The fifth Cutter: Coach Jim Kirkham works to earn 6th straight Little 500 crown
By Biz Carson
“There’s been an accident in turn one with your defending champions.”
Cutters rider Timothy Nixon was boxed in when someone along the gutter fell. As the crash snowballed, Nixon couldn’t avoid it.
From their pit in turn three across the field, all the Cutters can see is a messy pile of bikes and people. As the lead pack rounds turn two, their yellow jersey — the jersey of defending champion — isn’t visible anywhere.
Immediately, another Cutters rider sprints on his bike across the infield to get someone back on the track.
All Cutters coach Jim Kirkham can do is look on.
He’s coached riders back from crashes before. He’s coached the Cutters to wins the past five years straight.
Nixon, their starting rider, walks slowly back to the pit instead of completing his set of 12 laps. The defending champions are already more than a half lap behind.
The plan Kirkham had scribbled in his notebook is already gone in the first few laps of the race.
Kirkham knew this year was going to be more difficult.
His star rider, Eric Young, had gone pro two days after the team won this past year. Kirkham’s 2-year-old son, Teddy, is getting older and needs more attention. The week before the race, he had to cut one of the seniors, whom he had trained since his freshman year, from the final four riders.
Then Delta Tau Delta chose the pit next to the Cutters and started watching them at practices, trying to figure out their signals and strategies.
At a practice race, Kirkham raised his hands to his mouth and chomped his teeth in the air as he tried to make eye contact with his rider.
Watermelon, the Cutters called it. It was their secret signal for an exchange.
Standing in his pit, Kirkham talked to the Delta Tau Delta coach in the pit next to them as they watched their teams. But as soon as he finished pretending to eat a watermelon, he realized he’d revealed the code.
All teams watch each other to figure out their code words, the fastest riders and their strategies. Kirkham had been keeping an eye on the Delts, and he knew their coach had been watching him just as much.
As the Cutters rider came in for an exchange, the Delts had figured out what watermelon meant.
“We can’t use watermelon again,” Kirkham said as he walked toward the group.
The Cutters circled at the end of their pit and started the debate about what to change their signal to.
Someone suggested scratching their balls — it’s at least less noticeable than fake-eating a watermelon.
Too natural for a guy, they decided. If someone had an itch, they might have accidentally signaled an exchange on race day.
They talked about Kirkham or the other riders raising their caps slightly. It was also too natural, too much of a risk on race day.
Kirkham stuck his freckled arm out and moved it like a wave, a salmon swimming in a stream. The team decided on their new code: salmon. It was as obvious as watermelon, but at least the Delts coach wouldn’t know it.
But it was not the only adjustment Kirkham has to make to his coaching this year. Without star rider Young, who won all of the races in a sprint at the finish, the Cutters have had to readjust their strategy and game plan of how to win their sixth straight race.
Kirkham calls for their new strategy, code-named “Scramble,” for the end of the practice race. Each rider bikes two or three laps at a fast pace to make the exchanges.
During an exchange, riders will typically let another team surge ahead if they are switching riders because that time will be lost in the exchange.
Kirkham’s idea is that if they do this quickly enough, they’ll gain extra ground in the race.
The strategizing is all to find a new way to win this race.
Kirkham knows about the pressure on the team to defend the championship, but it’s just one more thing he has to balance on top of coaching the Cutters, raising a 2-year-old and working full-time as a nurse in the emergency room.
Come April, he dedicates anywhere between 20 and 30 hours a week to coaching at the track. But growing up, he never realized he could be a part of the race he’s now dedicated decades of his life to.
He used to ride bikes through the south side of Indianapolis, perhaps about five miles, to the bike store. He had watched “Breaking Away” and listened to the race on the radio every April. Still, he never imagined he’d be up there on the podium, let alone eight times.
His friend joined the Cutters first, and then Kirkham started riding with the team his freshman year in 1991.
“They had a really cool us-versus-them mentality, which kind of resonated with me,” Kirkham said. “My coaches really played into that, really fed that. It attracted guys that it resonated with.”
By the time he graduated in 1994, he had one win, two second-place finishes and one fifth-place finish to his name.
Kirkham moved from Bloomington back to Indianapolis but still hung around the track during Little 500 season. But in 1997, he decided to guide the team.
Neither the ’95 nor ’96 teams had done well, and the coaches were leaning toward shutting the team down. Four or five guys were still left who wanted to ride, so Kirkham stepped in as their coach.
They won his first year, propelling the team from anonymity to the front of the pack.
It was enough to keep Kirkham going, too, and he hasn’t left the track in 15 years.
“It’s just one big track practice,” Kirkham said. “No pressure. No expectations.”
The Cutters take nearly 30 laps before they’re back in the lead pack in fifth place.
Kirkham stands behind the pit on a makeshift ledge. He balances on a wooden plank suspended by two milk crates that he sawed to fit the curb of the track.
Co-coach Jason Fowler is the one in the pit with the riders. He scribbles “work with sig-ep” or “keep up the pace, Tim,” on a whiteboard to push the riders to the front of the pack.
“A lot of teams look at our pit every time they come by,” Kirkham says. “We thought we’d do a bunch of ambiguous fake stuff.”
