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The Little 500

Little 500, "the World's Greatest College Weekend" bike race began as a simple way to help working students pay for their education.

What has come to be known as “The World’s Greatest College Weekend” began as a simple way to help working students pay for their education. As the Executive Director of the Indiana University Foundation in 1950, Howard S. “Howdy” Wilcox sought a way to raise awareness about the IU Foundation, and to help generate scholarship funds. The hub-bub surrounding a bicycle marathon around a dorm on the IU Bloomington campus one May night was all the inspiration Wilcox needed. The first Little 500 bicycle race would be run May 12, 1951. The son of the 1919 Indy 500 champion, Wilcox patterned the event after the big race at Speedway, with 33 teams at the start, and a pace car to head off the 200-lap sprint around the oval track in Memorial Stadium. Wilcox tapped a number of his Indy connections for the first race, including Speedway Chairman Tony Hulman and track announcer Sid Collins.

The first Little 500 was a resounding success, bringing in 7000 spectators and raising 6000 scholarship dollars through admission fees. Everyone who attended, including University President Herman B. Wells, paid at the gate. Over the years, the race–open to any full-time undergraduate student–has become increasingly competitive and media-worthy. The 1979 film Breaking Away, which netted an Oscar for IU-alum Steve Tesich, was loosely based on the real-life story of star cyclist Dave Blase, whose maverick status and Italian affectations are mirrored in the film’s protagonist . Though the possibility that a team unaffiliated with the university would participate in the Little Five was a fictionalization, the name of the team of townie underdogs made its way into real life. The “Cutters,” a band of exiles from fraternity and dorm teams, took the race in 1984.

Memorial Stadium, featured in the film, was torn down in 1982, to make way for the Arboretum along Tenth Street. The event now considered the nation’s premier intramural collegiate cycling event is now held in Bill Armstrong Stadium on Fee Lane, and administered by the IU Student Foundation.  A 100-lap race was created for women’s teams in 1988, and other events including a golf classic, a running race and alumni activities have been added. The Little 500 is regularly covered on national television by CBS, ESPN and Fox Sports, among others, and has raised more than a million dollars in scholarships to date.

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