Across from Indianapolis Motor Speedway, tiny downtown Speedway seems sleepy by comparison. But listen closely and you hear a gathering buzz.
“I couldn’t believe when we came here how many people didn’t know that Speedway had a Main Street,” said Marcia Huff. A year ago, she and her husband, David Huff, opened Barbecue and Bourbon at 1414 Main St.
Founded in 1912 and incorporated in 1926, Speedway was a thriving community for factory workers and their families until mid-century economic pressures scattered its businesses and residents.
Today, Barbecue and Bourbon is just one restaurant helping the town stage a comeback.
Six eateries, four of them less than 3 years old, line the half-mile stretch between 16th and 10th streets. A wine bar opened this past week, and a brewery debuts in June. Construction begins soon on another restaurant and a new brewpub. Those in the know say other dining spots are in the works.
Visitors may be surprised there’s not year-round, heart-thumping activity near Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but Speedway’s serenity feels normal to residents. The town was created for ordinary people like them, IMS historian Donald Davidson said.
In 1913, four years after IMS construction began, two track founders, Carl Fisher and James Allison, invested in Prest-O-Lite, the first effective automobile headlight. Production began in Downtown Indianapolis. When Fisher and Allison sought a new factory south of IMS, they contacted Lem Trotter. Trotter owned 350 acres surrounding the track, where he platted what was originally named Speedway City.
Anticipating Prest-O-Lite success, developers designed a wide Main Street. Industries would line the west side. Shops, services and homes went on the east side.
Speedway began with 507 residents. The population tripled in four years, and businesses thrived until the 1960s when large shopping centers overwhelmed mom-and-pop businesses and Americans fled urban areas, Davidson said. Automotive manufacturing dropped off as well.
Stagnant for 30 years, the town received a reprieve in 2005 when the Indiana legislature permitted the formation of the Speedway Redevelopment Commission. The panel’s $500 million renovation plan includes infrastructure improvements such as the new 16th Street roundabout and incentives to attract businesses. The total investment thus far is more than $120 million, funded via a tax increment financing district.
Early in the redevelopment process, a survey was sent to 4,500 households within a 15-minute drive from Speedway. The results confirmed that places to eat and drink should be high on the Speedway redevelopment wish list.
The survey found that 36 percent of responding households reported dining out more than twice a week, and a near equal number ate lunch out more than twice a week. Low-cost options were reported to be a motivating factor, and the commission aimed to scout affordable restaurants.
“We always thought it was important to have a number of diverse restaurants and that would help bring people to Main Street, no different than Broad Ripple or Mass Ave. or Fountain Square,” said the commission’s executive director Scott Harris.
Speedway’s on the right track, said Nashville, Tenn., urban planner Tifinie Capehart, who also sits on the Nashville National Food Policy Council.
Capehart calls food and drink businesses that take chances on sluggish areas “urban pioneers.” They provide a sense of community and spark interest among outsiders, she said. Capehart has seen it happen in Nashville.
“Don’t believe me?” she wrote in December 2013 on her Cityspeak blog. “Well, just chew on that the next time you follow a food review to a five-star restaurant in a derelict part of town, and wonder, ‘Why’d they locate here?’ They saw potential and, well, the neighborhood will benefit in the long run.”
Speedway’s culinary push has precedence in Indy.
Mass Ave., Broad Ripple and Fountain Square aren’t the only examples where food and drink boosted neighborhoods. Travel east on 16th Street from Speedway to Herron-Morton, and you’ll find coffee companies, restaurants and other food-related businesses turning that area into Indy’s latest hot spot. Even Bargersville’s tiny downtown is hopping, thanks in large part to Taxman Brewing Co. brewery and gastropub.
The Speedway Redevelopment Commission isn’t trying to replicate Mass Ave. or Broad Ripple, Harris emphasized. “We are still a small town and have lots of tourists. But we always felt that about eight or 10 dining options would be important for the sustainability and viability of Main Street.”
Blossoming restaurant row
Harris has lived in Speedway for 17 years, and he said it took him four years to discover Speedway’s Main Street. Back then, the corridor hosted just one restaurant: Charlie Brown’s. Solid home cooking, especially pancakes, and walls covered in race memorabilia has kept Charlie Brown’s a staple for locals, IndyCar drivers and race fans since 1975. But a single restaurant can attract only so many people.
