All Bloomingtonians and IU students know about the bicycle-filled spring weekend that is the Little 500 — but do you know about the history of the famous cycling event dubbed the World's Greatest College Weekend?

iu little 500

The Little 500, or “Little Five,” cycling race began in 1951 when Howard S. “Howdy” Wilcox Jr., director of the IU Foundation at that time, founded the event as a way to bring students and the university closer together. He aimed to emulate the beloved Indianapolis 500 speedway race, which his father, Howard Wilcox, won in 1919. His father was killed only four years later at a racetrack in Altoona, Pennsylvania, leaving three-year-old Howdy an orphan, his mother having died two years prior.

Wilcox took the idea of a university-wide cycling race to the IU Student Foundation after he saw students having their own cycling race on campus in 1950. He envisioned the race as an opportunity to publicize the IU Student Foundation and to raise funds for scholarships to support students working while in school. The first Little 500 was held in 1951, and the race & its surrounding events swiftly gained legendary status as "the World’s Greatest College Weekend.”

Little 500 quickly became a key part of student life at Indiana University, and its popularity only increased ten-fold over the years. Nearly every fan of the event, IU student, and Bloomington townie know about Breaking Away, the 1970s film set in Bloomington that tells the tale of one character’s cycling enthusiasm and desire to race in the Little 500. Today, student cyclists can be seen all over Bloomington no matter the time of year. The Student Recreational Sports Center (SRSC) offers cycling classes designed to help individuals train for the race, and for fun as well. Cycling and Bloomington are even now synonymous for many, and the city is often seen as one of the top cycling communities in the country because of the many bike lanes and trails in & around the city. The Little 500 is a legendary event that has truly helped shape this community into what it is today.

iu little 500

The race was originally designed exclusively for male students, but women were interested in competing as well. Kappa Alpha Theta, a sorority on campus, competed in the qualifications trials (or "Quals") during the winter of 1986-1987 in hopes of participating in the Men’s Little 500. They nearly qualified, coming in 34th place with a time of 3:03.72, but were then bumped from the roster as only 33 teams are selected in the qualifications trials to compete in the race.

Eventually, Dean of Women’s Affairs, Phyllis Klotman, suggested a women’s version of the cycling race after learning that there was significant interest from many female students. Previously, women had only been able to participate in the Mini 500, a tricycle race in Assembly Hall in which participants raced on custom-made trikes. In 1988, the first Women’s Little 500 was held, with 30 all-female teams competing to cycle 100 laps (25 miles). Since the first race in 1988, Kappa Alpha Theta has won the Women’s Little 500 six times, and they have historically finished in the top 10.

In 1988, men were also allowed to participate in the Mini 500, which had previously been a women-only event. Eventually, the Mini 500 race was replaced with the Little 50, a relay-running race, in 2002.

IU Little 500

As the size and the reputation of the Little 500 grew over the years, other entertainment and events were created to fill out the weekend. Celebrity visits and entertainment quickly became the norm. In 1953, The Variety Show and the first Little 500 Sweetheart, Lu Ann Simms (an actress and singer), were added to the weekend. In 1960, Friday night concerts joined the schedule, and in 1963, the Cream and Crimson intra-squad football game was also added to the roster of events. In 1964, Bob Hope performed for the massive crowd attending the Little 500 that year. Hope enjoyed it so much, he donated to the scholarship fund and returned to perform three more times in 1967, 1971, and 1975. Over the years, numerous singers and artists have performed for the now huge crowds that attend every year. In 2008, during his campaign for the presidency, President Barack Obama even surprised attendees with a visit.

indiana university little 500

Over the years, students and IU visitors have recorded their experiences of the “Little Five” in their scrapbooks, photographs, and other memorabilia. The IU Archives collects and preserves these materials for future students and researchers. A number of their collections contain historic ephemera and collected memories from Little 500 races over the years. For example, in 2017, the Archives acquired the Kathleen Cavanaugh scrapbooks, 1960-1965, which contain the donor’s collected Little 500 1960-1962 tickets and programs. The Indiana University women’s residence hall scrapbooks, 1925-1959, and the Margaret Werling scrapbook, 1951-1953, also contain student collected photographs and memorabilia from different Little 500 races over the years. The Sally A. Lied papers, 1963-1987, contains ephemera related to the 1968 Little 500 Sit-In, which occurred while she was a student at IU. More information about the Little 500 Sit-In can be found in the digital exhibit, Student Demonstrations at IU in the 1960s. IU Archives also recently acquired all of the Indiana University Student Foundation’s Little 500 scrapbooks dating from 1950 through 2013!

Besides those mentioned above, the IU Archives holds numerous other records and papers documenting the World’s Greatest College Weekend. They welcome anyone interested in learning more about the history of this legendary race, or about any other historical IU topics, to schedule an appointment to see or use these materials by emailing or calling (812)855-1127. They also invite and encourage members of the public, alumni, students, staff, faculty, and researchers to use the collection, whether the purpose is for teaching, research, or for your own curiosity.


IU Archives Collections of interest:

Digital Exhibit: Student Demonstrations at IU in the 1960s

Little 500 IU Archives Blog Posts - Blogging Hoosier History posts