Thanks to an influx of northward migrants early in the nineteenth century – including the family of Abraham Lincoln, who lived for fourteen years near the present-day village of Santa Claus before moving to Illinois – much of INDIANA bears the influence of the easy-going South. Unlike the abolitionist Lincolns, many former Southerners brought slaves to this new territory, and thousands rioted against being drafted into the Union army when the Civil War broke out. However, massive industrialization throughout the northwest corner of the state since the late nineteenth century firmly integrated Indiana into the regional economy. On a national level, this sports-happy state is best known these days for automobile racing and high school basketball.
Despite some beautiful dunes and beaches, the most lasting memories provided by Indiana’s fifty-mile lakeshore (by far the shortest of the Great Lakes states) are of the grimy steel mills and poverty-stricken neighbourhoods of towns like Gary and East Chicago. In northern Indiana, the area in and around Elkhart and Goshen contains one of the nation’s largest Amish settlements. The central plains are characterized by small market towns, except for the sprawling capital, Indianapolis, which makes a nice enough stopover. Bloomington, the home of Indiana University (and its perennial standout college basketball team), is the state’s premier college town. Hilly southern Indiana, at its most appealing in the autumn, is a welcome contrast to the central cornbelt, boasting several quaint towns such as Jasper, while thriving Columbus exhibits a great array of contemporary architecture for such a small city.
Seven miles northwest of downtown Indianapolis, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway stages three events each year; one is the legendary Indianapolis 500, held on the last Sunday in May, the others are July’s prestigious NASCAR Brickyard 400 and August’s Red Bull Indianapolis GP.
The Indy 500 is preceded by two weeks of qualification runs that whittle the hopeful entrants down to a final field of 33 drivers, one of whom will scoop the million-dollar first prize. The two-and-a-half-mile circuit was built as a test track for the city’s motor manufacturers. The first five-hundred-mile race – held in 1911 and won in a time of 6hr 42min, at an average speed of 74.6mph – was a huge success, vindicating the organizers’ belief that the distance was the optimum length for spectators’ enjoyment. Cars now hit 235mph, though the official times of the winners are reduced by delays caused by accidents. While the technology is marvellous, the true legends in the eyes of their fans are such championship drivers as A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti and members of the Unser dynasty. The big race crowns one of the nation’s largest festivals, attended by almost half a million spectators. Seats for the race usually sell out well in advance ($75–95; 800 822 4639), but you may gain admittance to the infield ($40), for a tailgate-style, rowdy atmosphere and limited viewing.