Road Trip: Indiana University's Little 500
It's a bicycle race. It's a movie. Come springtime, it's the biggest party in Bloomington. IU's annual Little 500 is proof that Hoosier Hysteria is not confined to the hardwood.
By Jo'el Steven Rouse
Basketball isn't the only obsession at Indiana. Hoosiers love swimming and diving, too (just ask Olympic icon Mark Spitz, class of '72), as well as soccer. In fact the men's squads in each sport have won six national titles. It's just that Hoosiers are in love with basketball.
The school's hoops hang-up is why outsiders, upon hearing Indiana, think of Gene Hackman and Hoosiers (1986) before recalling the Oscar-winning Breaking Away ('79). But, if IU basketball is every Hoosier's true love, the annual Little 500 bicycle race is that innocent spring crush they always look forward to seeing come around.
A deep run through the NCAA tournament gets the campus party started long before Little 5's live, drop-the-books-and-boogie atmosphere can kick into gear (unlike the racers, who pedal single-speed bicycles). And in a Twilight Zone-year such as this one, when the hoops team failed to even make the 65-team field -- a sin in Hoosier Nation -- well, at least there's Little 5.
The World's Greatest Party Weekend, er, The World's Greatest College Weekend as it's now known, is staged the third weekend of every April (about 10 days before final exams). It revolves around the 200-lap race taking place on the quarter-mile cinder track of Bill Armstrong Stadium. The 50-mile sprint between 33 four-man teams, which draws upward of 15,000 fans, is the pulsating centerpiece of a weekend that is also defined by kegs and eggs, live gigs and BBQ pigs, as well as the increasingly infrequent riot. (A car-flipping spree in 1991 led to more police patrols.)
Since being immortalized on the silver screen, Little 5 Weekend has attracted performers ranging from Bob Hope and David Letterman to The Temptations, Hoosier rocker John Mellencamp and LL Cool J. In 1997 Lance Armstrong, who was in Indiana for a medical checkup after being diagnosed with advanced testicular cancer, attended the race and was mesmerized. "I've attended Super Bowls, World Series and the Monaco Grand Prix," said the five-time Tour de France winner, "but the coolest event I've ever attended was the Little 500."
The event is sponsored by the IU Student Foundation and has raised more than $1 million in scholarship money while spawning the Women's Little 500 (1988) and the Little Fifty relay-style footrace (2003), a replacement for the light-hearted coed Mini 500 tricycle race (1955). Little 500 riders train year-round, are tested on their knowledge of the Riders Handbook rules and regulations and must maintain a minimum 2.0 GPA just for the opportunity to race in the separating-men-from-boys (or women-from-girls) preliminary heats.
The Little 500 borrows part of its name and concept from its older, automotive brother, the Indianapolis 500. The brainchild of Howard S. (Howdy) Wilcox, whose father raced in the first Indy 500 in 1911 -- and won at the Brickyard eight years later -- the inaugural Little 500 was held in '51. It featured four-rider, community-sponsored squads representing IU fraternities, dorms and other campus groups, and it continues to do so today.
As Indy begat the Little 5, there is little doubt that IU's monument to self-propulsion inspired archrival Purdue's strikingly similar Grand Prix go-kart race.
But, as every Hoosier knows, there's only one Little 5.
Issue date: April 22, 2004