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A short history of the Little 500 race



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Then-Sen. Barack Obama watches pace laps with IU Student Foundation director Jenny Bruffey before the start of the women's Little 500 bicycle race in 2008 at Bill Armstrong Stadium. Obama walked around the track and greeted each team before the race. IDS File Photo Buy Photos

The Little 500 race has a history dating back almost 70 years. 

1950s

In 1950, residents of Hickory Hall participated in a marathon bike race on campus. The race was short-lived, but Howdy Wilcox, the then-executive director of the IU Foundation, was inspired.

Wilcox was no stranger to the spirit of racing — his father won the Indianapolis 500 in 1919. He brought that racing spirit to the IU campus in 1951, establishing the Little 500, nicknamed the “World’s Greatest College Weekend.”

Roughly 7,000 people gathered May 12, 1951 to watch the first race. The winners were the South Hall Buccaneers.

In the first five years of the race, one fraternity — Sigma Nu — finished first in 1954. Fraternities began a winning streak in 1956.   

According to the IU Student Foundation website, an independent team did not place first again until 1984, when the Cutters won. The Cutters are made up of non-greek racers. 

1960s

The promotion sub-committee for the Little 500 race designed Beanie, a cartoon mascot, for the race’s 10-year anniversary in 1960. Beanie wore a Little 500 jacket, rode a bike and appeared in various advertisements and newspapers, including the Indiana Daily Student. 

In the same year, 1959 Miss America Mary Ann Mobley was honored as the “Sweetheart of Indiana University” at the race. She posed for pictures and interacted with students.

According to a newsletter published by the IU Student Foundation about the Little 500, she was one of the most popular women to ever be named Miss America.  

“For our weekend, I believe she will be the finest all-around girl that we have ever had,” William Armstrong, the IU Foundation Executive Director, wrote in the newsletter. “I feel we are most fortunate to have Mary Ann as our guest to celebrate our tenth anniversary.” 

In 1968, the race was delayed a day because of bad weather and a non-violent protest. 

Around 50 black students took part in a three-day sit-in at the first Memorial stadium. According to an IU Libraries Archives exhibit, they protested discrimination within the Greek system, specifically discriminatory clauses in the national charters of the fraternities at IU. The students barricaded themselves at the stadium, demanding the fraternities eliminate the clauses. 

The Phi Delta Theta fraternity did not comply with the demands and was disqualified from participating in the race. 

1970s and 1980s

In 1979, the film “Breaking Away,” starring Dennis Quaid, was released. The film was about the Cutters and their time at IU. 

In 1986, "MTV's Ultimate College Weekend with John Cougar Mellencamp" brought 43,000 people to the Memorial Stadium for a Little 500 concert. 

1990s

According to the Herald-Times, a riot took place at the Varsity Villas apartments during the Little 500 weekend in 1991. A car was turned upside down, and riot-goers threw miscellaneous items at police, including bottles and chunks of concrete. When an ambulance was called and showed up, it was overtaken and shaken by the riot. 

The police made more than 400 arrests. Many of those arrests involved people visiting for the weekend from out of town. 

The IUSF began publishing new slogans for the Little 500, including "Cycling, Scholarships, Tradition," instead of "World's Greatest College Weekend."

2000s and 2010s

Barack Obama, then-senator of Illinois, paid an unexpected visit to the women’s race in 2008, stopping to shake hands with screaming fans in the crowd. 

More than 50,000 people signed a Facebook petition to bring Lil Wayne to perform in 2011. He performed in Bloomington during the Little 500 weekend. His lineup included Rick Ross and Nicki Minaj.

The race its entering its 68th year. According to the IUSF, this will be the 31st women’s Little 500race. 

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