They hold up posters saying “NASDAQ” and “DOS.” Instead of meaning exchange, watermelon is their new symbol to go hard and take the lead. It is all a mind game to confuse the other teams and coaches.
Kirkham watches the race while he works on who is going in next, how he wants them to ride and for how many laps. A stopwatch and lap counter dangle from his neck.
For the next 140 laps, the Cutters ride like they’ve been practicing. For most of the race, it’s just Fowler sticking two thumbs up and Kirkham smiling at the riders from behind the pit.
Though the team has won the past five years, Kirkham still doesn’t like to hear them talking about the “w-word” (win) or the “c-word” (crash). Instead, Kirkham wants the team focused on having fun.
As they warmed up for Qualifications, they traded “Wayne’s World” references as Kirkham jumped on a pink kid’s bike and faked an exchange.
They all lied about their names for the team photo for the race yearbook. Everyone has their own nickname: Surge, Mas, Honey Badger and Boobie are the four riding during the race. Then there’s Patches, Doug, Skeeter, Crispy and Smash Bro. 1. Kirkham is Jimmy Cakes or Kirktart. Back when he raced, he was the Colonel.
Kirkham, who identified himself as Hale Williams, vouched for them.
Most of his coaching is just being supportive. He knows the ins and outs of the race and can point those things out, but most of his memories of Little 500 season are just of being with the guys and being at the track.
Kirkham follows the men year-round. He watches them race in the summers and on weekends. He joins them at 8 a.m. for team breakfasts at Scholar’s Inn Bakehouse. He starts training with them for Little 500 in October.
He knows the discipline it takes to be able to get out of bed in the winter when you don’t want to go biking in 30-degree weather.
He can empathize, but he can coach them through it.
By April, it’s all he thinks about, but it’s something he still has to balance with the demands of being a 44-year-old dad.
Kirkham and his wife Linda juggle work schedules so one of them can always be there to take care of Teddy. Kirkham works Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. His wife works Monday, Wednesday and Friday. If their schedules overlap for some reason, one of the Cutters will babysit Teddy for them.
If he’s not at work, he’s normally at the track or driving the car for motor pacing.
“I think about it almost all the time. I don’t really get nervous any more. I get anxious,” Kirkham said. “It’s like your favorite movie is coming up. You just can’t wait to get to the theater and see it.”
The week of the race, the boys are antsy at their 8 a.m. breakfast. They watch the ESPN highlight reel of baseball from the night before and wait for Kirkham to get there.
They talk about the dreams they’ve been having about the race: Sometimes they win, and sometimes they lose. Sometimes they come in at a close second place.
Even Kirkham dreams about it. The weekend before the race, he dreams that the student foundation has made a new rule. Each team could have one alumni rider, so Young came back and rode for Acacia, one of the Cutters’ long-time rivals.
In the dream, Acacia wins.
In lap 175, Cutters rider Kevin Depasse rounds turn four. As he tries to pass Beta Theta Pi to move into his first place, his tires slip. Metal bikes crash against people and the track; jerseys tangle with bike wheels; the crowd gasps. As they realize their competition just hit the track’s cinders, the members of Delt start a cheer.
In the pit, the instant reaction is to get a rider out there, but Depasse bounces back off the ground and gets back in the race. As he’s in pain, he circles the track for the caution lap before exchanging.
If they had made it a half lap more, they were planning on taking off and trying to exhaust the other teams with their fast pace. But for the second time in the race, the Cutters start clawing their way back.
With 10 laps left, Delt rider RJ Stuart starts sprinting ahead. It’s an ending to the race that looks familiar, except it’s not Young in the sprint for the Cutters.
Kirkham stands with his arms crossed, watching the last laps of the 2012 race.
Next to him, the Delt coach and riders are running up and down the sideline, holding one finger up to show their place in the finish.
Kirkham watches as the Delt rider crosses the line first. The Cutters finish fourth.
He turns away from the track with a tight smile. Another race done, he closes his notebook and tucks it into his back pocket.
“Five is a lot of wins,” Kirkham says as he steps down from his makeshift ledge along the fence. “It’s sad. It’s heartbreaking. Two crashes is too much to
Cutters fans come up and give Kirkham handshakes or a pat on the back. It’s the quietest the fans have been since 2007.
On either side of them are Delt fans, wearing Hoosier drinking crew construction uniforms, chanting as they pour out of the bleachers.
“I need to go console my guys a bit. Give ’em some hugs,” Kirkham says before jumping the fence to join the team on the track.
Next to them, Delt is celebrating its first-ever win. Its fans push at the gate to enter the field before security lets them rush the team on its way to the podium.
The Cutters remain in their pit, hugging and talking to each other before Kirkham ushers them to the infield.
As the Delt riders stand on the stage accepting the trophy, the men in the yellow jerseys walk around congratulating everyone else on the race.
All Kirkham can do is smile when “We Are the Champions” starts playing through the loud speaker. It’s a hard song to listen to.
The Cutters stand in the infield for the first time in six years, giving each other hugs and talking to other riders. Behind them, the Delt riders mount their Schwinn bikes and start their victory lap around the stadium.