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4/28/2005

April 28, 2005

Our no-nonsense guide to the Drake Relays

By Jim Duncan

In 1980, Sports Illustrated reported a big football upset, “For the second consecutive year, Colorado lost to Drake, better known as a track meet.” From the distance of a quarter century, the most incredulous thing about that report is not that the non-scholarship Bulldogs once humbled college football’s elite, but that the Drake Relays could have been referenced as simply “a track meet.”

Every year, on the last weekend of April, eight or nine thousand athletes come to Des Moines to compete in running, jumping and throwing events. For 38 years running, about 35,000 fans pack the sold-out stadium every Saturday, constituting the most cosmopolitan large gathering in the state. Drake’s ticket office reports that this year’s crowd comes from at least 47 states, not to mention numerous foreign countries, and the athletes come from even farther afield. Thousands of others will descend on the Drake and downtown neighborhoods without a ticket or a contestant’s badge.

Martini Fest

As the new millennium comes of age, the Relays have grown into an annual rite of spring, an event that transcends definition. But that isn’t acceptable to writers, so we went looking for a better understanding of Des Moines’ unique tourist attraction. While hundreds of cities host fairs and art fests, there is nothing else like the Drake Relays. Simply put: it is no ordinary track meet.

A scholar of many languages, David Maxwell is no ordinary college president. For one thing, his presidency is a Bill Clinton-style partnership with wife Maddie. The coupling of their first names recalls the world-class casualness of the Blue Moon Detective Agency from TV’s “Moonlighting,” and Maxwell’s governing fiat sounds more like Bruce Willis than the starched management style typical of academia.

“I tell everyone that policy is what you have to fall back on when you don’t have a better idea,” Maxwell says.

So, when we asked him to define the Drake Relays, it was no surprise that he had a better idea than the standard cliche.

“It’s Mardi Gras in spandex,” Maxwell says. “That’s at least the most quotable thing I have to say about the Relays. In fact, the University Book Store asked me if they could use the quote on T-shirts. But it’s apt. For Drake, the Relays are a weeklong event. From the parade and the street paintings to the final race, students are engaged through the entire week. For the students, the staff and the alumni it’s the most important event of the year, the social lynch pin for the Drake family, our de facto homecoming. We run reunions for five, 10, 25 and 40 years, maybe more. Any such event will be better attended on Relays weekend than any event any other time of the year.”

Evelyn Gallagher, who has, for nearly half a century, hosted as many as 30 friends on Relays Week, agrees with that.

“I’m 90 years old now, so this might be the last time I do it, but I expect maybe 20 people will be here,” she says. “It’s not a big deal. I’ve been doing it for 40 years, or 50, I’m not sure. I know I went to my first Relays in 1932 and I’ve only missed two since then, when I had to be out of town. I sat through rain and sleet and snow a few times each, too.”

Drake’s historian Paul Morrison thinks the Relays have always carried Kentucky Derby-like-class social cache.

“When I worked at the Cedar Rapids Gazette (in 1941 and 1945), we did a society page report listing all the local people who would be attending the Relays each year,” he says.

Greatness In Bud

Obviously, Relays fans return to Drake as faithfully as magnolia blossoms to the campus. Ticket renewal rates are extraordinary for an event drawing so many out-of-towners. For the sports fan, the Relays present a unique opportunity to collect rare memories of images that preordain fame. Most fans learn about stars after they have already arrived on the world stage wearing their nation’s colors, on a distant Olympic victory stand. That is when the long-time Relays fans smile with the smugness of one who “knew them back when.”

Old Relays buffs have seen many things that few ever see – greatness in bud. My father, who announced the Relays for many years, could close his eyes and reel off bright names and colors stored in his memory: “Harrison Dillard in Baldwin-Wallace maroon, Bobby Hayes in the orange and blue of Florida A&M, wearing the Graceland gold – Bruce Jenner, Jesse Owens with The Ohio State scarlet and gray, Merlene Ottey in the crimson of Nebraska, Herschel Walker in Georgia white, Wilma Rudolph wearing the bright blue of Tennessee State, Tash Kaiser in Roosevelt navy, Tim Dwight in the bright red of City High, Bobby Morrow in Abilene Christian’s royal purple.”

