Centuries ago in ancient Rome, masses of impassioned men and women would congregate to marvel at chariot races. Competitors fought relentlessly in hopes of bringing pride to their factions, but were rewarded with bloodshed as often as honor.
Nowadays in Bloomington, the chariots come equipped with pedals and handlebars. Beyond that, the Little 500 is pretty much Ben-Hur, but with a whole lot of spandex.
Alas, for the first time in its storied history, the Little 500 has been forced to slam on the brakes. Just when you thought the coronavirus couldn’t suck any more, it went and got “The World’s Greatest College Weekend” canceled.
While Bill Armstrong Stadium endures an unusually lonesome April weekend, we can remember some of the greatest moments to ever take place on its cinder track.
Dave Blase goes from social outcast to icon
Dave Blase said while he was expected to be at a tryout for his dorm's cycling cohort one evening in 1958, he was instead fearfully sequestered in a bathroom stall.
Later, the undersized freshman thought to himself, “Gee, what could I do if I actually tried at something?”
This fleeting glimpse of courage would eventually transform Blase into the stuff of legends. As a senior in 1962, Blase rode 139 of the afternoon’s 200 laps.
Nearly two decades had passed when Blase served as the inspiration for the central protagonist in Peter Yates’ Academy Award-winning 1979 film, “Breaking Away.” You may have heard of it.
Kappa Alpha Theta’s story comes full circle
Each spring, 33 teams compete for the Little 500. In 1987, the Kappa Alpha Theta sorority arrived at 34th in qualifying events.
There were no women on the course that year, but the precedent set by Kappa Alpha Theta left the IU Student Foundation with no choice but to upend the status quo.
Now with eight wins, Kappa Alpha Theta has cemented itself as one of the race’s titans. Long after it penned the prologue to the women’s Little 500, Kappa Alpha Theta is enjoying a thrilling chapter of its own.
Cutters’ dominance begins
Although the Cutters featured in “Breaking Away” is a band of underdogs, the real-world iteration had little trouble finding success early on. In 1984, it won the first Little 500 in which it competed and have claimed 14 titles since, the most of any unit.
As Oscar Wilde said, “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” Cutters continue to channel the indefatigable silver screen protagonists of its namesake, sowing sorrow all throughout Fraternity Row in the process.
A certain politician pays Bloomington a visit
The Little 500 has attracted a number of big names in its lifespan, from Lil Wayne to Nicki Minaj.
But these pale in comparison to 2008, when a former Illinois senator and aspiring presidential candidate stopped by to see the women’s contest. The man in question was, of course, Barack Obama.
Taking 100 trips around Bill Armstrong Stadium may not demand quite the same stamina as leading a country for two terms, but perhaps Obama was able to glean something about how to win a race or two.
Black Key Bulls emerges from the wreckage
In sports, there is seldom glory without pain. Such was the case during the penultimate lap of the 2014 men’s Little 500, when a crash turned raucous cheers into winces and gasps.
Without warning, the leading peloton became a dusty, tangled mass of chains and spokes. Before his opponents could even give their helmets a loving caress of gratitude, Black Key Bulls’ Jacob Miller surged ahead of the pack.
Out of the pandamonium dashed Miller, who maintained his edge and secured his squad’s first ever victory.
Kayce Doogs goes back to back
In 2012, Delta Gamma’s Kathleen Doogs overtook Kappa Alpha Theta’s Kathleen Chelminiak in the final turn to seal victory. The next year, Doogs and Chelminiak were once again locked in a battle for first with mere meters left.
There are instances when it appears an athlete seizes triumph as if preordained by fate itself. Think Michael Jordan’s famous flu game, Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point outing or Doogs somehow closing the gap in 2013.
Rewatching Doogs’ exhilarating finishes, I can somehow convince myself that I, firmly planted on a couch, am more out of breath than she was after miles of pedaling.