Indianapolis bicycle chain manufacturer and cycling enthusiast Arthur C. Newby devised a plan to build a cycling track called the Newby Oval in response to a need for a safe place for a local group of avid cyclists to race their bikes. Many of them, including Newby’s future Indianapolis Motor Speedway cofounders James A. Allison and Carl G. Fisher belonged to the Zig-Zag Cycling Club Newby had organized to participate in leisurely rides and racing events in 1890.

A watercolor depicting an oval racing track.
Artist’s Rendering of Newby Oval, ca. 1898 Credit: Indiana Historical Society View Source

During the mid-1890s national cycling craze, the largest national cycling organization, the League of American Wheelmen (LAW) boasted 100,000 members. Newby was convinced he could lure LAW to hold its National Meet in Indianapolis if the right venue existed.

Fellow cyclist and architect Herbert Foltz, then the president of LAW, laid out the quarter-mile track’s design with white pine boards, rough side up to keep wheels from slipping. Wire brushing removed splinters before the floorboards were dipped into a tank of wood preservative and nailed into place. Unlike flat courses, this “whale-back” design featured banked curves.

The program reads "Programme of the nineteenth annual meet of the League of American Wheelmen at Indianapolis." It includes a small photo of people bicycling.
This program is from the 19th National Meet of the League of American Wheelmen in 1898. Credit: Indiana Historical Society View Source

Located at Central Avenue and 31st Street just north of Fall Creek, the venue boasted a 2,000-seat grandstand on the southside, a 2,500-seat amphitheater on the northside, and seating for 1,500 spectators in bleachers circling the track. Costing $23,000, the state-of-the-art track, which came with electrical arc lighting to facilitate nighttime racing, was mostly ready for business in April 1898.

The Indianapolis Wheelman’s Club became the first group to test the Newby Oval on July 4, 1898. Though the amphitheaters and seats were only half finished, the Indianapolis News reported that the men and women who took to the oval proclaimed it to be the fastest track they had ever ridden.

With positive feedback coming from the Indiana division of LAW, the 19th annual National League of American Wheelmen Meet occurred at the Newby Oval from August 9-13, 1898. Nationally known racers such as “Plugger Bill” Martin and Tom Cooper showed up, and 15-year-old, Indianapolis native Marshall “Major” Taylor set the Newby Oval track record during the event.

Newby tried to boost attendance and make the venue profitable by hosting other events. In fact, one week after LAW’s National meet, the Knights of Pythias held its biennial prize drills at the oval during its national encampment in Indianapolis. Around 1,500 spectators watched as members of Pythias lodges from across the country participated in the contest that involved military-style drills with swords. Numerous Fourth of July celebrations took place at the Oval, including a $1,000 firework display and bicycle race for “local colored professionals” in 1899.

A bicyclist sits on his bike as another man holds the bike up.
Charlie Bates at the Newby Oval, 1898 Credit: Indiana Historical Society View Source

Democratic presidential candidates William Jennings Bryan and Adlai Stevenson were slated to receive official notification of their nominations at the Newby Oval in 1900, although the location was switched to Military Park. Occasionally, vaudeville shows, high school football games, and concerts took place at the venue, but the infrequency of these events led the Oval to the brink of bankruptcy.

The Newby Oval continued to hold bicycle races through 1902. However, as interest in automobile racing increased fewer people came to watch bicycle races. Thus, Newby made plans to host the city’s first auto race at the Newby Oval. The race, however, ultimately moved to the Indiana State Fairgrounds when Newby discovered cars would have to race in separate heats rather than all at once.

Interest in automobile racing outpaced that of bicycle racing, as the newer, faster spectator sport was born. Newby sold the Newby Oval’s building materials in 1903, preceding the dismantling of the venue. The Indianapolis Chain & Stamping Company, for which Newby was founder and co-owner, sold one year later. He moved on to direct his attention to automobile manufacture, with the National Automobile and Electric Company, and to automobile racing, with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

An Indiana state historical marker, dedicated in July 2021, commemorates the site of the Newby Oval.

Revised May 2023

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