Celluloid pin promoting the 1898 League of American Wheelmen National Meet.
There’ll be plenty of credit to go around when Indianapolis hosts the Super Bowl next month. The entrepreneurs who put a racetrack in a cornfield, the political leaders who built a stadium without a football team, and the visionaries who positioned Indy as the amateur sports capital of the world – these and many others helped pave the road that led the Super Bowl to Indianapolis.
But all roads have to start somewhere. In 1898, Arthur C. Newby laid one of the first planks in the Super-highway to Indianapolis when he showed the world that our city has what it takes to host a major sporting event.
Although it would be another 100 years before “Field of Dreams” was released, Newby shared the conviction of Kevin Costner’s character that if he built it, they would come. In this case, “it” was a velodrome, and “they” were the League of American Wheelmen (LAW), a national association of cycling clubs that had 100,000 members at the height of the cycling craze in 1898. The National Meet was the LAW’s largest annual event.
Newby was confident that he could lure the LAW National Meet to Indianapolis if the city had a good wooden track that seated at least 15,000 spectators. He had met Carl Fisher and James Allison through the Zig Zag Cycling Club, which drew many of the city’s up-and-coming young men with its famous Century Rides, an 100-mile trek to Bloomington and back along the bumpy roads of the late 1800s. Newby convinced Fisher and Allison to join him in his effort to build a world class velodrome on the far northside of the city. By April 1898, the track was built.
Newby financed construction of the steeply banked velodrome, which stood on the northwest corner of 30th and Central Avenue. The quarter-mile track was built from white pine boards dipped in preservatives and then nailed down with the rough side facing up for traction. Designed by architect and avid cyclist Herbert W. Foltz, the Newby Oval held 20,000 spectators and was often filled to capacity.
The Newby Oval was tested in early July. Cyclists proclaimed it was the fastest track they had ever ridden. A crowd of rowdy spectators celebrated the occasion by drawing their guns and shooting blanks in the air. As reported in the July 5, 1898 Indianapolis News:
“Nearly every man, as well as a few of the women, who took to the oval in the afternoon took a revolver and about a hundred rounds of blank cartridges. As each heat or final was finished, the riders, as they approached the tape, were greeted with a discharge of ammunition which resembled a volley of musketry.”
The 19th annual LAW meet was held at the Newby Oval from August 9-13. One of the standouts at the Newby Oval was Indianapolis native Marshall “Major” Taylor, an African-American cyclist who held seven world records in 1898. Two years earlier, Taylor had been banned from another northside racing venue, the Capital City track, when he infuriated some of his white competitors by breaking two world records. He moved to Massachusetts in his teens to escape the racism he faced in the Midwest, and was largely forgotten by Indianapolis until 1982, when a task force planning for the National Sports Festival stumbled across his connection to the city. The Major Taylor Velodrome became the first local facility built with public money to be named after a black person.
Barney Oldfield also raced in the 1898 meet. In a 1911 Indianapolis Star article, Oldfield relates the tale of being at the bottom of a 20-rider pileup during a championship race at the Newby Oval. Two of the riders broke their collarbones, but most suffered only minor scrapes and bruises. Oldfield recalled that the press went wild over the “horrible accident” at the Newby Oval, which paled in comparison to the crashes he later saw in auto racing.
One week after the LAW meet, more than 20,000 members of the Knights of Pythias converged on the Newby Oval for their biennial encampment. “Camp Colgrove” — named in honor of the Supreme Chancellor — was pitched in adjacent Heywood Park. Prize drills were held for four days at the oval. According to an August 14, 1898 article in the New York Times, “Together they will make an ideal place for the encampment, as Heywood Park has meadowland and forest, with a stream of pure water running through it.” Heywood Park was located near 28th and Delaware, and the stream was Fall Creek.
Local interest in cycling waned after the 1898 LAW meet, and the Newby Oval struggled to attract major sporting events. A July 1, 1899 article in The Freeman touted the “numerous and varied” Fourth of July events at the Newby Oval, including a $1,000 display of fireworks and a bicycle race of “local colored professionals which promises to be for ‘blood.'”
The following year, the Newby Oval was originally selected as the site for the “notification meeting” during which Democrat presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan and vice presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson would be officially notified of their nominations. However, the location of the massive political rally was later switched to Military Park.
Just two years after it hosted the city’s first major sporting event, the Newby Oval already was approaching its last hurrah. Occasionally used for vaudeville shows and high school sporting events, the oval teetered on the brink of bankruptcy and was demolished sometime during the first decade of the 20th century. By then, however, Newby’s interest in the sport of bicycle racing had waned as he and his partners set their sights on the fledgling automotive industry.
Eleven years after they built the Newby Oval to host the nation’s largest bicycle racing event, Newby, Fisher and Allison joined with Frank Wheeler to build the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The success of the Indianapolis 500 over the years led to the city’s “rebranding” as an ideal venue for other large sporting events.
Newby’s contribution to sports wasn’t the only legacy he left behind. Known as the “quiet philanthropist,” Newby was one of the original organizers behind Riley Hospital and later contributed $100,000 for an outpatient clinic. He donated $50,000 to help Butler University build its current campus at then-Fairview Park, and bought 283 acres adjacent to Turkey Run State Park to ward off encroaching development. But his private acts of kindness outshone his gifts to public institutions. Following his death in 1933, friends recalled that the lifelong bachelor had provided financial support for hundreds of needy families, even purchasing homes for some, and had helped finance the education of hundreds of local students. His only stipulation to these gifts was the recipients were not permitted to reveal the source.