Indianapolis: a sports city in high gear beyond the 500

Indianapolis is shucking its image as a cornfield with a racetrack and blossoming into a multifaceted sports city. The famed 500-mile auto race has long dominated the public's perception of Indianapolis, as might be expected of any event that attracts the country's largest single day sports crowd (an estimated 400,000). But the Indy 500 is only the tip of the haystack these days.

Indianapolis is in the midst of an invigorating sports boom that has Mayor William Hudnut III proclaiming his community ''the amateur sports capital of the nation.''

If that sounds presumptuous, look at the facts.

Market Square Arena, an anchor of downtown revitalization, was opened in 1974 . By mid 1984 and $130 million later an incredible decade of sports facility construction will end with the scheduled completion of the 63,000-seat Hoosier Dome.

Another sports complex has already risen several blocks away. It includes the 10,000-seat home of the US Clay Court tennis championships, plus a track stadium and $21.5 million natatorium on the conglomerate branch campus of Indiana and Purdue universities in Indianapolis. The latter facilities were completed in time for last year's National Sports Festival, as was an outlying velodrome named for native son Marshall Taylor, the first black national and world bicycle racing champion.

The burgeoning sports skyline is only part of the story. With the facilities have come major events to fill them, such as the aforementioned Sports Festival, the annual, non-Olympic-year competition of the United States Olympic Committee.

Indianapolis has also hosted the national figure skating championships, a US/USSR track meet, and collegiate championships in basketball, swimming, and diving, all within the last three years. Next up are national men's and women's rowing championships at Eagle Creek Park, along with the US outdoor track and field championships.

Down the road, the city plans to bid for the 1986 National Sports Festival, the 1987 world figuring skating championships, and possibly the 1991 Pan American Games as well as a future World University Games.

If all this sounds ambitious, there's more. Separate groups are pushing hard to attract big-league baseball and pro football.

Based on a survey, the Indiana Baseball Committee is confident it could sell a minimum of 15,000 season tickets. Football backers, meanwhile, point out that Indianapolis offers a larger TV market than nine existing National Football League teams. And with the bubble-top dome about to take its place as the city's first major stadium, both groups can now make a far more compelling sales pitch than ever before.

Then there are all the tangible and intangible signs that Indianapolis is a city on the move, the Atlanta of the Midwest. No longer content with a pedestrian, low-profile image, Indianapolis is asserting itself.

''If we were a sleeping giant, we've definitely been awakened,'' said Sandy Knapp, executive director of the Indiana Sports Corporation, a private, nonprofit promotional organization.

Former mayor Richard Lugar, now a US Senator, is often credited with bringing vitality and direction to what was once described as a ''straightlaced, unglamorous working town.'' An avid sports fan, Lugar was instrumental in the building of Market Square Arena, which lured the Indiana Pacers basketball team from the Fairgrounds Coliseum. But both Lugar and Hudnut have benefited from model private/public sector cooper-ation.

Civic Pride is running high, as evidenced last summer when thousands volunteered their services during the Sports Festival, which shattered the previous attendance mark with a quarter million spectators. The Eli Lilly Foundation has also done its part in underwriting city projects, forking over $ 30 million toward the cost of the Hoosier Dome, for example.

The arena was the first step in bringing people to the center city after working hours. As Lugar once told Sports Illustrated, ''A skeleton force in our downtown area after 5 o'clock simply will not do - and sports can be a significant aid in this behalf.''

The arena briefly housed the Racers of the defunct World Hockey Association, but now the Pacers are its only pro sports tenants and the only major league team in town.

Sadly, however, the Pacers haven't given fans much to cheer about since their heyday in the early 1970s, when they won three American Basketball Association titles with hometown products George McGinnis and Bill Keller in the lineup. In a vain attempt to stimulate attendance, the club signed Ann Meyers to a tryout in 1979. She was cut, but the episode did nothing to restore public confidence among the state's astute basketball fans.

The last-place Pacers just missed an opportunity to turn things around this spring, but wound up losing a coin flip to the Houston Rockets, who won the draft rights to 7 ft. 4 in. Ralph Sampson. Even without Sampson, the outlook may improve under new ownership with strong local ties.

City leaders believe that the Pacers deserve big-league company. Indianapolis, after all, has long supported a profitable minor league baseball team, the Indians, and counts many football fans, who migrate to college games at Purdue, Notre Dame, and Indiana University on weekends, in its midst.

Consider also that Indianapolis is the 13th largest city in the country (pop. 750,000) and is within a day's drive of half the nation's population, and one realizes why the civic drums are pounding so loudly.

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