By: Jordan Siden, Bicentennial Intern, Class of 2017, History, Bloomington
I was after a story that would show me what life was like for former students at IU, how they related to the University, and how they related to each other. When I first proposed my topic to the IU Bicentennial department, the Mini 500 was something I only vaguely knew about. But since I’ve begun my research, the story of the race has become a rabbit hole that widens every week.
Beginning in 1955, five years after the first Little 500, the Mini 500 was a tricycle race for women students that took place on the Friday of the already expanding World’s Greatest College Weekend. At first, the Mini was more of a carnival than an athletic competition; a procession of decorated floats would start every race and each team would race in costume. In the first years of the race, a child, the son of a professor, would begin the race by riding a ceremonious lap in a toy pace car. Women in teams of four would race tricycles around a tight oval track and perform exchanges on one tricycle, mirroring the men’s Little 500 race, and trophies would be given to the team with the best costume along with trophies for the members of the fastest team.
Quickly the Mini 500 developed into an important and popular staple of the Little 500 Weekend. By the 1970s, news coverage of the Mini 500 began to highlight the athletic prowess competing in the event required. Newspapers reported how teams trained seriously for the event, perfected difficult exchanges, and took bruises from trikes tumbling out of control during hairpin turns. Winning and qualifying times from the Mini would be posted alongside the times for the Little 500 in Bloomington’s local newspaper, and newspapers around the state would congratulate their hometown daughters on their participation in the event.
The Mini 500 has raised questions for the University in how it should deal with issues of gender inclusion and equality in its cultural affairs. By the early 1980s, men began to compete in — and eventually dominate —the Mini 500, and their teams were often booed for what spectators perceived as an invasion into a women’s event. Interestingly, men began to compete in the Mini at about the same time women began to attempt qualifying for the de facto men’s bicycle race. By 1988 the tricycle race had become co-ed, the same year as the inaugural Women’s Little 500.
Was the Mini 500 degrading to women? From its very name it positions women in an inferior role to men. The comically oversized tricycles the women rode were physically restricting, emphasized smallness, and were in any other context a toy for children. But though it is easy to dismiss the carnival-like tricycle race as being parlance of the times, the Mini was an annual and highly anticipated event until 2002. More importantly, the Mini was the only avenue for women interested in competing during the Little 500 until the 1980s—disregarding the short lived Little 500 Regatta in the ’70s.
Working with IU Archive’s material has been the most rewarding part of this internship so far. I’ve poured through resource files, had the pleasure of watching period reel-to-reel film footage, and was even able to check off my bucket-list goal of using a microfilm when looking for old Indiana Daily Student articles. It has been a nostalgic’s dream. The Office of the Bicentennial has provided me and its staff of student interns the opportunity to dig into IU’s past in order to better direct its future.
A big part of what I do as a researcher is ask questions and solve mysteries. Using primary sources to piece together the story of the Mini 500, and learning what it has meant for students at IU for almost 50 years, has led me to confront questions about how cultures change and what explains that change. Though the activities of the Mini 500 event remained relatively stable throughout its history, changes in traditional gender norms reflected back on the Mini. The Mini 500 began in the 1950s as what was then an appropriate way to include women in what was quickly becoming one of IU’s most important annual events. The Mini endured feminist activism of the 1960s, the introduction of Title IX legislation in the 1970s, and the eventual move to de-gender the event in the 1980s. Was the Mini 500 ever appropriate? What could its history tell us about the role of women at Indiana University?
I’m looking forward to the next phase of my project when I’ll begin to put together a multimedia website telling the story and exploring these issues of the Mini 500 at IU.
For part two of this blog, please visit: https://blogs.iu.edu/bicentennialblogs/2016/11/15/a-brief-history-of-ius-mini-500-part-2/