Pedaling Through 50 Years of Little 500 History
(Editor's note: This article by John Schwarb, published in IU Alumni Magazine in the March/April 2000 issue, is reprinted in IU Home Pages as an homage to Indiana's favorite bicycle race. For more updated info on this year's Little 500, now entering its 61st year, see the "Inside the Track" blog, http://little500blog.blogspot.com/ or follow updates on the IU Student Foundation Twitter account, http://twitter.com/IUSF.)
From his first day in Bloomington in the fall of 1938, Howard S. "Howdy" Wilcox had money on his mind. As a college student, like countless others before and after him, he never had enough of it. Working at the IU News Bureau, the Reserve Officer Training Corps, and even as a waiter in his own fraternity house, Wilcox, BA'42, did whatever was needed to heed what he called "the dollar sign ticking in my head."
In 1949, when he took over as executive director of the Indiana University Foundation, his job revolved around money -- raising it, spending it, and convincing impressionable students that the Foundation would be worthy of their money long after they graduated. To better achieve this last goal, he created a Student Foundation Committee, made up of 36 of the campus's finest men and women. From February to April 1950, the committee, a precursor to the IU Student Foundation, spread the Foundation gospel to every corner of campus. But once that task was completed, they were unsure what to do next.
On a warm spring day in early May, Wilcox's internal dollar sign ticked louder than ever. While entertaining guests at his home, he heard roars from nearby Hickory Hall. When he walked over to investigate, he found a bicycle race in progress between the Hall's west and east wings -- the six-day, 500-mile Hickory Hall "500."
The Hickory riders never completed their marathon race, but another race began to take shape in Wilcox's mind. The idle Student Foundation Committee, he thought, could put their energies into a once-a-year, one-of-a-kind bicycle event, in the short term raising money for working students (as he once was) and building loyal Foundation followers for the long term. He easily sold the committee on the idea in the fall of 1950, and on Jan. 20, 1951, he formally announced the creation of the first Little 500, to be held May 12 at Memorial Stadium.
Wilcox already had racing in his blood. His father, Howard Wilcox Sr., had been a major figure in the formative years of automobile racing. The elder Wilcox won the 1919 Indianapolis 500. Despite his father's death in a Pennsylvania race in 1923, young Howdy maintained a love affair with racing and the aura of the Speedway in his native Indianapolis. Not surprisingly, the format of the IU race bore many similarities to the Indy 500. Just like the auto race, there would be 33 teams at the start, aligned in 11 rows of three, and a pace car would give the field a flying start to a 200-lap journey around an oval track.
Calling on his many connections, Wilcox brought in Speedway Chairman Tony Hulman and President Wilbur Shaw for race day, and Indianapolis 500 chief steward Tommy Milton and track announcer Sid Collins served in similar capacities for the Little 500. The first race, won easily by the South Hall Buccaneers, drew 7,000 fans and raised $6,000 for working students. True to Wilcox's background, everyone paid to get in -- students, children, riders, IU President Herman B Wells, BS'24, MA'27, LLD'62, even Wilcox himself. A new campus tradition had begun.
As the Little 500 came to the end of its first decade, on-track growing pains emerged. The race grew substantially as a competitive entity, to the delight of everyone involved. But the emergence of cyclists whose talents extended beyond Memorial Stadium became a sore spot for the Student Foundation. Today it is hard to imagine the Little 500 without Dave Blase, but his talent and personality were nearly regulated out of the event.
Growing up in Speedway, Ind., Blase, BA'62, MS'73, was quiet and reclusive. Little had changed when he began his IU life in Rollins House, part of today's Wright Quadrangle. When asked if he would be interested in trying out for Rollins' 1958 Little 500 team, Blase first accepted the invitation, then hid in a bathroom stall on the day of the tryout.
He ultimately came out of the bathroom, and two years later he had developed into the best young rider on campus. His talent caught the eye of Phi Kappa Psi, the 1958-59 champions, and at the end of his sophomore year Blase announced his intention to move to the fraternity and ride in 1960. Such transfers were becoming common in the Little 500, but the raided dorm teams were suffering and, in some cases, even dying. IUSF had seen enough and passed a rule that riders who transferred would have to sit out one year.
Blase accepted the rule and focused on the 1961 race. But Phi Psi won its third straight race in 1960, a Little 500 first, and IUSF began to question the fraternity's dominance. Surprisingly, Blase was targeted again, this time for his cycling outside Little 500. He had participated in many top competitions, from the 1959 Midwest Championships (which he won) to Olympic and Pan-American Games trials. IUSF declared that such experience was too much to bring to the Little 500.
"I was the only one they were aiming this at," Blase says, "and everybody on campus knew it."
Disgusted and depressed, he left IU after the fall 1960 semester and returned home to Speedway. He continued to ride and study. Along the way he met some Italian doctors and picked up their mannerisms and language. He also began following the top European cyclists of the day and emulating them. With long hair and a new accent, he forged a new identity, and after the "Dave Blase" rule was revoked, he returned to campus for the 1962 race, confident and ready.
As many expected, Blase dominated, and Phi Psi won. The senior rode 139 laps -- the most ever at the time by one man on a winning team. His new persona even attracted an occasional glance from women, although the real Blase never could approach them. An alternate on that year's team, Steve Tesich, BA'65, began a friendship with Blase, taking a particular liking to his alter-ego Italian personality. In 1979 Tesich would immortalize Blase with the sleeper hit Breaking Away, cementing Blase's status as the Little 500's most famous rider.
Throughout its first 20 years, the Little 500 could always be counted on for end-of-the-year fun and camaraderie, but for some housing units it took on a much greater role -- lifesaver. In the highly competitive fraternity circles, the battle to excel in sports, social scenes, and new-member recruiting was never-ending. But some fraternities found that with a top bike team, many of those battles could be won in one weekend.
