Indianapolis Star Article 

                   by Abe Aamidor

Book, film offer free-wheeling memories of Little 500

December 1999 -- 

Bloomington - It's late on a gray December afternoon along a winding two-lane blacktop in Southern Indiana, and a young bicyclist with a rope like body is pedaling hard up an eight degree grade.

    Mothers, do you know where your sons are?

    You do, if junior is a bike fanatic in training for the Little 500, the annual bicycle race held each spring on the Indiana University campus.  Training for what is the largest intramural sporting event in the country is a year around affair.

    The Little 500 was immortalized in the 1979 feature Breaking Away.

    And television broadcaster Brent Musburger once described the event as "just guys giving it all the have - the essence of sport"

    The first Little 500 race was staged in 1951.  A shorter version for women began in 1988.

    Now, two IU alumni - one a former champion rider himself and the other a former student journalist who used to cover the race for the school paper - are giving it their all in time for the race's 50th running next spring.

Documenting Tradition

    John Schwarb is the author of the recently published The Little 500:  The Story of the World's Greatest College Weekend" (Indiana University Press, 227 pages).  Kendall Harnett is a cinematographer who's been working for two years on a documentary about the race.  The film, called Free Wheels: The Tradition of the Little 500, will be finished by the time the race rolls around in April.

    "At the end of my senior year, I was doing a job search, but at the same time, I had a pipe dream that maybe I could do a book on the 'Little 5,' " recalled Schwarb, now a sportswriter for a small daily paper near Tampa, Fla.  "I made an initial proposal with some people I know at the IU Foundation and IU Student Foundation.

    "When the proposal started looking pretty good, we talked to the folks at IU Press."

    Schwarb spent two years in Bloomington researching the project after graduating in 1996.  He spoke to early race winners and organizers and combed through archives looking for just the right photos.  Besides telling the narrative history of the race, Schwarb's book contains the names of every rider in every race from Day One.

200-lap event

    The Little 500 is modeled after the Indianapolis 500. Thirty-three teams of four riders each make 200 trips going one way around an oval track.  The first one across the finish line wins.

    There are some differences, of course.  Two hundred laps around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is 500 miles; the same number of circuits around Bill Armstrong Stadium in Bloomington, home to the bike race in recent years, is 50 miles.

    And though the glory of winning on roughly the same, depending upon what social circles you travel in, the monitory benefit is not quite the same.

How it started

    The origins of the Little 500 are partly clouded in myth, party teary-eyed nostalgia.  But the official line is that then-IU foundation director Howdy Wilcox heard whirring and rumbling tones coming from a nearby dormitory as students raced around the building on bicycles.  He made inquiries and discovered these were students intent on mimicking the 500-Mile Race down to the last yard of bricks by pedaling the full distance.

    The year was 1950; Wilcox, the son of 500-mile race winner Howdy Wilcox (1919), co-opted the idea as a way of getting students involved in a high-profile fund-raising activity while they were still on campus.

    The first Little 500 was the next year.

    Over the years, it has brought more publicity than dollars to campus, but the race and related activities of the IU Student Foundation have provided about 650,000 in student scholarships annually in recent years, according to Randy Rogers, director of the student foundation. 

    Schwarb still thinks the inaugural 1951 race may have been the best may have been the best.

    "The South Hall Buccaneers were the only team in the race to take it seriously," Schwarb says.  "It was such a new entity people didn't know what it was, and in the middle of the race their chain actually broke down.  They literally had to bring the bike into their pits to fix the bike."

    "But they practices their exchanges and they won by three or four minutes."

Film not yet finished

   One of the people Schwarb interviewed during his research was 1989 winner Harnett, who was part of the self-styled Cinzano team.  Harnett liked talking about his personal glory so much he decided to make a documentary.  Nearly two years and $150,000 in expenses and debt later, he's still making the film.

    "Fund-raising for documentaries is extremely difficult," Harnett said in a telephone interview from his home in Chicago.  "People want to see a finished product or you have to be extremely well-established."

    Undaunted, Harnett collected old 16mm and 8mm film stock, along with more modern video clips, and shot fresh images as well.  When he is through, he will have pieced together two hours of free-wheeling fun from more than 700 hours of raw footage.

    As with many documentaries today, Harnett is re-creating some scenes, especially the legendary episode when Wilcox stumbled onto those erstwhile students racing around a dorm on two wheels.

Splash premiere

    Harnett is thinking big - as in a major cable sports network to premiere his documentary.

    "I don't want to make this sound more than it is," he said.  "It is still a bike race.  But when you train so long for something that lasts only a day, it has to be more than a bike race."

    Ironically, even though he was a champion bike racer in college, Harnett says he doesn't ride much anymore.  There are thousands of bicyclists along Chicago's lakefront on any given Sunday, but most are going 5 miles an hour and won't get out of the way for a serious racer.

    So he's become a runner.