BTN.com staff, March 6, 2016
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In just a few weeks, Indiana University will be caught up in an intense athletic competition that has a long and storied history in the Hoosier State.
But we're not talking about basketball. It's a bicycle race - the Little 500.
Yet to say that the "Little 5," as it's affectionately known, is just a bike race would be a bit like saying that Mount Rushmore is just a collection of nice sculptures.
"It really encompasses everything that IU is about," said IU alumnus Charlie Chamness, who served on the Little 500 steering committee during his college years. "It's just a spectacle to see, whether it's all the bikers flying around the track, the fans in all the different colors ? it's really a rally cry for the whole IU community."
Students labor year-round planning and executing this event, which brings alumni back to campus in flocks and energizes the whole city of Bloomington.
"We're lucky at IU, I would say, to kind of have two homecomings," Chamness said. "You have homecoming in the fall like all other universities, and then you have what's kind of IU's unique signature homecoming, which is the Little 500."
First run in 1951, the Little 500 was the brainchild of Howard "Howdy" Wilcox Jr., who was executive director of the IU Student Foundation at the time. Charged with finding a meaningful way to further connect students to campus life and engage alumni, he happened upon an impromptu bicycle race around a dormitory.
Struck by the level of enthusiasm he saw in both the participants and the spectators, Wilcox, the son of a famed Indianapolis 500 driver, knew a formal race could stir up school spirit.
Today, campus organizations of all stripes field teams of four riders each to compete in the annual relay race, explained Abby Rogers, who's won the event twice with Kappa Alpha Theta. Teams compete on identical bikes and must complete a set number of exchanges between riders as they speed around the quarter-mile track.
"It's kind of like musical chairs on bicycles," Rogers said. "Women ride 100 laps and men ride 200 laps. It's so nerve-wracking at first, but then the minute the green flag goes, it's just focus. You can't do anything besides race."
In addition to its role in galvanizing Hoosier students and alumni, the Little 500 serves another lofty goal - all monies raised through team sponsorships and tickets sales go to fund Student Foundation scholarships. To date, the race has brought in more than $2 million to help students fund their tuition.
[btn-post-package]"Giving back to students has always been at the heart of what the Little 500 stands for," said Tara Vickers, the current director of the IU Student Foundation. "All the way back to the first race, it was to raise money for student scholarships. It really does come full circle [with] students helping students by putting the race on, and then students helping students by producing this event that then raises money to go back into student scholarships."
Watch the one-minute video above to see how the Hoosiers roll.
By John Tolley