Indianapolis, Indy 500, Pop Culture, Sports

Henry T. Hearsey Indianapolis Bicycle Pioneer.

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Original publish date:  November 25, 2008  Updated/Republished December 6,2018

As Christmas morning creeps ever-closer, parents all over the Hoosier state are making their lists and checking them twice. No doubt, at least a few of those lists will include a bicycle. I’m not sure if the bike retains the same lofty perch it did a half a century ago. I’m equally unsure if moms and dads still spend the hours after midnight busting knuckles, pinching fingers and squinting hopelessly at indecipherable directions written in more than one language.
The bicycle has become almost an afterthought in today’s world. But once, it truly was the eighth wonder of the world. The bicycle introduced a radical new invention known as the “pneumatic tire”. In addition to air-filled rubber tires, we can thank the bicycle for giving us ball bearings, devised to reduce friction in the bicycle’s axle and steering column, for wire spokes, and for differential gears that allow connected wheels to spin at different speeds.
And where would our airplanes, golf clubs, tent poles and lawn furniture be without the metal tubing used in bicycle frames to lighten the vehicle without compromising its strength? Bicycles also gave birth to our national highway system, as cyclists and cycling clubs outside major cities across the country tired of rutted mud paths and began lobbying for the construction of paved roads. What’s more, many of the bicycle repair shops were the breeding grounds for a number of pioneers in the transportation industry, including carmakers Henry Ford and Charles Duryea and aviation pioneers Orville and Wilbur Wright. All of these men started out as bicycle mechanics. And did you know that Indianapolis was on the cutting edge of the bicycle industry from the very beginning?
dont-laughAlthough the first documented appearance of a bicycle in Indianapolis can be traced to a demonstration of the high-wheeled bike called the “Ordinary” in 1869, these old fashioned contraptions (known back then as “Velocipedes”) would be almost unrecognizable to the riders of today. With their huge front tires and seats that seemed to require a ladder to climb up to, these early bikes were awkward and unwieldy for use by all but the most hardy of daredevil souls (They didn’t call them “boneshakers” for nothing back then). It would take nearly 25 years after the close of the American Civil War before the bike began to resemble the form most familiar to riders of today. The development of the safety bike with it’s 2 equal-sized wheels in the 1880s made the new sport more acceptable as a hobby and pastime.
download (1)In 1887 bicycle mechanic and expert rider Henry T. Hearsey (1863-1939) opened the first bicycle showroom in Indianapolis. His store was located at the intersection of Delaware and New York Streets on the city’s near eastside. Hearsey introduced the first safety bike to Indianapolis, the English-made Rudge, which sold for the princely sum of $150 (roughly $4,000 in today’s money). Keep in mind that was about twice the price of a horse and buggy at the time. He would later open a larger shop at 116-118 North Pennsylvania Street. He is credited for introducing the 1st safety bicycle in the Capitol city in 1889. Hoosiers took to it immediately and within a few short years, the streets of Indy were so clogged with bicyclists that the City Council passed a bicycle licensing ordinance requiring a $ 1 license fee for every bicycle in the city.
Henry Hearsey had fallen in love with Indianapolis during an exhibition tour for the Cunningham-Heath bicycle company of Boston, Massachusetts in 1885. He not only sold the first new style bicycles in the Indy area, he also formed the first riding clubs in the city. These clubs, with colorful names like the “U.S. Military Wheelmen”, the “Zig-Zag Cycling Club” and the “Dragon Cycle Club”, would regularly host festive long distance bicycle trips known as “Century Rides” to towns like Greenfield and Bloomington. This period has been called the “Golden Age of Bicycling” by historians. Hearsey also had two famous names working for him at his bike shop: Carl Fisher and Major Taylor.

