There is no doubt that everyone, from hard-core race enthusiasts to suburban housewives, has heard of the two most storied auto races in America--the Daytona 500, for stock cars, and the Indianapolis 500, for Open Wheeled cars. However, the night before the Indy 500, the city of Anderson, Indiana comes to life with its own version of a history-laden 500. Though the race doesn't draw the mainstream media attention of the bigger events, it provides the same level of "edge-of-your-seat" competition for die-hard fans from around the country.
It's called the Little 500 and during its annual run, 33 of the world's fastest Sprint Cars are turned loose around the tiny quarter-mile oval known as Anderson (IN) Speedway. The race, which is considered one of the premier Sprint Car races in the nation, is unusually long for its nature--a blistering 500 laps around the 17-degree banked track. Anderson mimics the traditional Indy 500 lineup with 11 rows of three. In 2009, Floridian Dave Steele and his Winged Sprint Car set the track record of 10.344 seconds at 87.005 mph.
The race, which began in 1949, has hosted many drivers who continued on to Indy 500 stardom. It's easily the biggest local asphalt short track payout world-wide, with a purse of $123,000. When asked about the reputation of the Anderson race, ASA Championship--winning driver and short track legend Dick Trickle described it saying, "It's like racing jet fighters in a gym."
Anderson is a quarter-mile...
Anderson is a quarter-mile high-banked paved track surrounded by grandstands that fill up for the Little 500 just like the fourth turn stands seen here, jam-packed with race fans for all areas of the country.
Chet Fillip (No. 77) and Aaron...
Chet Fillip (No. 77) and Aaron Pierce (No. 26) race side by side. Notice the unique differences between the two cars.
Florida driver Troy Decaire...
Florida driver Troy Decaire utilizes the HANS device. Rules dictate that all drivers must use a type of head-and-neck restraint system.
In the Beginning
Working for 25 cents per hour, a large group of laborers constructed Anderson Speedway in 1948 as the brain-child of legendary promoter Joe Helpling. The space covers 32 acres at the corner of 29th St. and Pendleton Ave. The original plan for the lot was to put in a bowling alley and a recreation center when Helpling was approached by two Anderson city councilmen who suggested the space be turned into a racetrack. Helpling had never seen a race for himself, so he traveled to Armscamp Speedway (in Alexandria) and 16th Street Speedway (in Indianapolis) to see what it was all about. The trips made the decision for him, and the racetrack was built.
Originally known as Sun Valley Speedway, the track dropped its first green flag in 1948. In those days, the most popular racing divisions were the Roaring Roadsters and the AAA Midgets. After only one year of operation in 1949, Helpling held a press conference at the Anderson Hotel to unveil his plan for the new track--start 33 roadsters in a 500-lap race.
Most people scoffed at the idea, instead suggesting the race be shortened to 200 or 300 laps to accommodate tire costs and racer stamina. Helpling disagreed, and to the surprise of critics and supporters alike, 18 of the roadsters finished, five of which never made a pit stop. With Sam Skinner as the inaugural winner, the Little 500 was born. Since that date of destiny, drivers like Wayne Alspaugh, Jim McElreath, Rollie Beale, Jeff Bloom, Wayne Reutimann, Bob Frey, Bentley Warren, and Dave Steele have visited the Winner's Circle of the annual event.
Mr. Little 500
Every storied track has one driver synonimous with the facility; Foyt at Indy; Earnhardt at Talladega, and so on. Dubbed Mr. Little 500 by his legions of fans, Indianapolis, Indiana's own Eric Gordon is at the top of his game come race time. Gordon first tasted Little 500 victory in 1997. Three years later he went on a five-year tear, winning from 2001 to 2005, and again in 2007 and 2010. There is no doubt that Gordon carries the torch for the Little 500, and he's the man everyone looks for on the starting grid. He has made it a habit, and a personal commitment, to take home the Little 500 bounty annually. The 2010 version of the race marked Gordon's record- setting ninth win in the prestigious event. With that said, it may not be success that describes Gordon's attraction to the Little 500, but dominance.
"It feels great, phenomenal," said Gordon after his ninth win. "We put so many hours into this car and this race. This track means a ton to me, and my family. Everybody associated with this car spent countless hours this past winter just for this night. I'm really happy for the team; I was able to get a run that was worthy of all the hours they put into this. Everybody did their job tonight and did it right. We stayed out of trouble; there were a couple of crashes out there that came close. The start was something else; we never saw a caution till close to lap 100. That says a lot about this field of cars and drivers," finished Gordon.
