Indianapolis Boat, Sport and Travel Show Remains as Unique as Its History

By Josh Lantz


The Ford Indianapolis Boat, Sport and Travel Show has been synonymous with Indianapolis’ Renfro family for the past 49 years, but the event’s unique history goes back even further.

An Indianapolis businessman named Melvin Ross began the Boat, Sport and Travel Show in 1953, and operated the event at the Indiana State Fairgrounds for 10 years prior to one of the state of Indiana’s worst recorded tragedies.  On October 1 of 1963, a leaking propane tank used to heat the popcorn machines in the then-called Indiana Coliseum exploded during an evening performance of one of Mr. Ross’s popular Ice Capades shows.  The explosion killed 74 and injured 400 more.  It was a dark day in Indiana history, and an otherwise successful man, Mr. Ross, was devastated.

Enter Harry Renfro.

Renfro had been selling booth space for Mr. Ross when the tragedy at the Coliseum occurred.  When the broken Ross wanted out of the business, Renfro stepped up with the money and a newfound energy that would take the event to a new level.  He would eventually succeed in his vision of transforming the already successful show from an adult, male-dominated event to a treasured, family venue.

Harry’s son, Kevin Renfro, has fond memories of growing up with the business.  “The 1970s were interesting times”, he says.  “I remember people like Ray Scott, Forest Wood, Billy Westmoreland and Tom Mann.  These guys became legends in the outdoor industry, but they were just regular guys my brothers and I joked around with back then”, Renfro recalls.

And there were even more legends.

Kevin remembers one particular evening at the show in the late 1970’s when Samson — a 700-pound Asian black bear that delighted crowds by taking on all comers in a hybrid of professional wrestling and modern-day cage fighting – ran amuck through the Pepsi Coliseum.   “The orchestra was playing and the spotlights were on”, he says, when Samson decided that something just wasn’t quite right.  “The bear freaked out”, Renfro recalls.   “He ran right through the ring and just kept going.  Ironically, I remember he completely devastated the Ontario Tourism booth that was located just outside the ring.” It took the handler nearly an hour to calm poor Samson down enough to return the animal to its cage, but not before the giant bear completed several laps through the hallway surrounding the Pepsi Coliseum and cornered three terrified show-goers for several minutes.  

Of course things have always gone more smoothly than not over the show’s 58-year history.  When the event outgrew the Pepsi Coliseum, it expanded into the West Pavilion and then the East Pavilion.  By the time Harry Renfro passed away in 1986, he had attained his goal of creating a true family event – a goal that still drives the show’s features and direction today.

Now run by brothers Kevin and Mark, the Ford Indianapolis Boat, Sport and Travel Show is indeed the largest event of its kind in the nation. “There is truly something here for everyone in the family”, Kevin says.  “The outdoors experience is that much sweeter when enjoyed with friends and family”, he continues.  “That’s what dad taught us, and 49 years later, it is still the position we take when putting together the show each year.”

The 59th annual Ford Indianapolis Boat, Sport and Travel Show returns to the Indiana State Fairgrounds February 15-24, 2013.  For more information, visit


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