Wieczorek has many fond Drake Relays memories

April 23, 2009

Drake Relays Photo Gallery (April 23)

DES MOINES, Iowa — There will be no shortage of trips down memory lane this weekend as the Drake Relays celebrates its 100th running. University of Iowa head men’s track and field coach Larry Wieczorek has been a footnote to many of the highlights on the blue track.

During his first season at Iowa, NCAA regulations forbid freshmen from competing at the varsity level. Wieczorek participated in the Drake Relays three seasons — 1966-68 — and literally rubbed shoulders with some of the sport’s elite.

“One of my memories is running against the great miler Jim Ryun in relays, particularly the distance medley relay,” Wieczorek said. “I kind of battled him on the backstretch before he blew me away coming home. It gave the crowd a little bit of a thrill for awhile.”

Wieczorek was a Hawkeye teammate with Mike Mondane, Carl Frazier, Fred Ferree and Jon Reimer, who won the Drake Relays mile relay in 1967.

“One of my memories is running against the great miler Jim Ryun in relays, particularly the distance medley relay. I kind of battled him on the backstretch before he blew me away coming home. It gave the crowd a little bit of a thrill for awhile.”
UI head men’s track coach
Larry Wieczorek

“I’m pretty sure our 4×4 team beat Texas to win that event at the Drake Relays and then went on to win the national championship,” Wieczorek said. “They would be a great team today. They won (in 1967) in 3-minutes, 4.1-seconds, which would hold up pretty well today at the national championships, too.”

It was at the Drake Relays where former UI head coach Ted Wheeler introduced Wieczorek to Olympic sprinting great Wilma Rudolph.

“I have some pictures sitting with her in the stands,” Wieczorek said. “That was a neat memory.”

After graduating from college, Wieczorek was detached from the Drake Relays for 12 years while he taught and coached in high school. That changed when he returned to Iowa as an assistant coach in the fall of 1984. His homecoming to the Hawkeyes meant a return to the Drake Relays, where Wieczorek saw Iowa’s Anthuan Maybank become the first athlete in the world to long jump more than 27 feet and run under 45 seconds in the 400-meter dash in the same meet. He also looked on as Chris Gambol won the shot put in 1987.

“That was a big thrill for me as a rookie throws coach,” Wieczorek said.

Wieczorek is also proud of the fact that assistant coach Joey Woody — a Drake Relays icon in the 400 hurdles — concluded his competitive career as a member of the Hawkeye coaching staff. He also glows when talking about Stetson Steele’s 10K title here.

So what is it that gives the Drake Relays such universal appeal?

“From the snow to the rain to the beautiful perfect days, I’ve seen it all. I think of the year when it was snowing and teams were leaving the meet, but Carl Lewis continued to get out there and perform for the crowd. I’ve seen everything under the sun and everything under the no sun.”
UI head men’s track coach
Larry Wieczorek

“People like Mark Kostek and Brian Brown have taken it from that great historic meet and moved it into the 21st century,” Wieczorek said. “They continue to bring the great stars back, but they don’t lose sight of the importance of the college and high school athletes. It’s a unique blend.”

Like many Drake Relays veterans, Wieczorek couldn’t share memories of the event without bringing up long-time director Bob Ehrhart or legendary announcer Jim Duncan. Ironically, the current Voice of the Drake Relays is Mike Jay, who announces all of Iowa’s home events.

“I think Jim Duncan would be real proud of the job Mike does,” Wieczorek said. “Mike is becoming the best announcer in the country, so he’s filling those shoes of Jim Duncan’s pretty well.”

There is another feature of the Drake Relays that isn’t lost on the Hawkeye athletes and coaches: every Hawkeye is greeted by overwhelming partisan support before, during and after their events in Des Moines.

“All of our athletes are just amazed,” Wieczorek said. “We try to impress upon them that this is the state of Iowa and this is like a home meet for us coming down the road here. A lot of these fans want to cheer for the Hawkeyes. People are saying `Go Hawks’ as our runners are just jogging around or warming up. If they do anything at all, it really brings the crowd to its feet. This is the Hawkeye state and we’re the Hawkeyes.”

Iowa returns to action Friday morning, April 24, with the 4×100 relays (the first of 13 events for the Hawkeyes on Friday). The women compete at 9:32 and the men run at 9:48. Don’t ask for a weather report. This is April in Iowa.

“From the snow to the rain to the beautiful perfect days, I’ve seen it all,” Wieczorek said. “I think of the year when it was snowing and teams were leaving the meet, but Carl Lewis continued to get out there and perform for the crowd. I’ve seen everything under the sun and everything under the no sun.”