BY CHARLES SCUDDER | @cscudder
Paul Smith will be wearing a Delta Tau Delta jersey this Saturday.
He finished third in ITTs the last two years and watched from the pit as the team won in 2012 and sprinted the final 20 laps to help push Delts to a second-place finish in 2013.
But he hasn’t always competed for the greek powerhouse. His freshman year, he rode for Wright Cycling. Although he lived in Teter, he’d gone on a few group rides with the Wright team and trained with them leading up to the race.
“I wasn’t a very good rider when I joined Wright,” Smith said. “I had a lot to learn.”
He later joined Delts, where he statistically has a better chance of winning based on IUSF’s historical records.
Greek teams have won 68 percent of men’s races and 54 percent of women’s races. More than three-quarters of top-three finishers in the men’s race have worn greek letters.
It’s a rivalry older than “Breaking Away.” It’s easy to break the race down to greeks versus everyone else. It’s easy to vilify those damn Cutters or those damn frat stars from the stands. It’s easy to cheer for someone like you — whether that team is greek or independent.
So who has an upper hand? Greeks, who have been historically dominant in the competition with strong support and large budgets, or GDIs, who can freely recruit and earn support as the scrappy underdog?
Some houses maintain that you are a brother or sister first and a rider second. Teams like Beta Theta Pi and Sigma Alpha Epsilon want riders to be committed to the house before they join the team. Other chapters, and even most residence halls,* do actively recruit riders for membership.
“It’s kind of disappointing,” race director Jordan Bailey said. “There’s been a shift since 2000 that residence halls have gotten cloudy, so they’re like an independent team now.”
The first three teams to win the race were affiliated with residence halls — all from Collins. Starting in 1958, however, greek teams dominated the race, winning every single race until the debut of Cutters in 1984. From 1958 to 1968, an independent team didn’t even see the medal stand.
“[Greek houses] saw it as an opportunity to be successful in an event that is campus-wide,” Bailey said.
Beginning with Cutters in 1984, however, more independent teams started to see success. In 2002, three non-affiliated teams took the medal stand.** From 2000 to 2012, at least one independent team made it in the top three.
Part of it is a simple matter of participation. Independent teams have only become very active in the past 25 years or so, yet this year, 70 percent of men’s teams and 64 percent of women’s teams are greek. There’s a better chance a greek team will win simply because there are more greek teams competing.
Greek teams also generally have more money and consistency. Even if the team goes through a few years without success, there’s an automatic group of fans and a strong alumni base that can help with fundraising and support.
Support comes easier in greek houses, Smith said, rather than a residence hall team with only one or two riders who actually live in the dorm.
“It’s hard to get a whole dorm to come support a team like that,” Smith said.
Smith said the Delts train in a special bike room in the house, where they have equipment they can use all year long. With Wright, he’d have to meet with other riders in basements where they’d set up stationary bikes in winter. Greek teams can afford better equipment, faster bikes and more coaching support, Smith said.
A first year independent team like Northern Indiana Cycling would be looking to fundraise around $1,000 from friends and family, whereas an established program like Phi Gamma Delta could have a budget as large as $10,000 to $15,000, Bailey said.
“That brick and mortar house gives continuity from year to year,” Bailey said.
Ultimately, the thing that makes Little 500 more than a bicycle race, what makes it The World’s Greatest College Weekend, is it’s ability to bring students together from all across campus. The race was started in 1951 to raise money for student scholarships to help all students, not just greeks or GDIs.
Bailey said IUSF gets calls regularly from other universities wondering what they can do to replicate the success of Little 500. It’s so unique to IU, however, that it is hard to pull off anywhere else.
“It just does such a good job of getting this cross-section of campus involved in this one event,” Bailey said.
Charles Scudder is a senior studying journalism at IU. He put off taking a required statistics course until the last semester of his senior year, so go easy on him if his math is screwy. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*I’ve chosen to count residence halls as independent teams. They should fall in their own category, but some teams — like Teter’s women’s team — actively recruit from outside the dorm like independents. Other independent teams — like Dodd’s House — were once much more actively tied to a residence hall than they are now. For simplicity’s sake, this post refers to residence halls and independents.
**To be clear, two of those teams — The Corleones and Gafombi — were formed by fraternities which were off campus at the time.