Right after the development commission was formed, Harris met with Tony and Chris Hill, who were considering opening a restaurant in Speedway. Harris shared the commission’s vision of Main Street dining spots enhancing the race fan experience, growing tourism and attracting Indy-area residents. The restaurateurs took the risk and opened Dawson’s on Main in 2006.
Next came Lino’s Coffee and Italian Food Experience and Yogulatte frozen yogurt. Barbecue and Bourbon popped up, then a few months later, Rolling in the Dough, a café and market specializing in everything that starts with dough — pasta, pastries, bread and beyond.
IndyStar food reporter Liz Biro and beverage reporter Amy Haneline tour the food, drink and fun on Main Street in Speedway, next to the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. Kelly Wilkinson/The Star, 2015
Rolling in the Dough owner Cathy McMannis said Greenwood was her first choice, but the Speedway store’s charming, tin-ceiling decor was exactly what she wanted.
“I was, like, ugh, Speedway? Really?” McMannis said of finding the space in 2014. Originally, she planned a commercial kitchen to stock her farmers market stalls. McMannis didn’t think Speedway was large enough to support in-store dining. When she set up a few tables to test the market, “it just took on a life of its own,” McMannis said. Plans for coffee andscones in the morning soon grew into lunch and dinner service.
Larry Foyt and A.J. Foyt IV, son and grandson respectively of racing legend A.J. Foyt Jr., launched Foyt Wine Vault on Main Street this past week. Daredevil Brewing Co. opens in June.
Big Woods Brewing Co. is scheduled to open in spring 2016, as is retired IndyCar driver Sarah Fisher and her husband Andy O’Gara’s Speedway Indoor Karting track and attached 1911 Grill. Both Big Woods and 1911 Grill will have about 300 seats, and Big Woods plans a 10,000-square-foot beer garden.
The redevelopment commission used a restaurant incentive program to help fund Dawson’s, Lino’s, and Barbecue and Bourbon, Harris said. The commission provides matching money, up to $100,000 so far, to qualifying restaurants. If a restaurant stays in business for five years, the loan is forgiven.
Will so many restaurants, breweries and coffee shops packed into Main Street survive?
The Speedway Redevelopment Commission says yes. Speedway’s population has hovered between 12,000 and 13,000 since the mid-1990s, but the commission is courting residential growth. It is requesting proposals for a residential/retail complex at Main and 16th streets.
Additionally, housing prices are up and houses on the market are selling quicker, Harris said.
“We have very good schools, we’re close to Downtown (Indianapolis), and, number three, we know lots of people who have moved to Speedway because of the redevelopment and what’s occurring on Main Street.”
Speedway increased its number of special events and festivals on Main Street to attract visitors. Plus, IMS added the Grand Prix in 2014 and booked the Rolling Stones for July 4. The show is the track’s first concert outside a race weekend. Motor speedway management also recently announced a $30 million IMS makeover.
“They’re creating a destination,” Big Woods partner Jim Dunbar said. “They’re redeveloping Speedway into the destination it ought to be.”
Speedway planners and restaurateurs agree that Fisher and O’Gara’s karting track/restaurant complex is key to Main Street progress. Its two tracks, an oval and a more challenging road course, will provide desirable hands-on racing experiences.
“We have all these people coming. We have them interested in the sport. We have them interested in our town. So what better reason is there than to build something around that?” Fisher said.
Business owners also expect customers from nearby motor sports industries. Lino’s Coffee shop abuts Dallara Car Factory, which employs 38 people, and IndyCar Experience’s 70 workers. Allison Transmission has some 2,500 employees. OMR Automotive anticipates 60 employees. Praxair, Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, A.J. Foyt Enterprises, the future Juncos Racing and, of course, IMS offices, also provide customer pools.
“Every single day we have a nice lunch rush,” Lino’s manager Joshua Snyder said. “Sundays are our slowest days right now, but other than that, every day, I always have like three or four different groups in here.
“It’s becoming bigger and bigger every week.”
The redevelopment commission envisions Speedway with a lively year-round scene in time for the 2016 Indy 500 centennial race. Harris painted a vivid picture: kids circling Fisher’s Speedway Indoor Karting tracks, race fans gathering for a pint of beer at Daredevil, folks traveling from all over Indy to sample Big Woods’ famous pulled pork nachos.
“If you like the way Main street looks now, wait a year,” Harris said. “It will look better.”