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The Oregon Trail

Detour: Indianapolis

Before Detroit came to dominate the industry, Indianapolis, a 2.5-hour drive south of South Bend, was an early center of American automobile manufacturing, home to such classy marques as Stutz, Marmon, and Duesenberg, and of course the Indianapolis 500, perhaps the most famous car race in the world. Held the Sunday before Memorial Day almost every year since 1911, the Indianapolis 500 is still the biggest thing in town, drawing upward of a half million spectators to “The Brickyard,” the oldest racetrack in the country. The rest of the year, the speedway is open for tours ($30), on a bus that cruises around the legendary 2.5-mile oval. Tours leave from the excellent Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum (4790 W. 16th St., 317/492-6784, daily, $10), which displays some 75 racing cars, from the Marmon “Wasp,” which won the inaugural Indy 500 race, to the latest Indy champions. The museum is located on the speedway grounds at in the city of Speedway (pop. 12,102), an enclave in the northwest quarter of Indianapolis’s pancake-flat sprawl.

Elkhart

A light industrial center, once famous for producing over half the brass-band instruments made in America, Elkhart was founded in the 1830s along the banks of the St. Joseph River and now makes RVs, Humvees, and pharmaceutical products. Drug giant Miles Laboratories was founded here in 1884 and still has a major presence as the American HQ of its parent company, Bayer. In many ways Elkhart is a quintessential sleepy Midwest town, with an abundance of pleasant parks lining the riverbanks and a historic downtown hosting the energetic little Midwest Museum of American Art (429 S. Main St., 574/293-6660, Tues.-Sun., $10). There’s also an appreciation of the industrial heritage, on display at the National New York Central Railroad Museum (721 South Main St., 574/294-3001), where model train layouts and a number of full-size locomotives are displayed around what was once the largest rail yard east of the Mississippi River.

Northern Indiana is one of the country’s main centers for the manufacture of recreational vehicles, so don’t be surprised to find that Elkhart is home to the RV/MH Hall of Fame (574/293-2344 or 800/378-8694, daily, $10), located east of Elkhart off I-90. If you like old machines, it’s definitely worth an hour or more, if only for the chance to admire Mae West’s deep blue 1930s Chevrolet Housecar, the 1950s “canned ham” trailers, the first Winnebago motor home (circa 1967), and the creativity and ingenuity of early handmade conversions.

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