In 1968, Delta Chi President Steve Reisinger, BS'70, MBA'74, knew the time had come for an upheaval in his house. The fraternity was believed to be one of the smallest on campus in terms of membership, and it did not do especially well academically, socially, or athletically. In recent years it had lagged behind other fraternities in the Little 500 as well. Rebuilding -- essentially on two wheels -- could be the way to keep Delta Chi afloat.
The road to rebuilding began with the recruiting of Eddy Van Guyse, BA'72, an Illinois state cycling champion who was also making noise on the national level. Reisinger talked Van Guyse out of attending the University of Illinois, making the final sale by taking the Belgian native to the 1968 Little 500 qualifications.
"I was in awe to see a campus where bicycle riders were heroes," Van Guyse recalls. It would not be long until he too would become a hero. During his 1969-72 Little 500 career, he never won a race but earned the respect of other riders and, later, induction into the event's Hall of Fame.
For Delta Chi, his presence marked the beginning of a dynasty that attracted an unprecedented number of powerhouse riders. The team won its first race one year after Van Guyse left, in 1973. Wayne Stetina, BA'78, a member of the 1972 U.S. Olympic Team, anchored that incredible group. The win would be the first of seven in a nine-year span -- the most prolific streak the Little 500 has ever seen.
The fraternity waged regular battles with IUSF over eligibility rules -- it won even in years where a rider would be ruled ineligible -- and occasionally with other teams over perceived inequities in everything from Delta Chi's training methods to their bicycles. Nothing unusual ever came to light, however, except for the fact that from 1973 to 1981 one fraternity was nearly invincible.
Despite its success in conquering the Little 500, Delta Chi's internal strength never quite reached the level of IU's top fraternities. For one weekend each year, the bike team stood front and center, but over the rest of the year Delta Chi was plagued by financial woes and insufficient members to fill its North Jordan house.
A group of local alumni tried to turn the house's fortunes around in 1983. To get rid of the perception that Delta Chi lived only for the Little 500, the alumni board did not renew the housing contracts of dedicated riders Adam Giles, BS'85, MBA'92, and Scott Senese, BS'85, forcing them off campus. Riders Adam Beck, BA'84, and Randy Strong, BS'84, felt stronger ties to their teammates than to their house and left as well.
Many key figures from the dynasty years sided with the riders in the bitter conflict. They suggested that for the 1984 race the now independent team borrow a name from Breaking Away that signified its situation. The real-life Cutters were born.
History was very much against the Cutters on April 22, 1984. No team not affiliated with a dormitory or greek house had ever won a Little 500, and not since the 1955 South Cottage Grove team had a group won the race on its first try. But with a household name on their backs and a maverick-like mystique that appealed to many unaffiliated race fans, the Cutters were far and away the sentimental favorites.
"There was almost a grass-roots groundswell of support," Giles recalls. And sure enough, the Cutters delivered, with Giles taking the checkered flag after a sprint finish that very much mirrored the fictitious finish of the movie.
For one year the Cutters were a Cinderella story come true. Over time they proved to be more than just a one-year Little 500 anomaly. Through 1994 the team won three more times ('86, '88, '92) and finished no lower than fifth in all other races. As a successful independent unit, the Cutters changed the face of Little 500 cycling, attracting top talent and frustrating the greek cycling community, which collectively was unaccustomed to having to settle for second place.
There was even a successful spin-off. In 1989 another Breaking Away-inspired team, Cinzano, won just ahead of the Cutters -- a fitting end to a Little 500 season that had been celebrating the 10th anniversary of Bloomington's favorite movie.
The Little 500 Today
At Bill Armstrong Stadium, the Little 500 rolls on nearly exactly as it did in 1951. A full field of 33 teams sets out on a 200-lap quest on a Saturday shortly before the school year's end, and for the thousands of students who come out to support their favorite teams or just the event itself, the cycling tradition is a rite of springtime.
Other Little 500 weekend traditions, however, have disappeared over time. A generation or two ago, students used to enjoy some of the biggest names in entertainment along with the athletic event. Bob Hope, Pat Boone, and many other household names would pack in fans at pre- and post-race events such as the Little 500 Variety Show and Extravaganza.
From the mid-'80s to early '90s, Little 500 concerts were also wildly popular, especially when hometown favorite John Mellencamp was on stage. But the party atmosphere reached epidemic levels during those years. Once out-of-town crowds started taking over Bloomington, police forces from all over the state had to reclaim the city -- and the weekend.
Today, IUSF proclaims itself out of the concert business and firmly supports all local efforts to keep destructive activities out of the weekend. The focus is back on cycling, and in recent years the payoffs have been substantial.
More rules have been enacted to return the race to its amateur roots. In 1998 Dodds House made arguably the race's biggest news since the '84 Cutters in winning its first race after nearly a half-century of heartbreak. Attracting new teams into the event remains an uphill battle, but those who do participate now find an entire season of cycling activities to go with the main event.
Fans appear to be responding to the present-day Little 500 with the same passion of years past. The 1999 race drew some 17,600 fans, the highest gate in five years. And this April, with the celebration of the 50th running of the event, attendance figures are expected to go even higher -- and, it is hoped, stay there in the coming years.
"We've tried to focus on the fact that it is one good event," says IUSF Director Randy Rogers, BS'89. "This is still really a very big weekend."
A very big weekend, and one that has survived the test of time. The Little 500 appears well on its way to another great 50 years.
John Schwarb, BAJ'96, adapted this article from his 248-page The Little 500: The World's Greatest College Weekend (Indiana University Press, 1999).