Mention Indianapolis to non-Hoosiers and their first thought is often the Indianapolis 500. The most famous yard of bricks serves as the start and finish line to a sporting event that routinely thrusts the city into international headlines. But many other sporting legends and stories have also shaped Indianapolis's identity. Explore the people, places, and moments that have defined Indianapolis sports history over the second half of the twentieth century. See the superstars and their venues, as well as the parks, courts, rinks, and streets where the people of Indianapolis play.
A month of activities and celebrations culminates in race day on Memorial Day weekend. First run in 1911, the Indianapolis 500 has earned recognition as “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” one of the most prestigious motorsports events in the world. Every year approximately 300,000 people attend the race itself, crowding the grandstands and infield, and drawing the eyes of the world to the race's namesake city. This photo was taken on race day in 1973.
Indiana politicians and promoters have long used the Indianapolis 500 as a potent tool for attracting publicity and rewarding supporters, often with access to VIP events before or after the race. In this photo from 1973, Republican leader L. Keith Bulen schmoozes with Arizona Senator and 1964 Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater in the Republican Party tent at the racetrack. Bulen wears a checkered suit to match the checkered flag traditionally waved to signal the first car crossing the finish line.
Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, city officials, business leaders, philanthropists, and community activists in Indianapolis latched on to the power of sport to shape the city’s popular identity and economy. Bruised by taunts of “India-no-place,” leaders in the Midwestern metropolis realized that the Indianapolis 500 served as a model for leveraging greater visibility for the city. Beginning in the 1970s, municipal leaders focused on sports as a tool for attracting economic development to Indianapolis, particularly to its downtown, and for elevating the city's popular image from flyover territory to a national sports capital. Mayor Lugar took a critical early step by supporting the construction of Market Square Arena just blocks from the city's center-- a stark contrast from the contemporary trend of locating sports facilities in suburban areas. Opened in 1974, the arena's first tenants included the Indiana Pacers, then members of the professional American Basketball Association (ABA). The Pacers' team name acknowledges the city's most famous race, referring to the Indianapolis 500 pace car. At the beginning of the 1975 season, Mayor Lugar congratulated Pacers players and coaches for winning the ABA's Western Division title the previous season. The following year, the Pacers joined the National Basketball Association (NBA) as part of an ABA-NBA merger. Pictured here, Lugar shakes hands with Len Elmore, who played for the Pacers from 1974 to 1979.
In addition to the Pacers, other professional sports teams called Market Square Arena home. The Indianapolis Racers of the World Hockey Association skated the ice during the mid-1970s. Like the Pacers, the Racers' team name refers to the Indianapolis 500. During the 1976-1977 season, the team led the WHA in attendance and swept the Cincinnati Stingers in the playoffs before losing to the Quebec Nordiques. Two years later, in the 1978-1979 season, the Racers served as the first major league home for future superstars Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier. Mayor Hudnut, wearing a personalized jersey, attends a Racers game at Market Square Arena in 1977.
Indianapolis benefited from a string of city leaders with a passion for sports. Mayor Richard Lugar was a runner who participated in the annual run at Arsenal Tech High School. L. Keith Bulen was an avid horseman and racing enthusiast. Mayor Stephen Goldsmith successfully campaigned to bring NCAA headquarters to the city and led efforts to construct a new arena (Conseco Fieldhouse, now Bankers Life Fieldhouse) and keep the beloved Pacers in downtown Indianapolis. But the city found perhaps its greatest sports advocate in Mayor Bill Hudnut, an accomplished athlete himself. Mayor Hudnut dove into the city's sporting life wherever he could. Whether attending Racers hockey games, playing catch with Little League players, throwing out the first pitch of the season at an Indians' game, opening the Indianapolis Tennis Center, campaigning for an NFL franchise, hosting guests and cheering the Colts in the city's Hoosier Dome skybox, posing for photos in a Pacers uniform, joining a wheelchair basketball game, or participating in his annual Mayor's Tennis Tournament (seen here in 1977), Mayor Hudnut served as a tireless spokesperson for Indianapolis as "Sports Capital."
In 1973, the cities of Indianapolis and Scarborough, Ontario began an annual amateur sports competition. The Indianapolis-Scarborough Peace Games (named in honor of the Vietnam Peace Treaty signed in 1973) were held every August, alternating locations between the two cities. While the ostensible purpose of the event was to promote friendship and cultural understanding, Indianapolis civic and business leaders saw further benefit in drawing attention to the city's athletic facilities and capabilities for hosting international events. In this photo, young participants walk on the field during opening ceremonies in August 1980.
Even after the opening of Market Square Arena in 1974, city leaders realized that a robust sports-friendly infrastructure would require a stadium, especially if they were to attract an NFL franchise. Construction of the Hoosier Dome began in downtown Indianapolis in April 1982. The project was propelled by the Indiana Sports Corporation (ISC), a private entity driven by a coalition of government and business. One of the first such organizations in the nation, the ISC promoted Indianapolis by contributing to and then marketing a robust sports infrastructure of facilities and organizations. In addition to supporting construction projects like the Hoosier Dome, the ISC campaigned to bring major sporting events to the city. When the Hoosier Dome opened in 1984, total costs rang in at approximately $80 million, financed through a combination of public funds, private investments, and donations from the Lilly Endowment and Krannert Charitable Trust. Supporters of the Hoosier Dome project believed that sports facilities would attract economic investment, particularly in downtown Indianapolis, as well as positive national media attention. The city's higher profile, it was hoped, would not only feed local pride, but also attract further investment in the city.
As construction continued on the Hoosier Dome, a committee of city officials, business leaders, and engaged citizens pushed forward in their effort to bring an NFL franchise to Indianapolis. In March 1984, a deal was finalized and the Colts arrived on the city's doorstep. Residents of Indianapolis and central Indiana embraced their new team and demand for season tickets far exceeded supply. In a letter, team owner Robert Irsay congratulates those who succeeded in capturing an elusive season ticket. The archive also includes letters from Irsay to those who were less fortunate, as well as to select fans for whom season tickets had been set aside. (The team’s move to Indy is described in more detail in the feature, Bringing the Colts to Indianapolis.)
In 1984, Indianapolis native and NBA All-Star and Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson returned to his hometown to participate in Mayor Hudnut's announcement that the city would host the 35th National Basketball Association's All-Star Game, to be held on February 10, 1985 in the Hoosier Dome. As part of their ongoing efforts to bring high-profile sporting events to Indianapolis, city leaders and representatives from the Indiana Sports Corporation had lobbied heavily to convince the NBA to hold the game in the new Dome.
Even with a new professional football franchise, provincial biases continued to affect national media depictions of the Midwestern metropolis. A few months into the Colts' first season in Indianapolis, Mayor Hudnut and Indianapolis City-County Council President Beurt SerVaas responded to Time Magazine editors' denigrating depictions of Indianapolis residents. In this letter, they vigorously defend city residents' enthusiastic embrace of the former Baltimore Colts.