Historically pagodas were meant to bring people closer to their deities. The iconic Indianapolis Motor Speedway Pagoda and the Indianapolis 500 race that it towers over bring thousands of people together year after year to witness this, one of the nation's most treasured sporting events.

"People expect it to be there, because it represents the heart and soul of the racetrack," says Kevin Forbes, IMS director of engineering and collaborator with Jonathan Hess, the architect who designed the current Pagoda.

  • Whitney Walker

One would be naïve to dismiss the uncanny relationship between the building and the venue that it overlooks -- both serve as a hub for bringing people together.

"It is the one defining element that proves, without question, that you are at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway," says Forbes. "It isn't so much the structure as what it does and what it represents. It really truly is the heart and soul of what goes on here."

Expression of the Racing Soul

The first Pagoda at the track was built in 1913 as a wooden structure for the race officials, scorers and timers to best view the oval track and all its action. It has been rebuilt three times, and despite its various iterations, its original mystique remains. The intention behind its unique design is unknown, but Donald Davidson, the track's historian, has some ideas.

"The theory is that at the turn of the last century, Japanese-style architecture was very popular in the United States," Davidson says. "There were others around the state. The State Fairgrounds had a pagoda, much smaller in shape, at the judge's stand. The thinking is that Frank Wheeler, one of the four founders of the track, may have been the one who suggested it."

Forbes agrees, saying, "No one really understands why, but we feel that the owner of the racetrack had business relations or some kind of relations to Japan, and after a visit decided to model this particular structure in the shape of a pagoda."

According to Japanese history and religion, the structures serve as connections to the heavens.

"Pagodas in Japan were expressions of the soul, and they pointed to God," Forbes says.

This expression was multifaceted. For one, the ascending levels of the pagoda served to symbolize ascension into the heavens. Secondly, the design was simplistic in nature. The one at the track consists of 10 levels in the tower. Two levels are used for race control (much like an airport's air traffic control tower).

"In a pagoda the soul is bare to God, in essence," Forbes says. "You've got the two basic characteristics -- the ascending to the heavens and the soul of the building being exposed."

  • Whitney Walker

The emphasized verticality of these structures illustrates the connection between the mortal beings on earth and the beings in the heavens, according to Fischer Art History.

The IMS Pagoda is 153 feet tall, the equivalent of a 13-story building. And it forgoes architectural normality in an attempt to respect the Japanese tradition of simplicity and openness.

"The Pagoda is very bare; the structure itself is exposed, not concealed," Forbes says. "With normal office buildings, all of this (pointing to floor-to-ceiling walls of special reinforced glass) would have been concealed in drywall, you would have never seen that."

A Return to Form

The original pagoda's style was replaced by a more contemporary building in 1955, one made of steel and concrete. The building, deemed the master control tower, served a myriad of purposes, including public address, public safety, race control and an area for the media. The multifunctional aspects would serve as a foreshadowing to today's building.

"It was the thing where all the secrets took place, where all the buttons were pushed and the switches were flipped on and off that made the Indianapolis 500 spring to life," Forbes says.

While this stood for many years, Tony George decided a change was in order.

"He wanted to go back to what was here at the very beginning," Forbes says. "It was he who said it should be a pagoda-looking structure."

So Forbes partnered with Hess, a well-known Indianapolis architect who has worked on a variety of projects in the Circle City, including the Eitlejorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, the Children's Museum of Indianapolis, the Eli Lilly and Company Corporate Center and Butler University's Lilly Hall.

According to Forbes, one of the points of emphasis was to create a building that would be able to adapt with the ever-changing technological landscape.

"He and I collaborated for the next five or six years trying to develop a structure that was appropriate to the Speedway at that time," he says. "Racing had advanced technologically past anything anyone could have envisioned in the early 20th Century. We felt that this facility ought to possess that same technological look, but it had to be married with the pagoda-style architecture."

And so, the latest design of the Pagoda was part of a massive reconstruction from 1998-2000. But the construction of the newest pagoda was hardly convenient, Davidson says.

  • Whitney Walker

The crew was unable to completely deconstruct the existing tower and build the new one due to races going on throughout the year. So they had to get creative.

"What they had to do was build the one that's there now around the outside of the old one," Davidson said. "They built it around the existing tower and had to dismantle from the inside after the new one went up."

Iconic Limitations and Amenities

While the structure serves as the control tower for races, in addition to being a historic formation, Forbes says there is an irony that race fans and other visitors to the track may not realize.

"The Pagoda is really iconic of the IMS. The dilemma and irony is that as significant as the structure is, it is also a huge impediment to what we do," he says.

He's referring to its location of course. The Pagoda is centered on the start-finish line of the track. This placement coupled with the unusually large size of the track itself, which is two and a half miles long instead of the more contemporary one-and-a-half-mile-long track­, means that fans are unable to see a majority of the track due to the obstructed view. The Pagoda prevents spectators from seeing a full unobstructed view of the course.

Forbes said that many tracks have the control tower on the outside of the oval itself, thus not impeding the view. But George wanted to stay true to the original location of the structure.

"He felt that this is where it was from Day One, and this is the way it is always going to be," Forbes says.

The shape of the pagoda also creates problems for those inside the tower­. Due to its proximity to the track and its rectangular geometry, race officials, suite members and others watching the action from the inside can never see the entire track at one time, even from the roof. The most that can be seen is three-quarters of the oval.

  • Whitney Walker

Modern amenities within it make up for the lack of sightlines. Thankfully for race officials, the state-of-the-art technology inside the tower makes up for this, providing them a wide variety of camera angles through which to monitor the action.

In addition to the technology, the pagoda's glass is also unique.

"Its actually a form of glazing that has no steel supports," Forbes explains. "The supports themselves are glass. It's a way of embellishing and improving the building to see from the inside to the outside."

Given the physical and logistical obstacles presented by the Pagoda, one might wonder if Forbes would consider moving it in the future.

"Through technology we can accomplish what we want to do," he says. "We can bring all the entertainment to our customers while we can still maintain this icon where it's always been. As long as this facility survives and is viable, I think this structure will be in this location."

After all, it represents so much more than simply a control tower. Just as the Japanese used pagodas as a way of escaping chaos through interaction with the gods, fans can use the racetrack as a way to kick back and enjoy the track's various racing series -- and perhaps escape from life's days-to-day stresses while they're here.

The track may undergo modifications as needed, the cars may evolve and the drivers come and go, but one thing remains year after year.

"So many things in this facility have changed. This probably would be the one thing that would never change. This would be the one constant that people could count on," Forbes concludes.

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