It’s hard to imagine that any sporting event could ever take over Indy like the Indianapolis 500 and, let’s face it, none will. But there’s a relatively new sport that was born in the Crossroads of America and you can actually participate in this one.
In 2001, while tailgating at the race (obviously), a group of friends thought it would be fun to construct an outdoor bowling lane. Fun? Yes. Practical? No. As rogue bowling balls made their unwelcome way into neighboring tailgate camps, it was quickly decided the balls should be stowed and the idea shelved, but the pins remained standing, temporarily ignored until an errant football from nearby revelers struck a few. Enter “fowling,” the football, bowling combo that was born of an Indy accident, feverishly developed in Michigan, now a multi-state league sport played at Fowling Warehouses in five cities (with more set to open soon). Best of all, you don’t need to be a pro to play. The rules are simple, anyone can rent a lane, and you can even just stop in to have a few beers and watch the action. The hardest rule to remember is the pronunciation, and even that’s fairly straightforward: it rhymes with “bowling.”
Like bowling, the goal is to knock down the 10 pins at the end of a lane. Like football, it starts with a coin toss, is played in teams, and uses…a football. Unlike either, this game is a race, and moves quickly, with some matches ending in a matter of minutes. Generally speaking, the first team to knock down all 10 pins wins, though it is possible to tie and cause a sudden death scenario. It’s also possible to end the game immediately with a special throw called a “bonk,” which requires knocking the center pin clean off the board with all nine remaining pins still standing, and you need to do this on your first throw. Consider this one more of a pro skill to work up to when you reach league-level play. It’s rare enough that you get to ring a bell or sound a horn if you pull it off (this is called “the bonk honk”).
There’s plenty of good news for beginner fowlers: You don’t need any specialty equipment, you can throw the ball however you like, and, most importantly, precision isn’t required. If a ball bounces back toward the board and knocks over pins, it counts. If pins fall from the impact of the ball hitting the board, it counts. Essentially, as long as a pin goes down before the opposing team secures the ball, you’re good (and don’t worry: they’re not allowed to block your shot and can’t touch the ball until it clears the back of the board).
While fowling was conceived in Indianapolis, it was fine-tuned in Michigan. Chris Hutt, one of the race fans present on the fateful day of fowling’s birth, was instantly hooked by the premise of the game and drilled down on rules and regulations before spreading the word of his creation around his home base in Detroit. Thanks to Hutt’s persistence and promotion, fowling events and popups became somewhat regular around the city, and a ramshackle warehouse became a temporary base for the most avid players. Ultimately, as popularity ballooned and more serious space was required, Hutt turned the sport into a proper business, securing a 62,000-square-foot warehouse and purchasing a liquor license to keep the tailgating atmosphere alive and well within the sport, outfitting the first Fowling Warehouse with two full bars and a Mystery Beer Machine, which pops out random cans for bargain-basement prices.
Returning the sport to Indy had long been a goal of the team behind Fowling Warehouse, whose unofficial tagline for the game remains, “Born in Indy. Raised in Detroit.” As fowling exploded in popularity in Michigan, the team continued to bring the game back to race day tailgating, setting up 10 regulation lanes for the ever-expanding fan base anxious to play each year, but a permanent venue was sorely lacking until the newest Fowling Warehouse finally solidified an Indianapolis presence in late summer 2020. And yes, that was right in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Fortunately, these venues were innately more pandemic-friendly than most other “indoor” activities because of their sprawling layouts and soaring ceilings (they are, after all, warehouses), and because masks and social distancing don’t hinder game play. To honor the game’s connection to the Indy 500, Fowling Warehouse Indianapolis is home to 33 lanes, one for each car in the starting lineup of the race.
Current Fowling Warehouse locations can be found in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, and Georgia, with the next batch of newcomers popping up throughout the Midwest and Texas. Today, there’s an official league for tournament play overseen by the American Fowling Association, but the sport remains as accessible as the day it was born. You don’t need to be particularly good at either bowling or football to fowl well. In fact, a perfect spiral throw may be a disadvantage in this game, where a wobbly ball has the opportunity to connect with more pins. One of the reasons the game hooks new players so quickly seems to be that just about anyone can do it. There’s no apparent advantage from height, weight, or athletic skill and, for as long as the sport remains as open and accepting of all players as Fowling Warehouse seeks to maintain, it’s truly anyone’s game.