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Major Taylor

Legendary Indianapolis African American bicycle champion Marshall “Major” Taylor was hired by Henry Hearsey to perform bicycle stunts outside of his shop in 1892. 14-year-old Taylor’s job was as “head trainer” teaching local residents how to ride the new machines.Taylor performed his stunts while dressed in a military uniform and earned Major_Taylorthe nickname “Major”, which stuck with him the rest of his life. He has been widely acknowledged as the first American International superstar of bicycle racing. He was the first African American to achieve the level of world champion and the second black athlete to win a world championship in any sport. Carl Fisher was one of the founders of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, developer of the city of Miami and the creator of the famous “Lincoln Highway” and the “Dixie Highway.”SafetyAd
His innovations included the installation of a revolutionary foot air bellows system that would be known for decades as the “town pump” for public use outside of his store. His shop became a popular hangout for the city’s bicyclists who liked to drop in and rub elbows with all of the greatest bike racers of the age. Indianapolis was a midwest mecca for pro-bicycling in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Hearsey would often use the massive Tomlinson Hall in Indy to unveil the newest model of bicycle in the 1890s. Tomlinson Hall was the largest public venue in the city and Hearsey would routinely fill the place to the rafters with excited Hoosier bicyclists, which would be like renting Lucas Oil Stadium to unveil a new bike today. Cycling in the Circle City was so popular that on April 28, 1895 the Indianapolis Journal ran an eight-page supplement called the “Bicycle Edition” entirely devoted to the cycling craze consuming the Hoosier State and the rest of the country.
NewbyRaceAdCycling was so popular in Indianapolis that the city constructed a racing track known as the “Newby Oval” located near 30th Street and Central Avenue in 1898. The track was designed by Shortridge graduate Herbert Foltz who also designed the Broadway Methodist Church, Irvington United Methodist Church and the Meridian Heights Presbyterian Church. Foltz would also design the new Shortridge High School at 34th and Meridian. The state of the art cycling facility could, and often did, seat 20,000 and hosted several national championships sponsored by the chief sanctioning body, “The League of American Wheelmen.” The American Wheelmen often got involved in local and national politics. Hoosier wheelmen raced into the William McKinley presidential campaign in 1896 and helped him win the election. With this new found political clout, riding clubs began to put pressure on politicians to improve urban streets and rural roads, exclaiming “We are a factor in politics, and demand that the great cause of Good Roads be given consideration.”Newby-Oval-pin
During this turn-of-the-century era, Indianapolis became one of the leading manufacturers of bicycles in the United States with companies like Waverly, Munger, Swift, Outing, Eclipse and the Ben-Hur offering some of the finest riding machines of the day. According to the Indiana Historical Bureau, from 1895-96, Indianapolis had nine bicycle factories employing nearly 1,500 men, women and boys. Not to mention a couple dozen repair shops, parts suppliers and specialty stores stocking bicycle attire like collapsible drinking cups, canteens, hats, goggles, shoes and clothing.

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The Newby Oval on Central Avenue and 13th Street.

In the years before World War I, two entire city blocks around Pennsylvania Avenue became known as “bicycle alley”. Here bicycle enthusiasts congregated among the many manufacturers, outfitters and repair shops to talk shop, swap stories and plan routes. Some of the more popular spots to ride in the Circle City included 16th Street and Senate Avenue, Broad Ripple and the tow path along the Central Canal.
The gem of Indianapolis’ cycling community was the Newby Oval on Central Avenue and 13th Street. The $23,000, quarter-mile track featured a surface made of white pine boards, rough side up to keep wheels from slipping. Wire brushing removed splinters before the floorboards were dipped into a tank of wood preservative and nailed into place. The track featured a “whale-back” design of banked curves to increase safety and accommodate speed. The Newby Oval featured grandstand seating, two amphitheaters, and bleachers designed to hold more than 8,000 spectators.
The Newby Oval’s first race, sponsored by the League of American Wheelmen hosted its first bike race on July 4, 1898. The contest included ragtime, two-step, and patriotic tunes to serenade the riders and spectators alike. Every time a rider neared the finish line, spectators fired their pistols in the air in anticipation. For a time, the Newby Oval was considered to host the city’s first automobile race. The euphoria didn’t last long though. Because cars would need to run in separate heats at the Newby Oval, the event was moved to the State Fairgrounds, where multiple vehicles could compete at one time. The track’s building materials were put up for sale and by early 1903, the Newby Oval was dismantled. By the turn-of-the-century, interest in cars was outpacing bicycles. By 1908, the bicycle craze was over.
With the advent of the automobile and motorcycles in the early 1910s, interest in bicycling as a form of transportation waned. Henry T. Hearsey changed with the times and became Indianapolis’ first automobile dealer. Hearsey lived at 339 East Tippencanoe Street, just a stone’s throw away from the James Whitcomb Riley house in Lockerbee Square. Indianapolis, just as it had in the generation before with bicycles, soon become a pioneer in the manufacture of automobiles, second only to Detroit in fact. Most of the parties involved in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway were former colleagues of Henry Hearsey and members of his bicycle clubs.

