Looking Back at Breaking Away - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Looking Back at Breaking Away
Long Hole Quarry (also known as Sanders Quarry) in Bloomington, Indiana, 2006 (Sphinxcat/Wikimedia Commons)

Bloomington, Indiana — Driving around this university town on a sweltering hot summer day, a normal person might be in pursuit of the excellent music school, or the nationally known journalism school, and most hopefully not the Kinsey Institute. Or one might be mindful of the university’s storied basketball program or unsurpassed swim teams, which included a swimmer in the 1960s named R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr.

But not I.

I was in hot pursuit of two distinct destinations: a trailer and a quarry.

As for the first, I was committed to finding the site of the first de facto offices of The American Spectator. This was not the illustrious site of the so-called “The Establishment,” i.e., the $75-per-month farmhouse in nearby Ellettsville that Bob Tyrrell and friends converted into the first official headquarters of The Alternative magazine, which ultimately became The American Spectator. Rather, my quest was for the forgotten location of a nondescript two-bedroom trailer just down the street from the football stadium, where Tyrrell and Stephen Davis crafted the inaugural issue of the magazine in September 1967.

The address for that 1951 trailer was 1200 N. Indiana Avenue No. 6. My GPS was as clueless as I was. I discovered that the Great Trailer of Legend is gone completely, not even a broken beer bottle left behind. The site is a grass field, which Tyrrell and Davis chalk up to some misbegotten form of “urban renewal.”

Curse the shortsightedness of Indiana and UNESCO authorities for not preserving it as a historic landmark!

But my mission this day also included a search for another Bloomington landmark, namely, “Long Hole.” Unlike long trailer, Long Hole could not be grassed over. Long Hole was a swimming quarry. In fact, it was the quarry made famous in the wonderful 1979 film Breaking Away.

Released in July 1979, the film was a smash. It was written by Bob Tyrrell’s Indiana University classmate and good friend Steve Tesich. Produced and directed by Peter Yates, it starred Dennis Christopher, a young Dennis Quaid, a young Daniel Stern, Jackie Earle Haley, Paul Dooley, Barbara Barrie, and Robyn Douglass. For his terrific screenplay, the 37-year-old Tesich received the Academy Award, one of five categories for which the film was nominated, including Best Picture. It did win the Golden Globe Award for Best Film, among numerous other accolades for the film, the screenwriter, and the actors. The American Film Institute lists it No. 8 among America’s Most Inspiring Movies.

And it was filmed in and around Bloomington and the IU campus. Filming the movie brought Tesich back to Bloomington in the late 1970s to reenact the climactic bicycle race that had taken place on the IU track in the early 1960s. Tesich and our venerable leader at The American Spectator, Bob Tyrrell, were fraternity brothers in Phi Kappa Psi. As Tyrrell notes today, “We were very close friends.”

The movie focused on four local townie boys in Bloomington, derisively dubbed “cutters” by the snooty college kids. The main character, Dave Stoller, played brilliantly by 23-year-old actor Dennis Christopher, is hilariously obsessed with everything Italian — the language, culture, and above all the renowned Italian bicycling team, Cinzano. Himself a bicyclist, Dave departs from a dead-end life as a cutter to a more promising horizon, clinched by him breaking away from the pack as he leads his four-man team of cutters to victory in the celebrated “Little 500” bicycle race held annually on the IU campus. It is truly a feel-good film.

Breaking Away is a story based on the transformation of the main character, Dave Stoller, who in reality was a guy named Dave Blase. As I searched for a trailer and quarry in Bloomington, I did manage to track down Blase. It was Blase, part of a four-man team that included Tesich himself, who in the 1962 “Little 500” race rode 138 of the 200 laps in crossing the line first, sealing a dramatic victory.

Tesich thus certainly knew that which he scripted. In fact, in Tesich’s original screenplay, the character was named Dave Blase, but the studio changed it to Dave Stoller because it would have seemed too made-up to have a speedy cycle-racer named Blase.

But truth is often stranger than fiction. And Blase himself was an interesting character, as Tesich saw up close and personal.

