Every year on Memorial Day weekend, the city lives, breathes, then seems to die — a cycle that comes to a head in about four hours...

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INDIANAPOLIS — Every year on Memorial Day weekend, the city lives, breathes, then seems to die — a cycle that comes to a head in about four hours.

That’s the approximate time it takes to run the Indianapolis 500 auto race in Indianapolis, a formerly ho-hum-hamlet-turned-real-city. It’s this last bit that’s surprising, because for some time, it wasn’t like that.

In downtown Indianapolis, now you can stroll the Riverwalk, sleep at the Omni, shop at Nordstrom and dine at Ruth’s Chris. Near the race track you can hock your gold, buy a gun and use the remaining bucks at a gentleman’s club, all in the same less-than-a-mile walk.

Indianapolis (which hosted its first 500-mile race in May 2011) has grown into a perfectly-sized, bustling city with plenty to do. Beyond watching the Indy, there are museums, upscale dining, an outdoor sculpture garden and the symphony.

On Memorial Day weekend, restaurants hang out the “Welcome, race fans” banners, hotel prices skyrocket and traffic jams ensue. Same as it ever was.

Yet as spectacles go, the Indy 500 — even this year’s centennial — ain’t what it used to be.

The 500 hasn’t been The Five Hundred since 1995, when two groups of rich men went to war and divided one very successful open-wheel (no fenders) racing series into two un-successful ones. The two sides have since kissed and made up and now are trying to return the Indy 500 to its status as the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. The spectacle is intact and amazing for one simple reason: speeds of 227 mph.

Indy is all about sensation. The air ripples as the cars come out of Turn 3. It’s a shock wave of anticipation by the time they’re rolling out of Turn 4, and the din is deafening. The pack blasts through in a multicolored blur in what seems like about a second, leaving you with that smell of flash-burned fuels and a desire for more. There’s nothing like it.

These cars are less than half the weight of a Toyota Camry and hurtle around an oval at speeds higher than a passenger jet requires for takeoff, often within a yard of a wall. It all reduces you to an awestruck “Whoa!”

It started in 1911, when a 2-year-old track hosted the first 500. The average speed was almost 75 mph, and the 200 laps took 6 hours and 42 minutes. Today, the cars could complete the race distance in about a third of the time, if not for the caution flags and crashes.

You should make a weekend of it because of Carb Day, featuring the Indy Lights (little brothers of the Indy cars) competing in the Freedom 100. This is preceded by Indy Car practice, an opportunity to get your first taste of the feel and the sound, and followed by a concert.

Saturday’s high point is the opportunity to be charmed or amused — depends on where you come from — by the IPL Festival parade.

Then it’s Sunday, race day (or Monday in case of rain), where in the afternoon you take your seat in the speedway’s metal grandstands. You settle in for the 200 laps of the Indy 500 and realize that at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the 500 really is the greatest spectacle in racing.

Beyond the race, here are some cultural must-do’s:

Indianapolis Museum of Art and 100 Acres: The museum has an impressive collection, just the thing to elevate your tone and conversation after a sweaty day of vroom-vroom. 100 Acres is the Virginia Fairbanks Art and Nature Park, an outdoor sculpture display and garden. Bring walking shoes. The museum and 100 Acres are free.


Children’s Museum of Indianapolis: Even if you don’t have a kid, this place is seriously cool, from its immense Chihuly glass sculpture to a new permanent archaeology exhibit, “National Geographic Treasures of the Earth.” www.childrensmuseum.org.

White River State Park: Be sure to hit the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, www.eiteljorg.org, and the surprisingly good Indiana State Museum www.indianamuseum.org