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Carl Fisher-Indy 500 Founder

While images of the old fashioned high-wheeled “ordinary” bicycles and the winged tire logo of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway are instantly recognizable to sports fans all over the world, no-one remembers Henry T. Hearsey today. Hearsey not only introduced Indianapolis to the first commercially viable bicycle, opened the first Circle City bicycle shop, was the first to recognize the genius of Major Taylor and Carl Fisher and opened the first car dealership in the city. He was born during the Civil War, flourished during the Gilded Age / Industrial Age / Progressive Era / Roaring Twenties and survived the Great Depression. Henry T. Hearsey, the trailblazing businessman whose name is unknown to most Hoosiers, died in the summer of 1939. He lies buried in Crown Hill Cemetery among the many notable names from the pages of Indianapolis’ history, most of whom knew him personally and called him by his nickname. Happy holidays “Harry” Hearsey, the Circle City tips its collective cap to you.

Hollywood, Indianapolis, Indy 500

Clark Gable at the Indianapolis 500.

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Original publish date:  May 25, 2010                                                                                 Reissue date: May 25, 2018

I originally wrote this article back in May of 2010 and in the years since, I have been informed by a longtime friend (and Irvingtonian) Bruce Gable that there is an Irvington connection, so I figured I’d update it and run it again. For the most part, here it is as it ran back then with a few appropriate updates.

It was 50 years ago that the “King of Hollywood”, Clark Gable died. They called him the king for good reason. Women swooned at his masculine screen presence and men viewed him as the ultimate man’s man. Best remembered as Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind, most film critics agree that without Gable, GWTW would have blown away quietly. Yet, most Hoosiers don’t realize that Gable has several ties to our fair state.

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Clark Gable & Barbara Stanwyck at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It is a little known fact that Gable was a devoted race fan who regularly attended races including the Indianapolis 500. In 1950 Gable starred in the movie “To Please a Lady”, filmed at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway,. Although not critically acclaimed, the movie is considered to be a motorsports classic. Most of the scenes were shot over a three-week period at the speedway. To make the racing scenes as authentic as possible, director Clarence Brown used a good deal of actual professional racing footage. Gable did some of his own driving for close-ups, while a stunt driver took the wheel for the more dangerous shots. The film’s climax was shot at the 1950 Indianapolis 500 won by Johnnie Parsons in a rain shortened race.

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Clark Gable & Barbara Stanwyck in Indianapolis.

In the film Gable stars as Mike Brannon, a thrill-seeking race car driver whose ruthless tactics cause a crash that results in another driver’s death. Barbara Stanwyck plays Regina Forbes, an influential newspaper columnist who is determined to get him permanently banned from the professional racing circuit. Gable’s Brannan character has a bad reputation and Stanwyck’s columnist Forbes character tries to interview him, but he refuses. Regina’s column suggests that Brannan caused the fatal accident deliberately, which leads to him losing his ride. Brannan begins driving in a stunt show, eventually earning enough money to buy a car of his own and enter the Indy 500 himself. The pair engages in an explosive battle of wills while fighting off an attraction to each other that threatens to spin out of control.
The film was director Clarence Brown’s eighth and final film with Clark Gable, who was also his good friend. Brown managed to pull off some of the most thrilling racing sequences ever filmed, capturing the raw excitement of the speedway by throwing viewers right into the middle of the action. Fans experience the energy of the pit crew in action, the zooming car engines, and the roar of the crowd. Cinematographer Hal Rosson used up to six camera crews at a time to capture action from actual races. The location shooting paid off in the film’s nail-biting climax where car speeds averaged 100 miles an hour.

