Wright Cycling’s Evan Zehr felt like his team was flying under the radar.
Was — as in past tense, because now they’ll have a target on their backs in the form of a green jersey.
Wright claimed the pole Saturday for the 65th running of the men’s Little 500 with a time of 2:23.10. The residence hall team edged out Sigma Phi Epsilon by .77 seconds. Evans Scholars rounded out the front row.
“It’s definitely an honor,” Zehr said. “To see all of the work we put into this team pay off is rewarding. All of the guys worked hard for this and I’m just thrilled we’re in this position.”
Wright’s pole is the first in the team’s history, which dates back to teams as early as 1970. The previous best starting spot for a Wright team was when Wright-Rollins rolled out 4th in 1984.
It’s just the second time in the last 15 years that Wright has qualified in the top 10, but Zehr said he wasn’t completely surprised by his team’s speed.
In practice earlier in the week, Wright ran an unofficial mock qualifying run around 2:21, which would have easily taken the pole last year. Zehr said new coach Chris Wojtowich, a former Cutters rider, was key in helping the team prepare for its run.
He said Wojtowich has changed the team’s culture. They’re riding as quick as they have in years and expect to be more aggressive on race day.
Starting up front will no doubt make that easier.
“He’s definitely changed our mindset and strategy,” Zehr said. “We’ve put in a lot of work and it’s starting to pay off. There’s still a lot of work to do, and we’re still very hungry.”
Almost 16 seconds behind Wright, Alpha Tau Omega was celebrating like they’d won the pole.
After faulting on their first two attempts, Alpha Tau Omega snuck into the 33rd and final starting spot on the second-to-last run of the night. They bumped Sigma Chi out of the field by just .4 seconds.
Alpha Tau Omega’s Matt Repplinger said he and his teammates spent the final hour before their run practicing exchanges in nearby Bryan Park after poor exchanges caused their earlier faults. He said his team is inexperienced, and it showed in their mistakes during the rider exchanges.
The practice paid off.
Their exchanges weren’t flawless, but they were good enough. As Chris Nardi rounded out of turn four, he said, he saw the time ticking on the scoreboard and knew it was going to be close.
“Coming off of turn four, I saw 2:31 on the clock and I thought for sure we had it,” Nardi said. “I looked up again and it was at 2:38. I knew it was going to come down to it.”
Sure enough, it did. But Nardi and his teammates were on the right side of the cutoff and could celebrate with their fraternity brothers standing along the fence cheering them on.
“I don’t think there’s a more intense feeling that we’ve ever had,” Repplinger said. “It’s hard to even explain. We just — we got it. We got in.”
For Repplinger and his teammates, it was a relieving end to an otherwise hectic day at Bill Armstrong Stadium.
Race Director Jordan Bailey was forced to delay qualifying for nearly four hours after ice that froze the track overnight melted throughout the day, causing the track to resemble more of a lake than a race course.
After the extended delay, the field eventually filled up late into the night.
The final board showed a few surprises, highlighted by non-greek teams making up four of the top six starting spots.
Defending champion Black Key Bulls will start sixth. Two rookie teams, 3PH and Young Life, made the field for the first time while Phi Kappa Psi failed to make its way into the field for the first time in the team’s history dating back to 1951.
Cutters will start fourth, its best start since 2011, and defending polesitters Phi Delta Theta will roll off in eighth.
They’ll all follow Wright Cycling to the green flag.
Zehr himself brought up the superstition that wearing the green jersey and starting to the pole was bad luck, but then quickly dismissed the notion. He said the next step is winning the other spring series events, which continue Wednesday with Individual Time Trials.
“We’re happy to have it,” Zehr said. “It gives us a target on our backs after flying under the radar. It’s a good place to be. We’ve just got to keep it going.”
2015 Men’s Little 500 lineup
1. Wright Cycling 2:23.10
2. Sigma Phi Epsilon 2:23.87
3. Evans Scholars 2:24.04
4. Cutters 2:24.81
5. Pi Kappa Alpha 2:26.01
6. Black Key Bulls 2:26.89
7. Lambda Chi Alpha 2:27.91
8. Phi Delta Theta 2:27.93
9. Sigma Alpha Epsilon 2:28.07
10. Delta Tau Delta 2:28.33
11. Forest 2:28.36
12. 3PH 2:28.50
13. Kappa Sigma 2:29.32
14. Sigma Nu 2:29.80
15. Delta Chi 2:30.23
16. CSF 2:30.37
17. Beta Theta Pi 2:30.67
18. Sigma Pi 2:30.85
19. Gray Goat 2:30.94
20. Phi Gamma Delta 2:32.05
21. Phi Kappa Sigma 2:32.32
22. Pi Kappa Phi 2:32.70
23. Northern Indiana Cycling 2:32.82
24. Alpha Epsilon Pi 2:32.93
25. Theta Chi 2:32.94
26. Delta Sigma Pi 2:34.14
27. Phi Sigma Kappa 2:34.94
28. Collins Buccaneers 2:35.37
29. Young Life 2:35.53
30. Beta Sigma Psi 2:36.42
31. Delta Upsilon 2:36.63
32. Sigma Alpha Mu 2:37.42
33. Alpha Tau Omega 2:39.06
Failed to qualify
Sigma Chi 2:39.46
Zeta Beta Tau 2:40
Young Pioneers 2:41.40
Alpha Sigma Phi 2:41.63
Air Force 2:47.45
Tau Kappa Epsilon
Phi Kappa Psi