Ask Donald Davidson: Why IMS has a pagoda

Published On November 4, 2015 » 4084 Views» By Donald Davidson » Ask Donald Davidson, Blogs, IMS, IMS History

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With all of the recent discussion about Project 100 grandstand renovation and references to the pagoda dating all the way back to the original in 1913, I’ve always been curious to why there’s a pagoda in the first place. – J. Adams, Lafayette

We would love to know the answer to that one ourselves, and we even conducted an extensive search through the microfilm archives of several Indianapolis daily newspapers at the Indiana State Library about 20 years ago. We searched through several days of late April and early May of 1913, when the original was being built, and the days following the 1925 race when it was being burned down to make way for a new one to be erected a little further back from the edge of the track, plus during April and May of 1926, when the second one was being completed. There was plenty of material, but never a mention that we could find giving any hint as to whose idea it was, or why.

We did, however, learn from two or three different architectural historians over the years that buildings of Japanese-style design were extremely popular in the United States during the early part of the 20th century and, indeed, even the Indiana State Fairgrounds had a small pagoda-style construction, serving as a judge’s stand at the start/finish line of the one-mile horse track. This seems to have been quite common at county fairs as well.


Several people suggested that Carl Fisher, track founder and president is the person who favored a pagoda, and the late Sid Collins, the anchor for so many years of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network, used to joke that Fisher apparently had a “yen” for Japanese architecture. (That joke normally would get a groan, but Sid greatly enjoyed such humor.) Others have suggested it was more likely Frank Wheeler, one of Fisher’s partners, since around the same time Wheeler had commissioned Japanese architecture for some buildings behind his home on Cold Spring Road, now part of Marian University.

We further searched through the newspaper files for May 1953, when plans for the revised pit area and the master control tower were first announced. By 1952, the 1926 structure had become quite rickety, and would tend to sway with a moderate wind. The fire marshal began limiting the number of occupants, and yet even on a still day, a portly gentleman climbing the steps would unintentionally be announcing his impending arrival.

Because the beloved Tony Hulman, who purchased the track in November 1945, was what the British refer to as a “sentimental old silly,” the Pagoda received several stays of execution. Finally it was determined that sometime after the 1956 race, it would HAVE to come down, as indeed it did, on June 30. The late Clarence Cagle, longtime superintendent of the grounds, told us that around 10 o’clock that morning, the phone rang and it was Tony Hulman. “Boss,” said Clarence, “I hope this is not about the Pagoda, because it came down this morning.”


About The Author

Donald Davidson

Indianapolis Motor Speedway Historian Donald Davidson, based at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum, developed a passionate interest in the Indianapolis 500 as a teenager in England. Arriving at IMS in 1964, he delighted the racing community with his ability to recite year-by-year accounts of participants’ careers. Returning permanently in 1965, he was invited by Sid Collins to join the worldwide IMS Radio Network and was hired by Henry Banks as USAC statistician, remaining at USAC for almost 32 years. He was named Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian in 1998. Along with numerous television and radio assignments, raconteur Davidson has played host to the popular call-in radio show “The Talk of Gasoline Alley” on 1070 AM in Indianapolis during the month of May continuously since 1971. His writing credits include countless historical articles and columns, a pair of “500” annuals in 1974 and ‘75 and co-authorship with Rick Shaffer of the acclaimed “Autocourse Official History of the Indianapolis 500,” published in 2006.