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Clark Gable & Barbara Stanwyck.

Gable and Stanwyck are well matched as a romantic onscreen duo whose character’s intense chemistry is undeniable. This was the couple’s second film together. Their first, “Night Nurse”, was made nearly 20 years earlier at Warner Bros. In that movie Gable, not yet a major movie star played a small role as a nasty chauffeur who viciously slaps Barbara Stanwyck across the face. The moment was replicated in the speedway film when Stanwyck took another smack across the kisser from Gable.

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Ironically, “To Please a Lady” was not a major box office success due in part to the surge in household television sales, which by 1950 was rapidly taking business away from movie theaters. However, the film did win plenty of critical praise. The New York Times said of the film: “You can bet that Indianapolis never experienced a contest as hotly run as the race that Mr. Brown has staged.” Variety proclaimed that the movie “has excitement, thrills, with some of the greatest racing footage ever put on celluloid – It firmly returns Gable to the rugged lover, rugged character status.”
The film’s legacy among race fans is the chance to see authentic open-wheel midget and Indy-car racing footage from an often neglected time in auto racing. The montage featuring a racing engine being machined and assembled along with some nice race car close-ups and pit stop action make it a must see flick for gear heads. The film also captures a couple of minutes of authentic footage of Joie Chitwood’s famous stunt car show, a rare treat for vintage race fans.

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Clark Gable and Hoosier Carole Lombard.

Being in Indianapolis was difficult for Clark Gable personally. Married five times, Gable’s most glittering union was with Hoosier actress Carole Lombard. The city was the final stop of a 1942 war bond tour headlined by Lombard, before flying back home to Los Angeles. Tragically, Lombard’s plane never made it, crashing in Nevada killing everyone on board. Gable and Lombard honeymooned at Lake Barbee near Warsaw, Indiana. Their three-year marriage had been the ideal Tinseltown union, and Lombard’s death was a loss from which Gable never recovered.

At the time of “To Please a Lady” Gable had finally remarried, this time to Douglas Fairbanks’ widow, Lady Sylvia Ashley. During filming he seemed happier and healthier than he had been in years according to friends. Even so, Gable remembered his beloved late wife while in Indianapolis. He quietly made a point to visit the downtown locations where Lombard had made her final public appearances before her tragic death.

When Gable left Indianapolis, he had one last surprise waiting for him. Lady Sylvia’s teenage nephew, Timothy Bleck showed up on set with a group of friends and took over several rooms at the Marriott Hotel, where the Gables were staying, charging their bill to the Gable’s account. Many who knew Bleck felt that the youngster had developed a “crush” on Gable. For his part, Gable often complained to his new wife that Bleck and his friends were “eating me out of house and home and always pestering me for money.”

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Clark Gable & Barbara Stanwyck breaking bad at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Lady Sylvia, a British National famous for her temper tantrums. Later that same year, she demanded a spacious dressing room for her personal use during Clark’s next movie being filmed in Durango, Mexico, “The Wide Missouri.” (Gable’s first Technicolor film since Gone with the Wind.) Heretofore an exclusive luxury granted only to mega-movie stars like Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. The couple divorced within the year.

Gable’s list of film pairings includes many of the most beautiful women in Hollywood. Joan Crawford teamed with Gable eight times, more than any other actress. Jean Harlow starred with Gable in six films in a union that would have undoubtedly continued if not for her untimely death. Lana Turner shared the credits with him four times. Gable worked twice each with Loretta Young and Claudette Colbert. In his final film, “The Misfits” at almost sixty-years-old, Gable starred opposite 34-year-old Marilyn Monroe. Gable had been her childhood idol. The film also starred the tragically flawed fallen film idol Montgomery Clift.

The Misfits would take on a macabre life of its own, fostering whispers of a curse, when Gable suffered a heart attack two days after filming ended, He died ten days later. Monroe and Clift attended the premiere in New York in February 1961 while Monroe was on pass from a psychiatric hospital; she later said that she hated the film and could not watch herself in it. Within a year and a half, she was dead of an alleged drug overdose. The Misfits was the last completed film for both Monroe and Gable.

