- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 25, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

At the center of the Indiana heartland lies Indianapolis, its capital and largest city — as well as an epicenter of history, culture and the entrepreneurial spirit that has made the Midwest the center of the American work ethic for generations. There’s so much to see and do here that you could reasonably spend weeks seeing it all.

But what if you have only a single afternoon in the “Circle City”? In such a case, I recommend visiting a former president’s residence, a famous racetrack and a craft distiller to get just a little bit of the taste of what has made Indy the center of the Hoosier State’s thriving adventurousness.

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Inarguably, it’s the most famous racing track on the planet. At the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Hall of Fame Museum (4790 West 16th St., Indianapolis, Indiana, 46222, 317/492-8500) you can step back in time to the early 20th century, when the “speed” part of the equation was far less a concern as balloonists came here to vie for championships starting in 1909.

Then came the vehicles, which gradually got faster and faster until the 500 miles of furious racing that emanates from here every May made the track world-famous.

The old pavement of brick and mortar that lined much of the original track gave the Indy Speedway the nickname of “The Brickyard,” by which it is still known. While asphalt has long since replaced much of the original track surface, a 36-inch strip remains at the starting/finish line, known as the “Yard of Bricks.”

Step into the museum, established in 1956, to examine the history and the names of this most famous raceway. A century of car racing ephemera, factoids and exhibits take the visitor on a whirlwind tour of the motor sports and the famous drivers whose exploits on the track earned them cash, laurels and fame.

Oh, and, of course, the cars! From the 1905 Premiere to the 1912 National to the 1955 Ferrari Type-375 and many, many more, it’s almost a holy experience for any lover of cars — or of Americana — to get up close and personal with these machines, some of them more than 100 years old. (Like any other new technology, competition led to innovation, which led to supercharged examples, which led to racing.) If you’re so inclined, take a seat in the Gould Charge 1 for a token fee to get your photo.

You can also peek at the Wheeler-Schebler Trophy, the original prize for the big winner.

It’s key to then take the 2.5-mile loop excursion on the track itself via a quick tour bus. A combination of recorded audio and knowledge from the driver offers a primer in the storied past, as well as racers like Wilbur Shaw, Mario Andretti and Dario Franchitti, the onetime husband of Ashley Judd.

The bus takes us through the final turn and then into the Brickyard itself, where the line of the red building blocks demarcates where the checkered flag will wave soon, and the winner’s paddock not far off.

But a few miles away from the Speedway is the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site (1230 N Delaware St., Indianapolis, Indiana, 46202, 317/631-1888). This is the home where Brig. Gen. Harrison, who fought for the Union Army during the Civil War, made his home with wife Caroline between its construction in 1874-75 and Harrison’s death in 1901. Harrison lived here for much of his later life but for his time in Washington, first in the senate and then in the White House between 1889 and 1893 as the 23rd president — and the first from Indiana.

Charles A. Hyde, president and CEO and of the site, greets me warmly and ushers me into the downstairs part of the house, furnished much as it was in the 19th century, with its sofas, art and statues of the president intact. There are some precious artifacts on display, not the least of which is a letter from Helen Keller to Mrs. Harrison.

Portraits hang from various walls, including of neighboring Illinois’ Abraham Lincoln, and William Henry Harrison, Benjamin’s grandfather and himself the ninth president. William Henry Harrison holds the dubious distinction of giving, to date, the longest inaugural address upon assuming office in March 1841, but dying only a month later — thus ending the shortest presidency in U.S. history.

The Benjamin Harrison museum is the first presidential site to make its collection available for 3-D printing, and in the basement of the site, Charles shows me a 3-D rendering of the man himself. Less than 10 percent of the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site’s collection is available to the public, and the 2-D and 3-D renderings aim to make much more accessible to researchers, historians and the generally interested visitor.

I’m pleased and happy to report that Indianapolis, like nearly every other port of call in the U.S., has gotten on board both the craft beer and distilling trains. At 12.05 Distillery (636 Virginia Ave, Indianapolis, Indiana, 46203, 317/672-7334) and the attached Repeal Restaurant, proprietors Brad Colver and Nolan Hudson are churning out quality spirits in a former bank building located in the happening Fletcher Place neighborhood.

The name, of course, refers to Dec. 5, 1933, the historic date that those “13 dark years” of Prohibition were finally relegated to the dustbin of history. Over eight decades removed from that fateful change, Nolan walks me through the distillery and then over to Repeal to sample the wares — with a glass partition allowing diners and drinkers to peak into the distillery’s innards while enjoying the end products.

Nolan starts me off with their vodka, which has a hint of banana on the nose, which might not be surprising considering it’s distilled from Indiana corn. The taste profile is both smooth and sweet, and I imagine enjoying it over rocks or perhaps in a summer cocktail.

The New American Gin boasts a floral nose and a smooth taste. I’m not precisely the biggest fan of gin — my personal credo is why mess with perfectly good vodka? — but thanks to having an English girlfriend, I’ve been getting more into it the past year or so, and New American is a worthy entry to any liquor cabinet (including hers!).

White on the Line wheat whiskey, the only one of its kind in the Hoosier State, is something a little different.

The Four Finger Rye Whiskey is sleek, and the rye can definitely be tasted on the palate long after the mouthful goes down.

If there was ever a booze that called my name, it surely must be the The Barreled Reporter, which is both an appropriate description of any writer’s liver, and which has actually been distilled from sour beer. Yep, it’s that kind of experimentation, and I recommend at least giving it a go, even if, like me, you’re not a big fan of sour beers.

But then I find a new love in the Rhubarb Liqueur. With its sugary taste and pleasant nose, it actually gives me a sense of nostalgia as I recall the garden my mother tended at our New Jersey home when I was a kid — inclusive of rhubarb.

And the Corn Star Corn Whiskey blends both Indiana corn and peated malt. This is definitely the choice for those of you who are fans of rather peaty scotch from the Highland country, such as Highland Park.

Seated in Repeal, I pore over the cocktail menu, and quickly notice a theme developing, what with drinks such as the Mia Wallace, From Dusk to Dawn, Lt. Aldo Raine, Reservoir Dog and Mr. Pink all infused with 12.05 products. It brings a smile as I enjoy the Mia Wallace, made with 12.05 Vodka and raspberry liqueur, and toast to all of Quentin Tarantino’s creations — on cinema and their homages such as these.

It’s nearing 6:00, and I have a two-hour drive ahead of me to get out to the Ebertfest in my old haunts of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. I can’t help but be reminded of the first time I drove there, which included a stop in Indy for a craft beer and to see the USS Indianapolis memorial. This truly is the “Crossroads of America,” the point through which travelers heading to all points of the American compass must pass by on their way elsewhere.

I’ve only had one afternoon. Imagine what you can do with several days.

For more about Indianapolis, go to VisitIndy.com.


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