With so many colors blazing, the Relays resemble a food or jazz festival, or a renaissance fair. From its dog show to its street vendors, from its Mascot Relays to its corporate and beer tents, from the breakfast beer at the West End to its final official party at the Downtown Marriott, the Relays give athletes and their fans an opportunity to interact like no other sports event.

The Happy Coincidence

To borrow from F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was speaking of Louisville and the Kentucky Derby, the Drake Relays in Des Moines is the happy coincidence of the perfect time and place. Our magnolias bloomed early this year, but lilacs, pansies and tulips should be perfuming an ambiance that represents what is best about life in Des Moines. What the city lacks in major-league credentials, it more than compensates with precious intimacy.

Drake’s track and stadium provide truly friendly confines that encourage fans and athletes to feed each other emotionally. Stars rub shoulders with the public, drink beer with them, eat eggs with them and sign autographs without demanding a fee. It’s a giant audience participation shadow dance, to the beat of rhythmic clapping.

For this reason, Drake has always held a special place in the heart of some elite athletes. Michael Johnson continued to run here after the Relays no longer fit his training schedule, because he felt the love. Same thing with Susie Faber Hamilton, who attended even when she couldn’t run, as well as this year’s golden Olympians Perdita Felicien and Jeremy Wariner. Carl Lewis once ran in injury-threatening bad weather, after most of his lesser competitors had scratched.

Maxwell noted that the Relays are the number-one branding agent for the university.

“We have a good academic reputation,” he says. “Among 142 masters programs in the region, we are consistently rated near the top. Yet, to most of the world outside the Drake community, the Relays are the response people give to the name Drake.”

Veishea’s Benevolent Twin

A very special event for people who love track, this is also a weekend for people who like parties, street vendors, great food, neighborhoods and towns that can let their hair down.

Rosa Martinez Ruiz, owner of La Rosa CafŽ three blocks from the stadium, sees it as a grand audience builder for her young business.

“I love the Relays. Everyone is having so much fun,” she says. “People I’ve never seen wander in and eat and then they come back again, with friends.”

Much is made of the Relays’ record of sellouts. An even more remarkable record barely speaks its name, for fear of jinx. Despite the party atmosphere and the drinking that begins at breakfast, despite the entire weekend being a full-fledged rite of spring, for mostly young people in very short shorts and spandex body suits, the Relays has avoided the kinds of ugliness that plague most similar spring breaks from routine.

While such factors can turn rapine and riotous faster than a steroid messes up an athlete’s cardiovascular system, the Relays have remained Veishea’s non-violent twin. Drake Neighborhood Association President David Courard-Hauri believes this is rather uncomplicated.

“Outside of people complaining about traffic during the Relays, it’s pretty issue-free. I think Drake does a good job of providing positive outlets for its students, giving them opportunities to have a good time – street painting, etc. They are also not heavy-handed about stopping the fun. So it’s not something the neighborhood fears, like Veishea,” he says, adding that his group plants flowers early, without fear of vandalism.

Drake Professor Emeritus of Sociology Dean Wright thinks that Drake’s very nature is its salve.

“The Drake area doesn’t have the concentration of bars that the Iowa or Iowa State campuses have, so there isn’t the culture of intoxication that comes with that territory. We have maybe six bars in the entire Drake area and they are scattered, not clustered. We sociologists like to explain riots with ‘contagion theory.’ People do bad things because they see other people doing them, and because they assume the anonymity of the crowd exists, though video surveillance cameras ought to nullify that now,” he explains. “When it comes to bad behavior and the madness of crowds, size does matter. These things don’t happen so much at private universities as they do at large public schools.”

For Maxwell, the Relays’ big happy umbrella is an opportunity, with a hitch.

“Our biggest challenge is to connect the alumni with a formal Drake event when they are here. There is so much else going on, so many opportunities for them to have more fun with their old friends,” he says.

The Provincial Relays

When the long-running TV series “ABC Wide World of Sports” premiered in 1961, it originated live from the Drake Relays. Four decades later, when ABC’s ESPN celebrated its 25th anniversary, the network chose the Iowa high school wrestling meet, not the Relays, as this state’s premiere sporting event. Clearly, the Relays are not what they used to be, but does that matter?