Montgomery Clift, previously known for his classic profile, had been badly injured in a 1956 car crash requiring reconstructive surgery on his face, evident in his close-ups for “The Misfits”. He died six years after the filming. The Misfits was on television on the night Clift died. His live-in personal secretary asked Clift if he wanted to watch it. “Absolutely not” was Clift’s reply, the last words that he spoke to anyone. He was found dead the next morning, having suffered a heart attack during the night.

Many feel that Clark Gable danced a tango with death and morbid curiosity throughout his career. Gable’s perceived death wish circled around the many dangerous, often violent, themed films he starred in, his early death and the unexpected deaths of his costars. Capped off with the tragic early demise of his wife Carole Lombard. Another eerie connection to Indiana by Clark Gable can be found in the last movie Hoosier outlaw John Dillinger ever saw. Moments before he was gunned down in an alley outside Chicago’s Biograph Theatre, Public Enemy #1 was watching an MGM film called “Manhattan Melodrama” starring…you guessed it, Clark Gable.

Update: Irvingtonians Bruce and Fred Gable have shared stories with me about their famous relative. Turns out, Clark Gable was a distant cousin. The Gable home was located at 5850 University Avenue across from the guardian home. Bruce & Fred researched the Gable family connection and discovered that their Great-grandfather and Clark Gable’s grandfather were 1st cousins. “They were wildcatters who migrated to Indiana from Pennsylvania in search of oil back in the 1880s,” Bruce states, “All they found was natural gas though and neither made any money on that.”

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Irvingtonian Bruce Gable

The Gable family lived for a time in the Audubon Court apartments and they can remember stories about the elder Gable visiting his cousin / their grandfather in Irvington. Gable’s Great-grandfather owned the Thompkins drugstore on South Audubon Road across from the Magic Candle. The brothers recall a time when telling neighborhood kids that they were related to Clark Gable was a big deal. “Later, when my kids told their friends that, no one knows who they’re talking about.” says Bruce. As for that I’ll quote Rhett Butler by saying, “Frankly my dear I don’t give a damn” because I’m just glad to hear that Irvington has a connection to one of the most admired leading men in Hollywood history.

Health & Medicine, Indianapolis

Dave Wilson & John Andretti: A Friendship.

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Original publish date:  May 18, 2017

Last week I traveled out to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to catch up with an old friend. Most people know Dave Wilson from his many appearances on the Q-95 Bob & Tom show, others from his longtime gig as an Indy 500 radio man, and still more know him as “The King” of the Circle City stand-up comic scene. What most don’t know about Dave is his devotion to his hometown of Indianapolis.
Dave and his wife Peggy are now running the club room of the Speedway American Legion Post # 500 at 1926 Georgetown Road. The post is literally a stone’s throw from the track and, as you might guess, the interior is decked out in a black and white checkered flag design. “This will be my 51st Indy 500,” says Dave. “My dad brought me to this post for the first time even before I saw my first race.” Turns out that both Dave’s and Peggy’s fathers were high ranking members of Post 500. “In the past 5 years, we’ve lost 300 members to father time.” Dave continues. “We were really afraid that this post might not be able to continue.”

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Speedway American Legion Post # 500. 1926 Georgetown Rd, Indianapolis.

Now, with the Wilson’s steady management alongside the leadership of Post Commander John Hannon, the Speedway Legion Post 500 is on the upswing. “In the old days, if you didn’t get here by 5 o’clock on a Friday or Saturday night, you didn’t get a table.” Wilson says. “Those numbers fell way off in the in late 1990s-early 2000s, but we’re attracting younger members now and things are looking up.”
Wilson is a busy man during the month of May. Along with his daily management chores at Post 500, Dave reports from the Pits at the Speedway for the Bob & Tom Show. While race fans are accustomed to seeing Wilson on patrol in Gasoline Alley, Dave’s biggest impact may well be his work for the “Race for Riley” which celebrates its 21st year in 2017. Wilson started the charity go kart race back in 1995 with his longtime WIBC radio show host (and former Indianapolis Colt) Joe Staysniak and NASCAR / Indy Car driver John Andretti. The race is always held at the New Castle Motorsports Park the week before the Brickyard 400.
Wilson has known John Andretti since the late-1980s. Dave recalls that inaugural Race for Riley event, “John called into my radio show every Tuesday. At the time he was driving in the NASCAR series for Cale Yarborough Motorsports. Somehow we came up with the idea of a go-kart race for charity and we picked Riley Children’s Hospital as our beneficiary. We raised $ 36,000 for Riley that first year. As of this year, we are up over $ 4 million.”