Eric Gordon without a doubt is currently the most dominant driver of the Little 500, and arguably the best of all time. "Bob Frey was a dominant driver in the '80s," track owner Rick Dawson said. "However, I can't think of another driver who shows up as many years as Eric has with the determination, class, and equipment to be a front runner. He has a special talent and skill, through years of experience, to keep his car out of trouble and let the race come to him."
Californian Tony Hunt’s electronically...
Californian Tony Hunt’s electronically controlled fuel-injected engine. Liberal engine rules allow racers to run a wide variety of powerplants in the Little 500.
Dig Hunt’s crazy intake.
The Little 500 attracts racers...
The Little 500 attracts racers of all ages like veteran driver Jeff Bloom who made his 36th start in the race. He has won it two times.
One-Page Rule Book
The Little 500 has some interesting qualifying rules, different from what many of us are used to. There are traditionally two sessions to qualify for this event. To qualify, each driver must take the green flag and run four consecutive laps. The total time spent on all four laps becomes the driver's official time. Drivers can take upwards of 120 minutes to make their qualifying runs. Drivers may wave-off before completing lap four if he or she is not satisfied with the time, but only three qualifying attempts will be permitted for any car. Taking the green flag is considered an attempt. After Round One, the fastest 15 cars are locked in and can't be bumped from the field. All awards and monies, such as the Pole Award, will be determined by Round One qualifiers.
Round Two takes place the following day, and is open to anybody whose time was 34th or slower. Positions 16 through 33 can requalify in Round Two if they have been bumped from the field by one of the slower cars. All cars are only permitted two attempts in Round Two qualifications. Once a car is officially qualified it may not be requalified, regardless of change in owner or driver and the person qualifying a car must start the race as driver of the car. Cars qualifying in Round Two forfeit the time recorded in Round One. The 34th qualifier must be on hand come race day in case any one of the previous qualified cars do not fire.
Pit Stops: All cars will be required to make two pit stops. One stop must be made before the 251st lap, and the other can be made at any time at the discretion of the owner or driver. Any car completing the race that has not made the two mandatory pit stops will be penalized five laps for each pit stop not taken. A pit stop under red doesn't count toward mandatory stops. A driver may not pit under yellow until they have passed the pit flagman displaying an open-pit flag. Pitting early will result in a one-lap penalty for each infraction.
The Cars: Only normal Sprint Car bodies are permitted. Super Modified or Roadster type bodies are not permitted. Nor are rear-engine sprinters or wings. Offset chassis are also not allowed. Driveshaft and engine crankshaft must be within (8) eight inches of the rear wheel's centerline, measured from center of each rear tire(s). Cars must have rollcages and a full bellypan. Additionally, all cars must utilize a blanket underneath the bellypan while, obviously, fuel cells with bladders are mandatory. All cars must weigh a minimum of 1,300 pounds without the driver before, during and after qualifying and the race. Tires limited to 20-inch cross-section maximum (measured with hoop). All cars must start the Little 500 on the same tires that were used to qualify their car.
This pit stall is ready to...
This pit stall is ready to go. Requiring two pit stops and a tire change, you can see the set up is more than prepared with air and impact guns for the front and back of the Sprinter and the fuel tank with gravity feed dump in the middle.
The quick-change rearend and...
The quick-change rearend and big brake for the Little 500 is a favorite rearend setup for the competitors.
Rookie Little 500 driver Kyle...
Rookie Little 500 driver Kyle Feeney gets his game face on for 125 miles of high banked racing action. He would go on to finish a very respectable Eighth in his first Little 500.
From the Man Who Runs the Show
Anderson Speedway boosts a wealth of 65 solid years of competition in its illustrious history. The 2012 season represented the 17th consecutive year under head man and promoter Rick Dawson.
Dawson is long associated with the Little 500, even before the decision-making days, and has withstood the tough times that come with putting on such an event. "The Little 500 week has become much like a huge family reunion," says Dawson. "I meet many folks from all over the world, many who have become annual visitors, and talk about the race and their lives. Talking to the people, especially after the race, and hearing the excitement and gratification in their voices is the highlight. I get a lot of input from fans and drivers and encourage it. It is their suggestions that we use to continually improve everyone's experience with the event. The process of putting together such an event actually begins well before the green flag. It takes a lot of positive energy and focus to organize such a huge event. The fact that it is a unique format: 500 laps, and live pit stops for Sprint Cars. For the fans, there is racing all over the track throughout the race. In addition, although many high profile names have competed in the race, it has maintained its grass roots flavor, giving a ‘hometown hero' the chance for national recognition. The simple rules have made it easier for competitors. Organization of the staff, facilities, and competitors along with sponsor procurement are the biggest challenges."
