Indianapolis: Sports and Culture

Admission to Grounds. Check. Paddock Pass. Check. Ticket to Pagoda Suite. Check. I have my credentials and I’m ready to roll.

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway, now in its centennial year, is the only place to be today for the season opening of the Red Bull Indianapolis MotoGP, a benchmark in the history of Grand Prix motorcycle racing that started in 1949. I am one of the 150,000 spectators, sports fans and motorcycle enthusiasts who have converged here.

From my window at the luxurious Conrad Hotel, I can see that the street has been closed and, within my view, what looks like a thousand bikes in a myriad of styles and colours, line the avenue. I had planned a quiet evening to enjoy the lovely hotel amenities: the pillow menu with five choices, the wellness centre and the state-of-the-art fitness facility, or do a few lengths in the infinity-edge pool. I want to try them all, but the scene outside beckons.

Feverish excitement has overtaken the city, and it implodes into an action-packed, good-natured weekend of motorcycle racing. I am a Grand Prix virgin, and I am loving it.

Vroom Vroom. Okay, the time has come. Super Sunday. Grand Marshall and “hog” wild Jay Leno steps up and waves the checkered flag. The motorbikes roar around the track. It’s a beautiful noise—the sound of speed. Some turns are so steep, riders lean their bikes almost 60 degrees. They wear special kneepads of some indestructible, man-made material as protection. Red Bull supports several riders in the MotoGP series and the company has created and managed the Red Bull MotoGP Rookies Cup series. These young daredevils have come from all over the world: Italy, Spain, Germany, Qatar, Japan, Switzerland, U.S., to name a few, and they believe speed records are made to be broken.

Appetites surge with the excitement. Five tons of burgers and 10 tons of fries are consumed, along with 10,000 gallons of water and 12,000 gallons of Coca Cola soft drink products.

Between races, I stroll over to visit The Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum to see the old black and white photos and racing lore. Established in 1956, it was recently honoured with the designation of National Historic Landmark. In terms of museums dedicated to automobiles and racing, this one is tops! They make it look so easy. I’m thinking I would like to try car racing one day. I could sign up for The Indy Racing Experience Driving Program, where I can follow a lead car around the Speedway or, for an even greater kick, the Two-Seat Ride, where I could get to sit behind the driver. Dare I call for reservations at (888) 357-5002 or should I just race over to

Conventional wisdom prevails and, instead of thrills and chills, I take a leisurely drive and enjoy the beauty of the city. Stretching across five cultural districts of Indianapolis, the Cultural Trail is an eight-mile urban oasis for both cyclists and pedestrians. Bicycle rentals are available in each district, thanks to donations to a community bike program.

What I really need now is a good cup of coffee and a taste of the local food. While the rest of the country has recently discovered its agricultural treasures and restaurants from coast to coast trumpet their support of farm-to-table allegiances, Indianapolis says “Hey, we’ve been doing that for years. We’re the prototype of dining trends to come.”

Martha Hoover, who opened her Patachou Cafés 21 years ago, brews proprietary blends of coffee beans roasted by a family that’s been in the business for 106 years in the St. Louis area. Hoover broke the mold in 1989, when she brought in an espresso machine, the second in the state. “People would come in just to look at it,” she recalls, “and when we turned it on to make an espresso, they would back away.” Her mantra in all seven locations is healthy, in-state dining. The ambience echoes her personality: interesting, inviting and modern, with enough old fashioned embellishments, like an antique looking harvest table, to make it comfortable and easy-going. Eggs are no more than 48 hours from mother hen to table; chicken is from a local Amish family, produce is all natural organic and, like everyone in this city, Hoover waxes poetic about the Indiana tomato. “Twenty years ago,” she says, “we could not find a local person to grow field greens, or even a local distributor. Now we have farmers calling us and telling us that they are planning their next growing cycle, and asking what we plan to use.” Since childhood, Hoover has had a passion for good food and this has channeled her on the extraordinary path to where she is now: the leader of the bandwagon.

And the bandwagon has grown like Jack and the beanstalk’s magic beans. Regina Mehallick, a James Beard finalist who owns R Bistro, takes zealous pride in the freshness of the foods on her menu. In fact, she has a garden right next door. After 10 years of cooking in other peoples’ kitchens in the UK and South Carolina, Mehallick developed her own style and calls it Indiana comfort food: Short rib hash with poached eggs, beef and Andouille burger, or an Indiana tomato stuffed with Cobb salad. A short and perfect menu: five firsts, five mains, five desserts—and each item more inviting and delectable than the one before.

