holiday Inn that used to be across the street from the Speedway. (Much of the land is vacant there; properties have been bought up over the years by the Speedway and the buildings demolished. There is constant talk about high-end condominiums and/or a high end hotel but that’s all it’s ever been: talk.)
In any event, my buddy Rick Clare and I wandered over to see what was up and it was a young Gary Bettenhausen and a friend finishing loading his racing car onto an open trailer behind his pickup truck. They were getting ready to head out to the nearby Indianapolis Raceway Park for the Night Before the 500 USAC midget races, which continue as a tradition to this very day.
But here’s the reason I remember those few moments so vividly. Back then, racers really were Gods. There must have been 50 to 60 people standing around that race car and those two boys and nobody - nobody - said a thing. We just all stood there and looked at Gary Bettenhausen and his racing car.
- Okay, I’ll wind this up with one of my favourite Indy stories.
Years ago – not my first trip to Indy but my second or third – I discovered the famous St. Elmo Steak House in downtown Indianapolis. It is, without doubt, one of the finest steak houses you will find anywhere. You can cut the filet mignon in that place with the side of your fork, it’s usually that tender.
Five or six years ago, on the eve of qualifying weekend, my sweetheart and I and a great racing reporter named Tim Tuttle went there for dinner. Michael Andretti brought his team in for a private party (Dan Wheldon, Tony Kanaan) and a few other IRL personalities joined them, notably Dario Franchitti and his wife, Ashley Judd.
Now, here’s the thing about actors (not original thought on my part, by the way; I am just repeating what others have said): they want to be somebody else, which is why they are actors. And if you’ve ever spent any time with actors (as I have, although not recently), they are always, and mostly, on stage. In short, they are usually playing some kind of a role.
Anyway, at a certain point in the evening (the Andretti party was downstairs in the restaurant), Ashley Judd came up to use the washroom. As she passed our table, she was limping – noticeably. My wife saw this and wondered what she’d done to herself.
Five minutes later, she passed by our table on her way back to the party. My wife tapped my elbow, interrupting a conversation I was having with Tuttle.
"I just noticed something," she said.
"What’s that?" I replied.
"Ashley’s still limping," she said.
"So?" I said.
"She’s limping on the other foot," she said.