Dawson was enthusiastic while discussing the city of Anderson, and also the Title Sponsor of the Little 500. "We have a great relationship with the city of Anderson. The Little 500 Festival covers the entire month of May, brings in thousands of people, and has [raised] well over $1,000,000 for various charities. The festival participants include all type[s] of people, many who aren't necessarily ardent race fans," he said. "Pay Less [grocery store] is the primary sponsor of the event and makes the [race] financially feasible. They make it possible for the winner to receive at least $25,000 and last place earns $2,000, which is huge for Sprint Cars."
Gene Nolen Racing’s Gaerte...
Gene Nolen Racing’s Gaerte engine. You are not seeing things either, that is a six-cylinder race motor, one of two that were in the field.
The front row for the 2012...
The front row for the 2012 Little 500 featured pole sitter Tony Hunt (No. 56), Jo Jo Helberg (No. 7), and Aaron Pierce (No. 26). Of the three, only Pierce would go the distance to finish Fifth. Hunt completed 113 laps and finished 30th while Helberg didn’t fair much better, retiring after 121 laps to finish 29th.
Chet Fillip makes one of his...
Chet Fillip makes one of his two mandatory pit stops.
As stated in the Little 500 rules, the race allows Sprint Cars only--no Roadsters or Super Modifieds. But that hasn't always been the case. "Several years ago, to maintain the simple rules and parody for competitors, we limited the cars to Sprint Car--type chassis," explains Dawson. "This eliminated much ingenuity and mainly money in competitors' creativity. It also eliminates much tech during the race, putting the race outcome into the hands of the drivers and crews and taking most of it away from officiating."
After starting three-wide on a quarter-mile track, the 2012 race went the first 39 laps without a caution. That alone was amazing but a testament to Dawson's safety team constantly reminding the competitors that the Little 500 is a long race and there is no reason to do something stupid early in the going.
Like any track operator or promoter, Dawson has plenty of memories from the big event—some good, some bad. "Most memorable moments--that is a tough one," Dawson said. "It would probably be when the checkered flag fell on our first race in 1997. Being a new track owner, and being overwhelmed by the enormity of the task to put on the event, and then having it be successful was exhilarating. One of the toughest times actually in my life was losing our track worker, Roy Hiatt, during a race (in 2008 when Hiatt was struck by a race car during the Little 500). The experience was and still is beyond words and is something I hope no one ever has to experience," concludes Dawson.
Less than 24 hours before the start of this year's Indy 500, the Little 500's green flag waved over the cars of Tony Hunt, Jo Jo Helberg, and Aaron Pierce. The trio led 33 fire-breathing Sprint Cars sailing off into Turn 1 with Helberg assuming command before the first caution flew for a minor spin on lap 39.
Ohioan Jimmy McCune (No. 88)...
Ohioan Jimmy McCune (No. 88) and Ryan Litt (No. 07), from Canada, get together as the field scrambles by in tight order.
Just like the big race up...
Just like the big race up the road, the Little 500 winner savors his victory with a big swig of milk. Here 2012 winner North Carolina’s Brian Tyler slugs it down for the third time in his career.
On the restart Helberg kept the point until lap 122, when he bounced off the wall coming off of Turn 2--ending a great run. With Helberg out of the way, nine-time-winner Eric Gordon, who started ninth, found himself at the top of the field looking for a 10th win. And that actually looked like it might happen until lap 329 when Gordon's crew had problems getting the right rear tire off the car, during their second mandatory stop. They lost five laps on pit road. Even Mr. Little 500 could not come back from that deficit.
Veteran Open-Wheel racer Brian Tyler ran a smart race, staying within sight of the lead until it was crunch time. He sailed to the front of the 33-car field on lap 342 and never looked back to capture the 64th annual Pay Less Little 500, beating runner-up Billy Wease by an entire lap. Of note, it was Wease's first Little 500 start, Third Place finisher Brian Gerster, started in 29th, while Chet Fillip and Aaron Pierce rounded out the Top 5 in Fourth and Fifth Place, respectively. The night saw six lead changes among five drivers, and 14 cautions slowed the pace for 151 laps.
"You just had to be patient," said Tyler. "We did not qualify very [well], I just worked my way up there. When a door opened I would go for it, when not I would just ride. I just run my race as hard as I could without using up my equipment. We kind of fly by night on pit stops, we have an area we wanted to hit, but then we just played it by ear. The last four years here, this car has been one of the most dominant cars here and we have had engine troubles. This year they kept a horse under me and I rode it to the finish," the happy winner said.