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John Andretti and Dave Wilson alongside Trix the Rabbit and Lucky.

Dave notes that while John Andretti has been the name draw for the Race for Riley over the years, Andretti does it all without the use of a foundation. What does that mean? Dave answers, “That means that all of the money raised goes directly to Riley. Since there is no foundation, there are no administrative fees and no overhead. Everything is donated.” As for the expenses involved in this 3 or 4 day event, “John pays most of those out of his own pocket.” states Wilson. “That’s just the kind of guy he is.” Wilson pauses for a moment to reflect about his friend of 30 years.
John Andretti has been in the news lately. On April 28th, Andretti revealed to the world that he is battling stage four colon cancer. The 54-year-old Andretti made 393 starts in NASCAR’s premier series from 1993-2010, scoring 13 top-five and 37 top-10 finishes. He also won four poles- at Darlington, Talladega, Atlanta and Phoenix. He made the last of his 10 Indy 500 starts in 2011, with a best finish of fifth in 1991. He has two NASCAR and one IndyCar wins in his career, and was last a full-time driver during the 2009 NASCAR season. Andretti, the nephew of famed racer Mario Andretti, is currently undergoing chemotherapy and will have surgery in June.
“At first, John wanted to keep his diagnosis private,” says Wilson. “But word got out and John decided he was going to use his personal battle to spur others to get themselves checked out for colon cancer.” The Andretti family has started using the hashtag #checkit4Andretti on social media to encourage people to take the easy test for colon cancer. Their goal is to keep other families from suffering their pains by getting a colonoscopy before it’s too late.
When asked how he feels about his friend’s prognosis, Wilson replies,”Well, if anybody can do it, John can. He’s tough. One of the toughest guys I know.” Wilson notes that Andretti is getting some good advise and counsel from NASCAR engine builder and team owner Robert Yates, who is himself battling stage 4-B cancer.

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Big Joe Staysniack, Dave Wislon & John Andretti.

Wilson relates how his friend John Andretti, who makes his home in North Carolina, would often drop into Riley Children’s hospital unannounced whenever he was in town. “After every race, we have a party in the lobby at Riley. John always goes upstairs to visit with those kids too sick to attend and he would spend hours up there. Do you remember the pro wrestler Bobby “The Brain” Heenan? I had him on my radio show once and I took him out to Riley to see the kids. He didn’t last 10 minutes.” says Wilson. That’s how dedicated John Andretti is.
The Andretti family has a rich history in our city. They are as much a part of our racing tradition as the Unser’s, the Bettenhausen’s, the Vukovich’s, the Foyt’s and the Hulman’s. We owe it to those racing families, just as much as our own, to go and get ourselves tested. Guys, if you are 50 years old or older, the time to get a colonoscopy is now. When you make your appointment, reach out to John Andretti on social media and let him know your date. Don’t tell him you’re thinking about it, give him the date. That will make John Andretti smile and it might just save your life.

Indianapolis, Music, Pop Culture

The Beatles, Paul Newman and the Speedway Motel.

Beatles on the greenOriginal publish date:  August 7, 2014

On February 19, 2009, demolition crews knocked down the final wall of the 96 room Indianapolis Motor Speedway Motel aka Brickyard Crossing Inn, which was closed by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in December of 2008. They knocked it down so fast that race fans and historians didn’t have a chance to notice, much less complain, until it was gone. On February 19, 2009, demolition crews knocked down the final wall of the 96 room Indianapolis Motor Speedway Motel aka Brickyard Crossing Inn, which was closed by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in December of 2008. They knocked it down so fast that race fans and historians didn’t have a chance to notice, much less complain, until it was gone.

