1. Churchill Downs
This fabled venue is home to America’s most celebrated horse race, the Kentucky Derby. In the early 1870s, after two earlier local racecourses closed, Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. (grandson of explorer William Clark) filled the void by developing a racetrack that would showcase the quality of the Kentucky horse-breeding industry and hold posh events similar to those he attended on his travels in Europe. The inaugural Kentucky Derby was held at Churchill Downs for the first time in 1875, with an attendance of some 10,000. Since then, it has become the first jewel in the so-called “Triple Crown” (along with the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes), and is billed as “the most exciting two minutes in sports.” Though the track’s normal capacity is around 50,000, some 150,000 people crowd into Churchill Downs on the day of the Kentucky Derby each year, while millions more watch the event (and the well-heeled, flamboyantly hatted crowd) on television.
2. Indianapolis Motor Speedway
“The Brickyard” (as it’s affectionately known) was originally built on 328 acres of farmland just northwest of Indianapolis in order to serve as a testing ground for Indiana’s automotive industry. After the first race held there–a five-mile competition held in August 1909–ended in a number of fatalities, the crushed rock and tar surface was replaced with 3.2 million paving bricks, earning the track its famous nickname. May of 1910 saw the launch of the Indianapolis 500, a grueling 500-mile race that has since become the most famous auto-racing event in the world, attracting an average crowd of 400,000 every year. The last of the speedway’s famous bricks were replaced in 1961, though a three-foot line of exposed bricks at the start-finish line serve as a nostalgic nod to the venue’s rich history.
3. Wrigley Field
Charles Weeghman saw his original team, the Chicago Whales, fold along with the Federal League at the end of the 1915 season, after which he bought the Cincinnati Cubs of the National League. As his lunch counter business struggled, Weeghman sold off his stock to chewing-gum manufacturer William Wrigley Jr., and the park took its new owner’s name in 1926. It was at Wrigley Field that Babe Ruth supposedly called his home run during the 1932 World Series, and also where Lou Gehrig, as a 17-year-old high school player, was said to have hit a ball out of the stadium and onto nearby Sheffield Avenue. After winning back-to-back World Series in 1907 and ’08, the Cubs have gone without a championship for the last 105 years, losing seven World Series and suffering other devastating setbacks (a collapse in 1969, a near-miss in the 2003 playoffs when a fan interfered with a foul ball). The Chicago Bears, who also called Wrigley Field home from 1921-70, had more success, winning eight pro football championships during those years. Despite its relatively small capacity (41,160), Wrigley Field remains an iconic ballpark thanks to its irreplaceable role in sports history.
4. Notre Dame Stadium
For those who consider college football a religion, Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana, is arguably the leading temple. Built in 1930, during the heyday of legendary Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne, the home of the Fighting Irish was originally built to seat around 50,000. Today, the stadium boasts a seating capacity of more than 80,000, a testament to the enduring fame of Notre Dame’s football program. Among the stadium’s more iconic features is its view of “Touchdown Jesus” —the nickname given to a large mural by the artist Millard Sheets that is painted on the tower of the university’s Hesburgh Library. Entitled “The Word of Life,” the mural depicts Christ with his arms raised, similar to the gesture of a referee signaling a touchdown.
5. Madison Square Garden
Today’s MSG, built on Eighth Avenue between 31st and 33rd Streets in the heart of New York City, is actually the fourth incarnation of the historic venue. Opened in 1968 on the site of the former Pennsylvania Station, it is the nation’s oldest active arena in the National Hockey League (NHL) and the second oldest in the National Basketball Association (NBA). In addition to its role as home to the New York Rangers and New York Knicks, MSG is also one of New York City’s largest venues for concerts, circuses, boxing and other high-profile events. It also ranks among the most expensive stadiums in the world, at a total construction cost of more than $1.1 billion.