- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Indy 500 drivers go through up to five 22-gallon tanks of fuel as they roar around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on race day each May. Indianapolis tourism officials hope budget-conscious travelers will use just one to visit the city this year.

“It’s a great one-tank trip for so many people throughout the Midwest because we’re so centrally located,” says Kimberly Harms, spokeswoman for the Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Association. “More than half the nation’s population lives within a day’s drive of Indianapolis.”

The deepening recession could prove a boon for the city nicknamed the Crossroads of America for its accessibility. The city of 785,000 draws hundreds of thousands of visitors each May for the Indianapolis 500, but tourism leaders hope they’ll come for a taste of Egypt and Asia as well this year.

The centerpiece of the city’s attractions is the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which is kicking off a three-year celebration marking the 100th anniversary of the track and the race.

The speedway was built in 1909 by four Indiana businessmen as an automobile testing ground. Its focus soon turned to racing, with Ray Harroun winning the inaugural Indianapolis 500 on May 30, 1911.

Since then, Indianapolis has become known as the racing capital of the world, and the speedway remains the world’s largest spectator-sporting facility.

“I don’t think there’s any question that the Indianapolis 500 is the best-known race in the world,” says Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian Donald Davidson. “You can go anywhere, and even if they don’t speak English, they know what it is.”

The centennial celebration got under way May 1 with a balloon festival featuring two races, a tribute to the first competitive event held at the speedway: a June 5, 1909, gas-filled balloon race. The 2009 IPL 500 Festival Parade will be held in downtown Indianapolis on May 23, featuring race drivers, national celebrities and marching bands. Basketball analyst Dick Vitale is this year’s grand marshal. The Indianapolis 500 (www.indy500.com) will be run May 24.

If auto racing isn’t your style, the city also is offering some international fare.

“King Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs” will open June 27 at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. The exhibit features more than 130 artifacts from King Tut’s tomb and additional ancient sites. It runs through Oct. 25. (Details at www.childrensmuseum.org/ and www.kingtut.org.)

The Tut display coincides with the museum’s opening this summer of an $8 million permanent exhibit about current-day Egypt.

Other attractions with special features this year include the Indianapolis Zoo and Conner Prairie, an interactive history park in Fishers, just north of Indianapolis.

The zoo (www.indianapolis zoo.com) will host two Komodo dragons from May 22 through Labor Day. At 10 feet long, Komodo dragons from Southeast Asia are the largest lizards in the world.

Conner Prairie plans an exhibit to re-create the day aeronaut John Wise launched his hot-air balloon 150 years ago in Lafayette, Ind. Opening June 6, the 1859 Balloon Voyage explores the science and technology of ballooning and Indiana’s contribution to aviation. Guests can fly 350 feet above the museum in a tethered, helium-filled balloon.

Conner Prairie (www.conner prairie.org) is the Smithsonian Institution’s only Indiana affiliate. The museum features five themed areas covering 200 acres. Patrons can watch history in action - and sometimes participate - as costumed performers act out Indiana’s past.

Miss Harms says Indianapolis travel officials hope vacationers on a budget amid a national recession will choose the city as a family-friendly, close-to-home alternative to a lavish summer getaway. The Web site of the Indiana Convention and Visitors Association (www.visit indy.com) includes packages for The Children’s Museum, zoo and other attractions.

“More people are skipping the extravagant tropical vacations in favor of more affordable trips that are within a day’s drive of their homes,” Miss Harms says.

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