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Thursday, April 10, 2008

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April 10, 2008

Little 500 Weekend
World's Greatest again
Little 500 regains shine once tarnished by out-of-control party label from the '90s
By Andy Graham
April 10, 2008

It is again becoming "The World's Greatest College Weekend," in the best sense of the slogan.

Indiana University's Student Foundation is staging the 58th annual edition of its Little 500 race this weekend — starting with today's Little 50 run, followed by the women's bicycle race at 4 p.m. Friday and the men's bike race at 2 p.m. Saturday.

The IUSF is employing the "Weekend" slogan more often these days, now that its MTV-fueled partying connotations are muted compared to the late 1980s and early 1990s. The especially troublesome years were 1988 and 1991, when gigantic outdoor parties turned riotous at Varsity Villas apartments. The overall arrest totals are down lately, and the event seems to be returning to its roots.

"I'd say between 1992 and '95 or so, the race, the whole weekend, hit an all-time low in terms of image," Matthew Ewing, directing this year's event for the student foundation, said Monday evening. "During that time, and maybe for a while after, there was some talk that the race was not a good thing for the campus, for the students."

Was cancellation contemplated?

"Yes, I believe so," Ewing said. "The riots at Varsity Villas had an impact, obviously. But the student foundation met with the IU Foundation and the university and did some restructuring, some refocusing on the true purpose of the event."

Early days

The event was conceived as a vehicle to encourage student engagement on campus, and specifically to raise scholarship money for IU students working their way through school. "To Help Those Who Help Themselves" was the Little 500's slogan in the wake of its inception in 1951. Then-IU Foundation executive director Howdy Wilcox, whose father had won the 1919 Indianapolis 500, and the IU Student Foundation he'd helped create a year earlier were the catalysts.

Last year, the Little 500 races enabled the IUSF to award more than $35,000 in scholarships, nearly half its annual scholarship total to IU-Bloomington students.

But that element got overshadowed in the 1980s and 90s. What had been an intramural, IU-centric event went nationwide, then worldwide, in 1979 with the release of the Oscar-nominated movie "Breaking Away," centered around the Little 500 and filmed in Bloomington.

That drew the interest of the nascent MTV network, launched in 1981, which was looking for college settings to help entice its desired demographic. By 1986, what was billed as "MTV's Ultimate College Weekend with John Cougar Mellencamp" drew 43,000 people to Memorial Stadium for a concert capping Little 500 festivities.

That show proved very profitable for the student foundation. It also meant more students from all over the Midwest and beyond were definitely thinking Bloomington was the place to go party in April.

The chief's rookie year

Bloomington Police Chief Mike Diekhoff will mark 21 years on the force April 13, but remembers being a two-week rookie among a group of officers led by Mike Hostettler into Varsity Villas in April of 1987. "The apartment complex wasn't even completed," Diekhoff recalled Tuesday, "but the part just off Dunn Street was built, and they had a DJ on a balcony and a couple thousand people in the parking lot. We were going, 'Oh, mannnnn.' "

By the next year, a fire truck and hose were required to disperse the Varsity Villas crowd at 4:30 a.m., and around 200 arrests were made over the weekend, about half of which involved non-IU students. In 1991, a car was overturned at the Villas. Bottles and chunks of concrete were hurled at police. An ambulance was called, and, upon its arrival, it was mobbed and shaken by the crowd. Almost 500 arrests were made, with an estimated three-fourths involving visitors to town.

"We did tend to have a lot of problems with people from out of town," Diekhoff recalled.

More sedate these days?

The response was increased police presence, with the full force of the BPD and the IUPD deploying in 12-hour shifts, with assistance from Indiana state troopers. Helicopters were utilized. The university cooperated. So did apartment complex owners, who instigated their own security measures.

"Another thing that has happened in the interim, with our 'quiet night' patrols, is that we've cracked down on the big parties year-round, and that's gone a long way to helping things heading into this particular weekend," Diekhoff said. "People are tending to have smaller parties which don't get out of control."

The Student Foundation began featuring slogans for the event such as "Cycling, Scholarships, Tradition" rather than "World's Greatest College Weekend." Eligibility rules were toughened to preclude more professional-status riders by 1995, which helped lower the competitive profile of the event a bit more in the direction of an intramural competition.

Event telecasts since 2003 have been through HDNet, a high definition satellite TV network owned by IU alumnus Mark Cuban. "Those TV productions get better and better every year," Ewing said. "And we're just now getting back to 'The World's Greatest College Weekend' slogan while still very much emphasizing the event's original purpose was to raise scholarship money.

"We don't use the slogan on a lot of our publications, but don't refrain from using it in a general sense. We feel the event is now again on the upswing."

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