The modern style motel opened in 1963 to much fanfare. Located just off of Turn 2 of the legendary 2-1/2-mile oval, at the time, no other racing facility in the country could boast its own motel located on property. The opening of the motel 54 years ago filled a void in lodging on the near-west side of Indianapolis; long before the growth associated with the construction of Interstate 465. The Speedway Motel’s location assured that only the elite of racing stayed in the convenient confines. Some of the greatest names in auto racing history stayed at the motel, not to mention movie stars, politicians, and music legends.

Like the Speedway, the Brickyard Crossing Inn had a famous history. Besides being the home for several Indianapolis 500 drivers, personalities and owners during the month of May, scenes from Paul Newman’s movie “Winning” were filmed in rooms of the motel. Who knows how many 500 race winners have stayed there prior to the days of million-dollar motorhomes? NASCAR legend Jeff Gordon celebrated his win in the 1994 inaugural Allstate 400 at the Brickyard by eating a pizza in his room at the motel. Oh, the stories those rooms could’ve told. Every West sider should remember the distinctive sign out front welcoming fans before the race, and congratulating the winner afterwards.

When the Speedway Motel opened, John F. Kennedy was President, Alcatraz was still a working prison, the Beatles released their first record and there wasn’t another hotel in sight. Today there are 30,000 hotel rooms in the vicinity and the Speedway Motel lost it’s identity in this modern world. Speedway management  decided that bringing the old Motel up to modern standards would simply cost too much, so the hotel was closed and its 15 workers were sent home for good. After all, by today’s standards, the IMS Motel wasn’t exactly an architectural masterpiece.

The Speedway Motel’s guest list? It was something else. Just about every celebrity that attended the Indianapolis 500 over the Motel’s 45 year lifetime stayed at the IMS Motel. Names like James Garner, Jim Nabors, Paul Newman and Jayne Mansfield made it their home while in town for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. At one time or another, nearly every Indy 500 driver lived there during the entire month of May. It was the preferred residence of 4-time Indy 500 winner AJ Foyt. Same is true of car owner Roger Penske, who typically passed on the luxury motor homes and condos for a comfortable room at the motel.

However, by the mid-1980s, the old motel was beginning to show its age. By then, it had taken on the appearance of an old roadside movie motel. Glasses were wrapped in paper sleeves and housekeeping staff still put the strip of paper across the toilet seat that said “Sanitized for your protection.” By the late 1990s, the rooms were dank and musty-smelling, and in the wintertime the rooms were intolerably hot. As the years passed, it became apparent that IMS officials had to come to a decision, the motel had to either be renovated or razed. Nowadays, the only evidence remaining of this once glorious Motel can be found in the memorable scene from the movie “Winning” when Newman’s character, Frank Capua, returned to the motel after leaving Gasoline Alley and catches Joanne Woodward (Ironically Newman’s real life wife) and co-star Robert Wagner “in the act” in Room 212 of the IMS Motel.

Newman was a fixture at the speedway for decades as a car owner for Mario Andretti in the 1980′s. During those years Newman would give his guests tours of the Speedway, he would always point out the room where the film scene took place. Newman recalled in a 2007 interview, “I always used to take a golf cart and drive the sponsors to the back of the Speedway Motel, and I would stop for a minute and point to a room and say, ‘And that’s where my wife shacked up with Robert Wagner,'” Newman continued, “I’d let that comment sit there, and deep silence and embarrassment would fall over everybody. Then 10 minutes later I’d say, ‘Oh, in the movie I meant.'” He made his final appearance at the speedway during qualifications for the 2008 Indianapolis 500, just four months before losing his battle with cancer.

