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For years the alarm clock banged out its Indianapolis wake-up call on May 1 - time to gear up for the 500 auto race. During the remaining 11 months of the year, the city slept.

There may have been a semi-traffic jam when football or basketball fans crossed I-465 for Purdue or I.U. games, or a mini-dose of Kennedy-esque political intrigue when Senator Birch Bayh hob-knobbed with the Massachusetts clan, but otherwise, the city dozed.Even a public opinion poll, commissioned at the behest of the state travel council, produced no opinion.

Jennifer Schmits of the Indianapolis Group explained, "We tried to get chambers of commerce from all over the country to evaluate Indianapolis. There was no positive response, yet no negative response - there was no response. People had an overall indifferent feeling about the city."

Enter one future-minded, innovative minister-turned-politician - a man with a vision.

Newly-elected mayor Bill Hudnut went on the offensive, determined to revamp a city drowning in its own anonymity.

"We knew we had to create our own excitement," said David Frick, a former deputy mayor. "It seemed logical to build on our strengths, which were sports, health, and our central geographic location."

Indianapolis deliberately set out to become a sports and physical fitness center, using sports as a basis for economic growth.

Through the cooperative efforts of business and politics, the city developed a vigorous public relations effort, hawking the Hoosier capital and its newly-endowed world-class sports facilities as a tool for economic redevelopment.

With the support of the Lilly Endowment, one of the country's wealthiest foundations, the city poured more than $180 million into a natatorium with three swimming and diving pools, a 12,800-seat track and field stadium and state-of-the-art bicycle racing track, a championship tennis facility and a 60,000-seat domed stadium.

The Hoosier Dome, built without a team, was a major drawing card in luring the Baltimore Colts to the heartlands.

"We didn't steal the Colts - Baltimore lost them," said Hudnut. "Cities don't automatically grow and prosper. You've got to work at it."

Evidence of the rebuilding continues as excavation for the new, downtown Circle City mall advanced. Tied together with skywalks and tunnels, the mixed-use development will cover three-and-one-half blocks in the heart of downtown. Phase I, due for completion in 1993, will include a million square feet of retail space, including Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue as anchor tenants, a 550-room hotel, a 750,000-square-foot office building and 4,500 parking spaces. Total cost of the project is estimated at $891 million.

In addition to new building, the rejuvenation of older facilities is rampant in the downtown area.

The restoration of Union Station is a glitzy example of downtown development. The station, once a busy transportation center, was largely abandoned when developers took a gamble that paid off for the whole city.

Now the station houses a Holiday Inn complete with authentic Pullman-sleeper car rooms, and more than 100 retail shops and restaurants, all tucked amid the columns and tiles of the century-old train stop.

There are a number of other attractions:

Presenting a piece of the past first-hand is the Conner Prairie living history museum.

Recently noted by U.S. News & World Report as the top museum of its kind for authenticity and educational value, Conner Prairie focuses on the everyday life on the plains in 1836.

With costumed guides to interpret the period, guests traverse the countryside, stopping at the general store, the pottery shop, the log cabin school, the carpenter shop, the doctor's office or other areas.

The Pioneer Adventure area provides hands-on involvement for visitors. You can pick up a needle to quilt, a shuttle to weave or an anvil to hammer out a horseshoe in the blacksmith shop. Children can participate in pioneer games or discover the tedium of 19th-century chores, like cleaning clothes on a washboard or cooking over an open fire.

In a time warp over a century, you can visit the contemporary Children's Museum of Indianapolis.

Billed as the largest and fourth-oldest children's museum in the world, the exhibits are introduced with a rare water clock, four-stories high and reminiscent of ancient Egyptian timekeeping methods.

In keeping with the "touch and experience" philosophy of the museum, exhibits are placed for easy viewing; labels are both written and illustrated.

Preschool children may participate in "Playscape," a collection of art and sensory experiences like block building, sand and water tables or crayon rubbings.

More than 40 individual exhibits demonstrate basic principles of science like electricity, sound, light, color and the mechanics of pulleys and levers.

From a hands-on approach to scientific theory, visitors may dig into history, researching historical artifacts, exploring a cave or describing fossils. A perennial favorite dinosaur exhibit is an expected feature at the museum.

Unexpected is the Broad Ripple Park carousel, a full-scale working merry-go-round that is recognized by the National Historic Registry.

Another surprise to museum-goers is the recent addition of the SpaceQuest Planetarium featuring the Digistar projection system designed by Evans and Sutherland, Salt Lake City.

Also new to the cityscape is the Indianapolis Zoo in White River State Park. Located within easy walking distance of the downtown area, the "cageless zoo," features over 2,000 animals in simulated natural habitats of water, desert, plains and forests.

They include:

- A whale and dolphin pavilion, home to seven bottle-nosed dolphins, four false killer whales, and four beluga whales, that features daily programs.

- The plains area where both African and Australian native animals roam freely in their environments.

- The desert conservatory, complete with plants and animals, and housed under an 80-foot diameter transparent dome opened this spring.

Adding an eclectic dimension to the downtown landscape is the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indian and Western art.

Though seemingly misplaced geographically, the adobe-style Eiteljorg offers the country's midsection a peek at Western heritage with a collection of Remington and Russell bronzes plus textiles, pottery, basketry and beadwork of the Indians.

A highly prized collection of 20th-century painting from the artists' colony in Taos, N.M., is the stronghold of the museum offering.

Susan Goodell, museum manager of communications, explained, "The colony was known as the Taos Ten, artists who thrived amid Southwestern subjects they found new and exciting - mountains, deserts, Pueblo architecture and the region's Indian and Spanish inhabitants."

Examples are "Taos Indians," by Joseph Henry Sharp and "The Twins," by E.M. Hennings. Works by E.I. Couse, Georgia O'Keeffe and John Sloan round out the exhibit.

Of course no stop in Indianapolis is complete without a journey 'round the track of the famed 500 race.

The "greatest spectacle in racing" consumes the entire month of May in the Midwest city.

From the official opening of the track, to practice, through the final drop of the checkered flag, racing enthusiasts crowd the Speedway, documenting times, pit stops, and personalities.

Off-season, the track is available for bus tours.

Visitors may explore historic developments in racing at the multi-faceted exhibits of the Hall of Fame Museum.

An extensive automobile collection includes both race cars and antique passenger cars. Winning vehicles include Wilbur Shaw's 1939 Boyle Maserati, the Blue Crown Spark Plug special driven by Mauri Rose in 1947 and 1948, and A.J. Foyt's four-time winner 1977 Coyote.

More than the roar of the race car engines drives Indianapolis today. It's a city come alive through economic progress and forward-thinking direction.

Now a destination - a stop-over rather than a bypass.