Track and field is not what it used to be either, at least not in America. The sport has endured decades of challenge from sports better situated for television: basketball, football, extreme sports, motor sports, figure skating, boxing and gymnastics. All ascended during track and field’s slump. Blame the length of a track meet, or its down time, the shortness of a 100-meter dash, or the lack of physical contact. Or blame the fact that the supreme track events are all held in Europe, save the Olympics, which are only held every four years. TV does not love the sport.

However, the Drake Relays did not fare as well as its ancient rival, the Penn Relays. That meet’s larger stadium allowed it to outbid Drake for some college teams and individual stars, but Drake also dropped the baton with stubborn provincialism. Penn attracts elite college teams because of its superior high school meet, open to all comers, from all states, islands and nations. Many college coaches prefer Penn for recruiting, for the open society of Penn’s track meet provides the perfect environment to skate around recruiting rules.

Drake closed its high school meet to out-of-state athletes after the 1940 Relays, when the Iowa High School Athletic Union issued a sanction against Iowans competing against out-of-state athletes. It would have been unpatriotic to fight the sanction during gas rationing in World War II, but after 1972′s Bunger Decision, the Iowa attorney general declared that sanction illegal. Yet Drake never opened its high school meet again. The Relays’ Iowa-only restriction discourages the national spotlight, while most similar college relays thrive on interstate competition.

When outgoing Relays Director Mark Kostek took that job five Relays ago, he advocated opening the closed high school meet. It has not happened on his watch. So we asked new Relays Director Brian Brown about ending the self-imposed sanctions.

“It sounds like a good idea in theory, but I’d have to look into the reasons why it hasn’t been done,” he says, sounding familiarly provincial.

The More Things Change…

The year was 1925. Local businessman Carl Weeks wrote the following warning in The Des Moines Tribune: “Something must be done before the spring Drake Relays or there is going to be a big pull to take the Relays to Chicago, Madison or Minneapolis. These other college centers have stadiums capable of holding the crowds and caring for the athletes.”

Shortly afterward, the Greater Des Moines Committee endowed the red brick Drake Stadium to the university. Four score and a seven-tenths of a year later, Drake is breaking ground on renovations to the home of the Relays, in hopes of attracting major tourist events from Chicago, Champagne, Ill., and Indianapolis, Ind.

It would likely be more efficient to tear down the stadium and build a new one, but that isn’t emotionally viable -too many people have too many strong feelings about the venerable old red brick facility. So the changes will be “intra-structural.” Basically, they will reduce the number of seats while reconfiguring the shape of the track, adding lights and synthetic turf, new bathrooms and luxury and press box seating while keeping the red brick faade everyone loves.

The backers of the plan read like a Who’s Who of Central Iowa business – Maddie Levitt, Bill Knapp, Jim and Patty Cownie, Gerry Neugent, Bill Knapp II, Jack Taylor, Pitch Johnson and Don Lamberti. Principal, Prairie Meadows and Polk County each pledged a cool million. Tourism is the brass ring that makes this coalition reach out, for the chance to bring NCAA track meets, U.S. Olympic Trials and AAU Junior Olympics to Des Moines. Drake’s record of selling out the Relays will push the stadium to the top of the list of candidates to host such events, which “economic impact” touts claim will bring $300 million to Des Moines each decade.

Jim Cownie says his family’s participation was both sentimental and practical.

“We see the stadium, like the fairgrounds and a few other places, as an integral part of the fabric of Des Moines,” he says. “Like all fabrics, they need freshening from time to time. This is as important as anything amongst the $1 billion of projects going on here.”

Cownie explains that, fully lighted and with turf rugged enough to withstand multiple usages, the new stadium will host more events than ever before. Concerts, high school football, soccer, youth sports festivals and marching band competitions are all anticipated. He also mused that sometimes the best visions of the future look like the past.

“I have a sentimental attachment to the stadium,” Cownie says. “Playing high school football games there was a wonderful experience for me. I’d like to see that opportunity extended to a new generation. Any new usage that involves the greater community generates more good things. The more people visiting an area and enjoying the amenities, the more the entire area benefits.

“I have already seen this happen, at the soccer and baseball complex that is named for my father. Each new field and stadium brings more people to the area and that has made a major footprint on a formerly derelict part of our community,” he says.

Thus, ground breaking will be part of Saturday’s opening ceremonies. CV

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