SPORTS: You can’t fathom ‘the Luke’ until you’ve been inside

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Growing up, my brothers and I had the usual constructiontype toys: Lincoln Logs, an Erector Set, Tinker Toys and-if memory serves me-this kit from Kenner you could use to assemble the plastic skyscraper of your imagination.

Among the things I tried to build, however, were gymnasiums and stadiums, because I always was fascinated with places that brought together large numbers of people.

But since I had the attention span of a gnat and the conceptual engineering skills of an eventual Indiana University grad, I quickly learned that building anything more involved than a complex sentence was going to be way beyond me.

I’d always get to that critical point in the assembly stage when my toy fieldhouse would collapse. Or my big brother, Larry, would simply knock it over. (Why? Because he could, of course).

Nonetheless, my fixation on sports venues remained. Whether it was a high school gym somewhere in Indiana or the Rose Bowl in California, venturing into a venue for the first time was something I always got a kick out of.

During my daily newspapering days, it also became a thrill to write about the construction and opening of a number of local venues: Market Square Arena, the Indianapolis Tennis Center, the Hoosier Dome, the IU Natatorium, Victory Field and Conseco Fieldhouse.

I covered the first game or event in all of them. All occupy a special place in Indy’s history. MSA kick-started the renaissance of downtown, and the Tennis Center helped spur the revitalization of IUPUI. The Natatorium was and remains central to Indy’s amateur sports success. The Dome paved the path that led to the Colts and the NFL and to the NCAA and Final Fours. Victory Field provided the perfect family-style sports alternative in the ideal location. And Conseco Fieldhouse wrapped its arms around our basketball past and, seven years later, remains unchallenged as the best basketball venue in the country.

Not to be overlooked in the construction genre are the gradual changes to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, culminating with the significant work that occurred in 2000 to accommodate Formula One and solidify the Speedway’s standing as the finest auto racing facility in the world. Every time I drive through those gates on West 16th Street, I remind myself the Hulman-George contribution is not to be taken for granted.

Now-and I know I’m not alone-my fascination is fixed on the rising towers and levels of concrete and all those cranes (12 at last count) filling the skyline along South Street.

It’s difficult to fathom that, just 14 months ago, the expanding form of Lucas Oil Stadium was a parking lot.

My daily commute takes me near or past The Luke, and I always look for the next bit of progress. From the outside, it’s difficult to tell.

Recently, however, I was afforded the opportunity to tour the stadium from the inside. And I was simply … blown … away.

Up close, The Luke-or The Oil Can, if you prefer-is far bigger than I imagined. Inside, you get the feeling that our cozy, old RCA Dome will be like a comparative tea cup placed inside a mixing bowl.

And if Peyton Manning is the Colts’ MVP, Scott Blanchard is The Luke’s MVPM-Most Valuable Project Manager.

Blanchard works for Hunt Construction Group. I think, this side of Tinker Toys, he has the coolest job going. The guy gets to build a stadium, after all.

Truth is, though, he won’t lift a hammer. It’s his task to coordinate the movements and efforts of the 700 workers operating in two shifts six days a week.

“We have meetings where we set out what we need to accomplish each day,” said Blanchard, a graduate of Carmel High School and Purdue University. “We’ve got to have a plan and we can’t waver from the plan. It’s the ultimate in teamwork. You’ve got to make 700 people get along remembering these guys are under tremendous pressure to get all they can get done in a day.”

Blanchard has worked on other stadium/arena projects, including Conseco Fieldhouse, Chicago’s United Center and Charlotte’s new arena. But nothing like this.

I can’t imagine the complexity. Nor the precision. Consider this: According to Blanchard, when the retractable roof (which will weigh 14,400 tons) is placed on its supporting beams sometime next summer, it already has been calculated that it will drop 4 inches and shift 1 inch to the east.

Not exactly the stuff of Lincoln Logs.

Can’t wait for ’08.

Benner is associate director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly.To comment on this column,go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to Benner also has a blog,

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