The boys from Speed City burn up the town - Sports Illustrated Vault |
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The boys from Speed City burn up the town

After winning a grudge race against Jimmy Hines at 200 meters, Tommie Smith led the Santa Clara Youth Village to victory over USC's famed 440-yard relay team to be named top athlete at Coliseum-Compton meet

Tommie Smith was slouched in the front seat, holding a Polaroid Big Swinger, an Instamatic M-14 movie camera and a three-foot-high trophy, all of which he had just won running in the Coliseum-Compton Invitational Track Meet. The rented convertible stopped for a light at the intersection of Hoover Street and Venice Boulevard in downtown Los Angeles. "Hey, cats, look at that car," Smith said to John Carlos and Lee Evans, who were riding with him. They looked and saw—not a Ferrari, not even a Cadillac—a Volkswagen.

"You crackin' up?" asked Evans.

"No, look there at that license plate," said Smith. "Look at it. Lovely. 'WIN 221.' I'm gonna get me one that says 'WIN 220' and stick it on my Chevy and ain't no one gonna ever take it off. Got to love it."

"Hold it just a minute," Carlos said. "If I'm lyin' I'm flyin', but you didn't win no 220 tonight, did you, man? Nope, you didn't." The light changed and the Volkswagen moved away, and Smith began to laugh. "Carlos," he said, "why don't you quit buggin' me?"

Smith, Carlos and their Santa Clara Youth Village running mates—particularly Billy Gaines, Kirk Clayton and Jerry Williams—bugged the Coliseum-Compton meet all Friday night. True, Smith, who holds the world record for the 220-yard dash, did not win the 220. But there was no 220 scheduled. Instead, Tommie won an Olympic-distance 200-meter dash—a race exactly 46 inches shorter than 220 yards—and moved one up (three to two) in his grudge duel with Jim Hines of the Houston Striders. Smith also anchored the Youth Village's 440-yard relay team to an unexpected victory over USC's experienced world-record quartet that had not lost in more than a year.

The night, though, did not start that well for Santa Clara. In the 100-meter dash Carlos, running at full speed after a two-month setback with a pulled hamstring muscle, was clocked at 10.3 along with Ronnie Ray Smith of San Jose State and Hines. It looked as though Carlos was there first, and he was accepting congratulations when it was announced that Hines was the winner and Carlos had been placed third. It was not until the weekly meeting of the Southern California Track and Field Writers' Association on Monday, in fact, that meet officials got the places all sorted out. After examining news photos and television films, they awarded first to Carlos.

At the time, however, John protested the decision with a certain vehemence. "Man, them cats jived me," he said, "just like they jived Tommie last week. You see, we're all with the boycott, man, and they ain't givin' us nuthin'."

The previous week at San Diego, Hines, who does not advocate the proposed boycott of the Olympics, and Smith both were timed in 20.3 for the 220, and Hines was declared the winner. Smith asked the judges to look at a television film of the race, but they refused. "The worst I should have got was a dead heat." Smith said. "Officially, I guess I've lost three important races in my life—two to Hines and one to Richard Stebbins, who used to run for Grambling. But in my own mind I've been beaten only twice."

A race between Smith and Hines generally is decided in the first 50 yards. Hines has a dynamic start. Smith starts slowly but finishes like a jet. Unless Hines breaks fast enough to have at least a substantial lead after about 50 yards, there is little chance he will survive Smith's closing charge. At San Diego Hines had moved to a six-yard lead after about five seconds, then yielded all six during the next 15 seconds.

To get these fast starts, Hines almost jumps the gun. Sometimes he does—and gets caught. He was disqualified from the 100-meter race at the Kansas Relays in April for two false starts. "It's the starters' fault," he says. "After they've said 'Get set,' they're supposed to hold 2½ seconds—no longer—and fire the gun. This year they're holding three and 3½ seconds and goofing me—and everyone else—all up. They get you up on your arms too long, and you lose your timing and form at the beginning."

In the Coliseum last Friday night, Smith started the 200-meter in Lane 3, while Hines was staggered ahead in Lane 4. "This helps me," said Smith, "because I can see him all the time and know what I have to do. At San Diego he was staggered behind me, and I never really knew how far ahead he was until we came into the straightaway. But when he's ahead of me in the blocks I can keep in touch." Hines broke strongly at the gun, but Smith never trailed by more than three yards. When they reached the straight Tommie burned down home and won by two yards.

If Tommie Smith beat Jim Hines to settle a grudge, his Santa Clara Youth Village sprint relay team beat USC's 440-yard relay champions to reestablish pride. After all, USC, with Fred Kuller, Lennox Miller and football stars O.J. Simpson and Earl McCullouch, had practiced together for two seasons, perfecting the baton passes that are so important in such short relays.

The Youth Village organized its 440 team only this year. Art Simburg, who had become Tommie Smith's greatest fan when both were students at San Jose State (the cities of San Jose and Santa Clara are next to each other), recruited most of the members of the Youth Village team. He convinced Billy Gaines, a slightly overaged high school student, to leave New Jersey, move to San Jose and compete for the Youth Village. He persuaded John Carlos, a New Yorker who complained of a racial situation at East Texas State, to move on west. Martin McGrady transferred to San Jose from Central State in Ohio, and Kirk Clayton came from Grambling College in Louisiana. Simburg also recruited Jerry Williams, who had been a great runner at Berkeley (Calif.) High School and then dropped out of sight. "I smoked and drank a lot," Williams said, "and I was really living fast. I went through one marriage and into a second. I was lost."

Simburg had been the sports editor of the school paper at Berkeley High, and all he wrote about was Jerry Williams. He remembered him, tracked him down in a pool hall and couriered him to San Jose. Now Williams is finishing his lower-grade scholastic requirements and running for the Youth Village. With Tommie Smith, who had completed his collegiate eligibility at San Jose State, also available, the Youth Village soon became known as Speed City. "No one can ever beat them on speed alone," said Vern Wolfe, the USC coach, before Friday's meet. "But they haven't worked on the mechanics of the relay—the baton pass particularly. And they talk a lot, really a lot, about beating us. We've never run against them before. It should be a good race."

For the race, Speed City decided on a quartet with Billy Gaines running the lead, Clayton following, then Jerry Williams and finally Tommie Smith as the anchor. USC went with McCullouch, then Kuller, O.J. and Lennox Miller. The Trojans led by a stride near the end of the second leg. Then it happened. While Clayton neatly passed the baton to Jerry Williams, Kuller and O.J. Simpson had trouble. "Fred ran up and yelled 'stick,' and then he hit me on the shoulder with it," said O.J. "He got me the second time, but it was too late. We lost the race right there." For the final leg Smith started with a step lead over Lennox Miller and easily maintained it.

"We run them the first time and lose," said O.J. afterward. "The worse thing is, we'll never run 'em again. Earl graduates and who knows what will happen. I hate to start and end this as a loser."

USC lost, but Tommie Smith won—the movie camera for the 200, the Polaroid camera for the relay, the trophy for being the meet's outstanding athlete and a restored pride. "I didn't want people to think my speed was dwindling," he said. "It never dwindles."