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Tracks: Indy Going Back to the Future with New Tower

8 August 1998

INDIANAPOLIS, -- Kevin Forbes, director of engineering and construction for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the Control Tower adjacent to the main straightaway at the track came to life in the same year, 1957.

In a strange twist of fate, Forbes heads up a 200-man crew which started dismantling the 42-year-old Speedway landmark this week. It will be replaced with a much larger edifice that will resemble the historic pagoda structures that stood there from the track's early beginnings before World War I until modernization began in the mid-1950s.

"I was born when it was being built," said Forbes, a native of Terre Haute, Ind. "It's very ironic."

Like the wooden pagodas before it, the Control Tower is showing signs of old age.

The new building won't be operational until the 84th running of the Indianapolis 500 in the year 2000.

Two days after Jeff Gordon became the first two-time winner of NASCAR's Brickyard 400 on Aug. 1, workmen began removing electronic equipment from inside the Control Tower in preparation for its demolition.

The guts of the massive public-address system -- it has provided the famous and spine-tingling words, "Gentlemen, start your engines" and Tom Carnegie's thrilling "Heeeeee's on it" to countless fans gathered around the Speedway grounds -- are being taken to a temporary storage area. This includes the transformer, amplifiers, patch panels and main control board.

They'll be brought back to life next year, the 90th anniversary of the opening of the Speedway, for the Indy 500 and Brickyard 400 and then stored again until they are permanently installed in the new Tower.

Other equipment removed from the Tower includes satellite dishes, radio network gear, furniture and some of the scoring hookups.

Then on Aug. 12, the disassembling of the Tower will begin.

It won't come down in a huge explosion and a cloud of dust as many old buildings are quickly brought to earth. Instead, the workers will begin at the top and take it apart piece by piece. It's a 30-day project, Forbes said.

"It will be very subdued," he said. "It will be cut apart surgically. It will be very uncelebrated."

"My feelings were mixed when I went up there and saw all the speaker components being ripped out of their home. There was enough sentiment when you saw part of the building's soul leaving and the beginning of its demise."

The Tower Terrace seating will not be affected by the tower's removal. Neither will a proposed Formula One course should it become a third major worldwide race run at the Speedway.

Work on the foundation for the new building is scheduled to start Sept. 14.

The current tower is 150 feet tall. The new one will be close to 400 feet high and will expand to the east into the Flag Lot. The basic frame should be in place by next May, with glass and ductwork installation ready to start.

The Indianapolis firm of Browning, Day, Mullins and Dierdorf designed the new pagoda-like structure. The building will include two bi-level suits just above the timing and scoring level.

Also housed in the new tower will be race control, timing and scoring, the IMS Radio Network, message center control and the main security post for all events.

"It's probably the largest project since we added the tower suites (on the inside north end of the main straightaway in 1984)," Forbes said.

The first four-tier pagoda was erected in 1913. When fire destroyed it, a new one rose in its place in 1928.

Tony Hulman, Terre Haute industrialist and sportsman, purchased the Speedway in 1945 after it had lain fallow throughout World War II. The track was in deplorable condition, but Hulman began a plan to slowly build it into the grandeur of the world's most famous auto racing facility. Old wooden stands were replaced with steel and concrete seating. After Pat Flaherty won the 1956 "500," then-track superintendent Clarence Cagle supervised removal of the 30-year-old pagoda and construction of the Control Tower.

Sam Hanks was the first driver to cross under the checkered flag in the shadow of the new Tower, in May 1957.

A Tower is an inanimate object, but much history has been witnessed and reported from its insides.

During its stand, A.J. Foyt, Al Unser Jr. and Rick Mears each won the "500" four times. Jack Brabham brought a rear-engine car to the Speedway and started a revolution. Europeans returned in force. The pole qualifying speed jumped from 145 to 237 mph. Winner Arie Luyendyk and two others averaged over 185 mph in the 1990 race.

Hulman's grandson Tony George became president of the Speedway and formed the Indy Racing League. NASCAR brought its stock cars, and this year IROC added its own version of fendered-car competition.

It's those kind of legendary happenings that have made the Indianapolis Motor Speedway so special in the world of auto racing. Now a magnificent new building will be an observer to racing occurrences yet to unfold in the 21st Century.