Little 500 coach helps riders develop racing strategy
By Nathan Brown
About 60 miles away inside the towering brick house on Third and Hawthorne in Bloomington live the Kappa Kappa Gamma cyclists who also call Naas their coach. After two years of racing in the IU Little 500 for Sigma Alpha Epsilon in the mid-1990s, Naas had run the fastest qualifications lap in Little 500 history, yet he left without a championship to his name.
After bitter disappointment from his racing days, Naas reluctantly dove into coaching his future wife’s KKG team. He has produced five championship teams since 1996 but none since 2006. Even with the men’s single-lap qualifications record, along with six total titles as a coach, Naas continues to seek more success in the realm of the Little 500, and he hopes his experiences as a racer — both triumphs and hardships — will take his riders to the checkered flag April 20.
After Naas’ bike slid out from underneath him in turn three during SAE’s first attempt to qualify for the 1995 Little 500, Naas refused to slow down. After tossing his shattered helmet and borrowing one from a Dodd’s House rider, Naas got back on the bike for the team’s second attempt, riding as both the first and last leg for his teammates. Even after the crash, which was one more mishap putting the team’s entry into the race in jeopardy, Naas flew across the finish line for a 31.3-second last lap — good enough to put SAE on the outside of row one for race day.
It wasn’t until race day that Naas — as he, his brother Jeff and their other teammates strolled around the track in the third position, bike in tow — learned of his accomplishments during his qualifications run. As he was introduced, the words “...and the men’s single lap qualifications record holder, Bill Naas...” reverberated throughout Bill Armstrong Stadium. A surprised Naas looked at Jeff, smiled, then refocused on the task at hand. Although the record was an honor, Naas could only focus on hoisting the Borg-Warner replica trophy after a Little 500 victory, which he hoped was just a few hours away.
But even his new record couldn’t prepare Naas for what the race had in store for him that April day. After a Sigma Chi rider flew off his bike and rolled down the cinder track, Naas found himself in first place with enough energy to distance himself from the defending champion and the rest of the pack. Without a coach that day, though, Naas had no clue what to do.
“I remember thinking to myself, ‘Oh my God, do I go?’” Naas said as his eyes widened. “I wanted to go, but I didn’t know if that was stupid. I remember going by the pit saying, ‘What do you want me to do?’”
Instead of breaking away, Naas sat up and let the others reel him back in.
“I was the fastest bike on the track, and so this is where not understanding racing at the time, for the lack of a better word, screwed us because you might be the fastest sprinter, but ultimately you don’t want to have to sprint to win the race,” Naas said.
That year, Naas and his teammates would have to settle for third place and wonder what help an experienced coach could have brought them.
Naas now tries to be exactly the coach he needed 17 years ago.
“Part of me believed that during my last two years of racing, even though we did okay, I really think we had a shot to win,” Naas said. “Physically, we could have, but we lacked on the strategic side. So part of me felt like, ‘Hey, if I could give a team a little bit of that so they don’t have to worry so much about the race strategy and can just be out there racing,’ I wanted to do just that.”
Junior Megan Gruber and sophomore Jackie Stevens said Naas has provided that and much more.
Even though both Naas’ coaching role and riding time is constricted because of his job as assistant principal at Westfield High School in Westfield, Ind., he’s instilled a few important teachings that he followed in college that they take with them every practice on the track and every ride on the road.
“He would just go out and ride as hard as he could because he knew it wasn’t all about doing all these intricate, crazy workouts,” Stevens said. “It’s just about putting all your heart into your ride — it’s about putting everything you have, every inch of your body into what you’re doing and not half-assing it because that’s how you’re going to win the race.”
Although fitness was Naas’ strong point while he was competing in the Little 500, both he and his veteran riders agree that’s not where his coaching expertise lies. Naas and the KKG riders chat on Skype once every other week during both the fall and spring semesters in addition to the small handful of times he can make it down to Bloomington. Whatever time the team finds to chat with its coach, the riders spend on developing their racing strategy, an area that is now a strength of Naas’ because he doesn’t want his riders to experience uncertainty and disappointment on the track in April.
“Whatever plan we set up and have, you’ve got to be flexible because as much as you want everything to go how you planned, there’s crashes, people try to do break-aways, you could have a bad exchange, and you have to react to those,” Naas said. “You only have so many chips you can play, and you have to think about when you’re going to use them.”
Naas added, as his expression stiffened, that he went into the last turn of the race senior year with a chance to win, knowing he was the fastest guy on the track, but that he failed to play his chips right, and it cost him in the end.
“I thought, ‘I should be pulling away here,’ but somewhere I lost a gear. It was just too many laps, too much effort and too much time in the saddle during the race. So I know we have to make sure that we’re using those chips and using them right.”
Back in Naas’ kitchen, as his three young protégés parade around the house, waiting for their mother to come home and see how they made the Diet Coke can implode, Naas leans back in his rickety wooden kitchen-table chair with a small grin beginning to form. One small success achieved, one disaster avoided. He looks on, as he can only hope for the same as April 20 inches nearer.