“Since you won that Italian bike, man, you’ve been acting weird. You’re really getting to think you’re Italian, aren’t you?”
— Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley) in the film Breaking Away to the lead character, Dave Stoller (Dennis Christopher)
I learn something nearly every day as I work on this blog. The latest bit of useless trivia to clutter my untidy mind cames from a regular reader of Jim’s Bike Blog who tipped me off to the real-life inspiration for the film Breaking Away, which I wrote about on Tuesday.
The Little 500 is, indeed, a real race, held annually at IU’s Bill Armstrong Stadium. Riders compete in teams of four, racing relay-style for 200 laps (50 miles) along a quarter-mile cinder track. The race was founded in 1951 by Howdy Wilcox Jr., executive director of the university’s Student Foundation. He modeled it after the Indianapolis 500, which his father had won in 1919.
In 1962, the star participant in the Little 500 was an avid cyclist from Speedway, Ind., named Dave Blase, who had worked with Italian doctors at a medical center and became interested in and influenced by Italian culture. Like the main character in Breaking Away, he affected the language and mannerisms of Italian cyclists who had dominated the cycling events in the 1960 Olympics in Rome. He was even known to sing opera in Italian while riding his bike.
Blase, recruited by the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity team, dominated the race by riding 139 of the 200 laps himself, including the final victory lap. An alternate member of the team that year was a Serbian-American Russian-language major named Steve Tesich, who 17 years later wrote the screenplay for Breaking Away and won an Oscar for his work.
So it’s no coincidence that the first name of the film’s main character is Dave. The character’s last name, Wikipedia says, came from team manager Bob Stoller.
Blase, who continued his friendship with Tesich after college, played a cameo role as an announcer in Breaking Away and has been a fixture at Little 500 races through the years.
“I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about [my story] but I can understand why it appeals to people on so many different levels,” Blase, a retired public school biology teacher who lives in Indianapolis, told the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel in 2009, 30 years after Breaking Away hit the movie screens.
“It just so happens that a bicycle was the vehicle in this. Really, it’s a lot more about the problems and the insecurities for people growing up from youth to adulthood and how they find themselves and how they overcome problems and insecurities. Everybody can relate to those kinds of things.”
He told News-Sentinel sports writer Nick West why he adopted an Italian persona in his bike-racing days:
“It’s sort of like how somebody wants to copy an NBA player. If they have aspirations to be a basketball star and like somebody, they’ll copy their habits and style. For me, my dream world was this Italian thing.”
In another interview in 2009, Blase told Jennie Runevitch of Indianapolis TV station WTHR/Channel 13: “I was lucky enough to have been selected as the inspiration for the story, but I’d like to think that anyone who’s ever ridden in the race, it’s their story.”
So now you know at least as much about the background of the film as I do.
Check out the video interview of Blase at the 2009 running of the Little 500.