The city continues to surprise me. I am in a historic church, also known as Buggs’ Temple, on the terrace of Euphoria, formerly a restaurant and now a full time event venue, which overlooks a man-made canal. Two authentic Venetian gondolas, complete with gondoliers, traverse the canal. To bring myself back to my mid-western reality, I meet Ivy Denman. “I have a lot of fine dining training,” says Denman, the chef in this stained-glass sanctuary, “and a different approach to food and pairings, matching fruits with fish and meats. That’s what my customers come here for.” No surprise that Denman was nominated for The People’s Best New Chef Award by Food and Wine magazine, while still serving up breakfast through dinner at Creation Café, on the first floor below.

It is time for a beauty break and a visit to Studio 2000, Kevin Williams’ salon
and day spa in a classical art deco salon. Historians say that it is the best surviving example of an original Art Deco interior in the world. Olympic-style silver inlaid figures and ziggurats grace the black tile walls with Charles Lindbergh’s airplane flying through storm clouds. After an hour with a talented technician, I am rejuvenated and ready to continue my Indianapolis adventure.

A few hours later, I am at the other end of the dining concept spectrum. Recess Restaurant is built of concrete and cinder blocks, the floor painted with footprints of sneakers and shoes. And the menu! Oh my. Carefully thought-out wine pairings are a clue that this is serious dining. Seared tuna surrounded by a deconstructed niçoise salad; Fisher Farms flank steak marinated in oregano, garlic, a few “secret ingredients” and olive oil is partnered with sweet corn risotto and French Horn mushrooms with red wine sauce. Dessert? Of course, when it’s Ovaltine chocolate pudding with raspberry mouse. Recess, re- imagined, is the time when you have fun and, with so much going on, we wondered if the kitchen might under-deliver—but the chef/owner Greg Hardesty is having serious fun in the kitchen, and so are the customers in the dining room.

Our last meal is an homage to the dining history of the Midwest. St. Elmo Steak House has been serving corn-fed beef since 1902 and was named after the patron saint of sailors. It began as a tavern and, through the years, its classic turn-of-the-century Chicago saloon décor has changed little. The tiger oak bar was first used in the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. What has changed is the clientele. For most of its history, it was a dining bastion for men, but that is no longer the case. You can ask to tour the wine cellar, with its 20,000 bottles, including a 1902 Chateau Lafitte Rothschild, and make your own selection. The gigantic shrimp cocktail, with its famous fiery cocktail sauce, leaves us breathless. The bone-in prime rib is slow-cooked throughout the day and then seared on the grill, and bone-in, cowboy rib eye is a steak lover’s dream come true.

The loveliness and dignity of culture is integrated into the landscape of this patriotic heartland. Original poetry decorates eco-friendly bus shelters. And the American flag is part of the architecture of every home. A must do is having a picture taken in front of Robert Indiana’s famous LOVE sculpture on the grounds of the magnificent Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA)—even more effective if you stand next to someone you like a lot. The IMA’s 100-acre Virginia B. Fairbanks art and nature park is home to eight amazing installations by international sculptors, and docents lead meditation hikes into nature.

Next time. The airport is a mere 20 minutes from the hotel, and there is yet so much I have left unexplored. Indianapolis is a state of mind that keeps me wanting to get back there, to the Speedway, to the nature park and, in my own way, be part of the race. —Sara Waxman

Clearly, the 241-room Conrad Hotel is the hub, located at the most prominent intersection in the city. Annual accolades from travel magazines and associations are well deserved. I could live here very happily. In fact, Al Kite, the owner of the property, lives in its beautiful penthouse and is very much on the scene. He hosts a special dinner, prepared by the hotel’s executive chef Michelle Matiya. The chef’s soup course is Indiana corn cappuccino with parmesan crisps; the main, steak and egg, brought a corn-fed Indiana New York strip topped by an Americana egg, sunny side up, Yukon potatoes, mini squash and zucchini and a Port wine demi. The wine: Travaglini Gattinara, from the Piedmont region of Italy. Using locally sourced ingredients is Matiya’s pride and joy, and the flavour quotient is off the charts.

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