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At Long Last, Relays Season is Back - Part Two


This is the second of a two-part series by contributor Tom Surber on the Penn and Drake Relays. Click here to read part one.

Hosted by Drake University every year since 1910, the Drake Relays have showcased countless high school and college athletes, in addition to many of the world’s all-time great track and field performers.

Featuring legends through the years such as Jesse Owens, Wilma Rudolph, Al Oerter, Carl Lewis, Michael Johnson and countless others, the Drake Relays has a rich heritage and is widely considered an American track and field institution. The event has played host to numerous World and Olympic champions and hundreds of athletes who have competed at the Olympic Games.


The first Drake Relays in 1910 was a relatively small affair that has grown into a six-day festival that includes a variety of community events around the city including a downtown Grand Blue Mile community street run for all ages and abilities taking place this year on Tuesday, April 26. Approximately 5,000 runners — an event record — took part in the 6th Annual Grand Blue Mile in downtown Des Moines’ Western Gateway last year. The event attracted elite athletes and competitive and recreational runners from 11 states, four countries and three continents.


On-track events at this year’s Drake Relays will take place April 27-30, with live television coverage from 3-5 p.m. ET on NBCSN.


The Drake Relays celebrated its 100th running in 2009 with Michael Johnson and Gwen Torrence being named Athletes of Century. Jesse Owens was named Athlete of First Half Century in 1959, with Steve Scott and Mike Boit being named Athletes of the Quarter Century in 1984.


In addition to its role as a world-class track meet, the Drake Relays also serves as an annual homecoming for the university. One of the featured attractions each year is the Beautiful Bulldog Pageant, where dozens of bulldogs do battle to be named the official Drake Relays mascot. A uniquely Drake event, the winning bulldog receives top honors as well as a crown and cape, and it appears before his or her royal subjects of more than 14,000 fans at the Drake Relays to be officially honored as the Relays mascot.


One of the more unique aspects of the Drake Relays is that it serves as a homecoming celebration each year for Drake University alumni to return to their alma mater to enjoy one of the world’s greatest track and field events. Fans from more than 40 states annually attend the Drake Relays.


“It’s a long standing tradition,” said former longtime Drake Sports Information Director Mike Mahon, who served as media coordinator of the Drake Relays from 1988-2010. “They have alumni parties and for over 100 years everybody comes back for the Drake Relays. It’s always the last week in April and there’s always a lot of celebration and a lot of various reunions planned.”

The Drake Relays is not only an event that’s celebrated on campus and in the host city of Des Moines, the entire state of Iowa takes a great deal of pride in claiming this remarkable event as its own.


“It’s a landmark and everybody has it on their calendar for the last week in April,” Mahon added. “The University of Iowa’s Hayden Fry, the first year he was the head football coach, he scheduled his spring practice the same weekend as the Drake Relays, and he came out the next day and said that was a big mistake and he’d never do that again. We went head-to-head one year with Willie Nelson and Farm Aid and held our own. It’s an outstanding institution where people have it rain or shine and the crowd is going to be there, and for the state of Iowa it’s the premiere sporting event because you’re always going to get Olympians and world-class athletes every year.”

The 2015 Drake Relays featured five world-leading marks in front of a sellout crowd of 14,504 spectators marking the 50th consecutive year that a capacity crowd has filled Drake Stadium to watch the final day of the event.


“The Drake Relays is an annual rite of spring in the Midwest,” Mahon said. “When you combine the color and pageantry of the meet coupled with watching the best athletes in the world perform, attending the Drake Relays is always a special treat. It has been the fans’ rapport with the countless number of competitors that has contributed to Drake Stadium's reputation as one of the most popular track and field venues in America today.”


On April 29, 1961, a new television sports anthology program hit the airwaves for the first time entitled “ABC’s Wide World of Sports. “Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sport,” as its famous introduction stated -- the wildly popular show gave its American viewers the opportunity to see familiar sports, and sports that many of its viewers had never even imagined.


The landmark show lasted for 37 seasons with its first episode featuring legendary host Jim McKay at Franklin Field to host live coverage of the 1961 Penn Relays, with occasional switches to Jim Simpson in Des Moines with live coverage of the Drake Relays.


For those who have relished the drama and excitement of relays season through the years, the fact that such an iconic program aired the Penn Relays and Drake Relays on its inaugural telecast comes as no surprise. When you think about it, what could have been better?


Contributed by Tom Surber


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