It was renamed the Brickyard Crossing Inn after the race track became home to NASCAR’s Brickyard 400 race in 1994 and for awhile, the motel added NASCAR stars to its famous guest list, including the winner of the Inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994, Jeff Gordon. After all the pictures, media interviews and celebratory appearances were over, Gordon and his first wife, Brooke, went back to their room at the motel and called Domino’s to order a ham and pineapple pizza. The unsuspecting employee on the other end said, “It’s going to take about two hours to get the pizza delivered because there was a race there today.” to which Gordon responded, “I know. I’m the driver who won the race.” After convincing the Domino’s employee that he was indeed Jeff Gordon, the pizza arrived much sooner than two hours.

The most famous non-racing related guests to stay at the motel were “The Beatles” who stayed in the Motel during their 1964 tour appearance in Indianapolis. Legend has it that during their stay in Indianapolis, fans were tipped off they were staying downtown at the Essex House Hotel. To mislead frenzied fans who might rush the motel, the Beatles’ managers let it leak out that the “Fab Four” would be staying at the swanky downtown hotel. To further add to the ruse, they put the crew traveling with the Beatles at the Essex.

Their manager then put all four in one room  at the IMS Motel. The Beatles enjoyed a quiet refuge there for one weekend in September 1964 while playing two shows at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. That night after the show, the band returned to the Speedway Motel to relax before heading to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the next stop on their franticly-paced 1964 North American Tour. Ringo could not sleep and asked his police escort if they could drive him around the city and grab a late night bite to eat. The policeman in charge took Ringo to a restaurant known as “Charlie’s Steakhouse” on the north edge of Carmel, located at the point where Meridian Street (U.S. highway 31) and Range Line Road (Indiana highway 431) come together. Old timers will remember it as “Ben’s Island”, a bar located within the old Carmel Motel. Ringo had eggs and coffee before returning to the Speedway Motel in the wee hours of the morning. The policeman received a reprimand for this impromptu tour but Ringo later sent a thank-you note to the State trooper and his family for the opportunity to escape the tour for a little while.

The next day, a photographer arrived to snap a few pictures of the Beatles at their Indy Motel. There were pictures of the Fab Four talking with their police escort on the balcony. Photos of the boys playing with remote control slot cars on an oval track set up on the floor of their room. The most famous image from that shoot was that of all four lads playing golf on one of the Speedway golf course greens. Afterwards, the State Police security detail took them for a lap around the track before finally heading for the airport. In the book, “The Beatles Anthology”, George Harrison remembered it this way: “Indianapolis was good. As we were leaving, on the way to the airport, they took us round the Indy circuit….It was fantastic.”

When I found out the motel was going to be torn down, I was hoping to be able to get access to the room for some photo memories to compare to the movie. Life and the Indiana Winter got in the way and delayed my trips to the Motel until I received a phone call from friends Steve and Kim Hunt telling me that, “I’m driving past it and they’re  tearing it down right now.”

Thank goodness the old motel’s main building will continue to house its popular restaurant, a conference center, pro shop of the Brickyard Crossing Golf Course and the legendary “Flag Room” pub. All will continue operation. The Flag Room bar remains a popular watering hole with regular patrons whose colorful nicknames like “Tires” and “Jonesy” hearken back to the golden days of Indy motorsports. In May, and especially during race week, The Flag Room is a prime gathering spot for former 500 winners like Jim Rathmann and Parnelli Jones to sit and talk about the good old days of their glorious racing careers. Other drivers, such as Al Unser, Bobby Unser, Johnny Rutherford and Mario Andretti, occasionally stop by for lunch or dinner.

“The motel and the restaurant were places where you could stand any day during May and just see everybody. It would have been an autograph-hunters paradise but I don’t think that word ever really got out,” Davidson said. “Who wouldn’t want to hear the lunch conversation among former Indiana basketball coach Bob Knight, four-time Indy winner A.J. Foyt and Speedway owner Tony George”, Davidson chuckled. “They were golfing buddies.”

The razing of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Motel closed a chapter on a piece of the history of the century old Indy 500 Mile Race. They say that all good things must come to an end, but I can’t help but feel that we lost a symbol of Indianapolis sports and pop culture history with the destruction of the old motel. It was a time when a normal Hoosier kid could venture to West 16th street in the off season to sleep in the same beds as the heroes of their youth…and dream.