ON THE ROAD AGAIN: INDIANAPOLIS

Indianapolis is best known for its famous Memorial Day auto race, and arguably the world’s most famous, the Indy 500, and for being the butt of some good-natured monologue barbs from native son David Letterman. The fact is that Indianapolis is no longer the sleepy town of Letterman’s youth. Thanks to investment of millions of dollars into the city’s downtown there is plenty for a visitor to do here.

Let’s get started with the landmark that put the city on the map, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. When the Speedway opened in 1909 its original use had nothing to do with competitive racing. Indianapolis was home to several early auto manufacturers with the best-remembered being Stutz and Duesenberg and the track was used to test vehicles. The first race around the track occurred two years later in 1911.

Today the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which is also known by its nickname “The Brickyard” because its original surface was not composed of asphalt but rather large bricks, is home not only to the Indy 500 but also to NASCAR’s Brickyard 400 every August and the American Grand Prix every June.

The Indy Racing Hall of Fame is located next door to the track and there are several past winning Indy 500 cars on display as well as photos of such driving legends as A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti and Al Unser. A good idea is to come to the Speedway a couple of weeks before a major race because you can watch nearly all of the drivers take practice laps around the 2.5 mile oval free of charge.

Indianapolis has terrific museums that can match those of almost any other city. The Indianapolis Museum of Art is undergoing major renovations that are due to be completed sometime in 2005 and thus a number of exhibits, such as its contemporary art collection, have been removed from public viewing. Fortunately most of the paintings from their European masters such as Renoir, Gauguin, Monet and Van Gogh are still on display.

Two other art museums certainly worth a visiting are the Eiteljorg and the National Art Museum of Sport. The Eiteljorg Museum houses the largest collection of Western and Native American paintings and artifacts east of the Mississippi River. Not surprisingly the Eiteljorg contains numerous paintings by Frederic Remington, Charles Russell and Ernest Blumenschein.

The National Art Museum of Sport should appeal to the rabid sports fan who would ordinarily never voluntarily visit an art museum, as there are several portraits of such athletic legends as Joe Namath, Bobby Orr, Mickey Mantle, Arnold Palmer and Willie Mays on display as well as a bronze sculpture of former Mets manager Casey Stengel. Renowned New York sports artist Leroy Neiman also contributed some of his works to this museum that does not charge admission.

The Indianapolis Children’s Museum is the largest of its kind in the United States and it appeals to the kid in everyone. Its most popular exhibit is Dinosphere which showcases numerous Mesozoic era fossils and replicas of the brontosaurus and tyrannosaurus rex. Don’t miss the third floor puppet room which examines everything form the history of hand puppets to ventriloquists’ dummies to Jim Henson’s Muppets. Even the early days of video games (from the prehistoric 1980s) are celebrated here as the ICM invites its patrons to play a round of Pong and Pac Man.

Kids will also enjoy the Indianapolis Zoo in White River State Park which is a small walkable zoological park compared, to say, the Bronx Zoo. The rarest animal here is the white rhino. My one complaint with the Indianapolis Zoo is that it needs better signs to show where the animal habitats are located.

Indianapolis is a great sports town and it is generally not hard to get tickets for a game. The NBA’s Pacers play in the beautiful Conseco Fieldhouse and there are plenty of $10 tickets available. Among the unusual features at Conseco is that houses a barbershop if you want a trim at halftime and a storefront dedicated to old RCA color television sets. In the 1950s and early ’60s RCA made TV sets in the city. The arena also houses memorabilia from the Pacers’ years in the now defunct American Basketball Association.

While it does not yet have a Major League team, the Milwaukee Brewers’ AAA team, the Indianapolis Indians, play in Victory Field, which is one of the nicest minor league ballparks around and is a five-minute walk from most downtown hotels. College sports’ governing body, the NCAA, makes its headquarters in Indianapolis and the NCAA Hall of Fame situated across the street from Victory Field pays tribute to the best athletes in the history of all college sports from football to water polo.

The wealthiest Indy neighborhoods are located on the city’s north side. One of those communities is Forest Hills that has stately Tudor homes and tree-lined streets. It is obvious that the architects who designed the community in the 1920s were heavily influenced by its Queens’ namesake. Adjacent to Forest Hills is Indianapolis’ hippest community, Broad Ripple, which has numerous nightclubs, coffeehouses and trendy boutiques.

There is no shortage of quality hotels in Indianapolis. The Hyatt Regency is located across the street from the Indiana State Capitol and offers good long weekend rates. On the rooftop level of the hotel is the Eagle’s Nest Restaurant, which rotates (similar to the restaurant in the Times Square Marriott Marquis) so you can get a panoramic view of Indianapolis.

GETTING GUIDE – INDY

Getting to Indy is not expensive because the discount carrier, ATA Airlines, makes its home here. ATA is known as the JetBlue of the Midwest.

For more information, contact the Indianapolis Visitors Bureau at: (800) 556-INDY.