The Real Dave

Blase attended IU between 1957 and 1962 (with time off in between), joining a team as a freshman for the Little 500 in the spring 1958 race. When Tyrrell’s Phi Psis sought to assemble their team to compete in the big race, they looked to Blase (the Phi Psi fraternity was packed with incredible swimmers, Blase not one of them).

“We all knew Dave Blase!” says Tyrrell today, recounting a colorful character in real life as well as the on-screen portrayal. Tyrrell’s friend, fellow swimmer (an Olympian and world record-holder), and frat brother Al Somers, adds, “Blase was a great character. He was even more than that portrayed in the movie.”

I found that out quite intimately when I tracked down Blase to interview him and ask him some questions relating to the history I’m writing of The American Spectator. I thought he could help add details to the Bloomington–Bob Tyrrell milieu of the day — and more so, I wanted to ask him about the iconic film. What he told me (if I may) ran deeper than the quarry I searched for.

Blase recounted to me how the Tyrrell–Somers Phi Psi fraternity had won the race three years in a row and was looking for someone to help carry on the success. They turned to Blase. But the background is deeper than that. Blase had been a reluctant teammate from the very beginning.

“I really didn’t want to be in it [the race] at all,” Blase told me, remembering his freshman year. “I had had a very poor self-concept of myself. I wore long sleeves and long pants around campus, even in hot weather. When I started at IU, I saw myself as the skinny little kid on the beach getting pushed around by the big-muscle guy.”

Blase asked me if I remembered the old Charles Atlas cartoon ad, which portrayed the skinny guy who pleads to the bully embarrassing him in front of the girls, “Hey, quit kicking sand in our faces!” The ad implores, “Are you tired of being picked on? NOBODY picks on an Atlas Man!”

Blase saw himself as that skinny guy. It was his fortune to meet a kind student, a senior named Gene Sriver, a six-foot-three muscle guy, but also a good guy, no bully, who took a liking to Blase and took him under his wing. They played chess together. He invited Blase to go cycling with him and other guys in their dorm and to fill out their cycling team. Blase was so nervous when the time came to ride that he hid in the toilet stall.

“Hey, where were you?” asked Sriver later. Eventually, Blase relented. When he got on the bike, he blew away everyone, shocking even himself at his speed. “I had no idea I could ride a bike like that.”

He began breaking away.

“Gee, I suddenly asked myself,” he recalled, “what could I do if I actually tried something?”

Not only did he try, but he tried hard. He trained. The suffering he imposed on himself to get better was something he felt was deserved, a self-inflicted punishment of sorts. It also made him better. “That was the irony,” he said. “It made me better.”

Dave Blase’s foray into the bicycling world coincided with the 1960 Olympic games in Rome. He had always been an aficionado of classical music, and never pop music. He preferred the Viennese Waltz to Elvis’s hip gyrations. The first music he ever purchased was Bach’s Mass in B Minor, then Handel’s Messiah, and then Mozart’s Symphony No. 40. He began to “love” opera arias.

“So, I was really into music and opera, and then I suddenly got into this Italian phase in college,” said Blase. That interest coincided with the Rome Olympic games and the great Italian cycling team, Cinzano.

It also coincided with Steve Tesich’s arrival on campus in the fall of 1961.

Steve showed up with something that was a rarity in those days: a brand-new 10-speed bicycle. The guys in the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity, which Dave Blase by that point had joined, pledging at the end of his sophomore year, had caught wind of Tesich and his impressive 10-speed. Tesich was, like nearly everyone in the Phi Psi gang, an athlete, albeit a wrestler rather than a swimmer. He came to IU on a wrestling scholarship.

“One day, I’m riding, singing an aria while I’m riding, and I happen to come upon Tesich,” remembers Blase. “I knew of him because people knew of his bike. Steve knew of me. We hit it off. We rode together.”

In turn, in the fall of 1961, Blase convinced Tesich to pledge the frat. Tesich became Blase’s “fraternity son.” He soon gave up wrestling and picked up bicycling.

As for Dave Blase, all of this allowed him to continue gradually to come out of his shell. The Italian stuff, represented so wonderfully in the movie, was part of that: “I would sing Neapolitan songs, play records of Franco Corelli. I would spout Italian phrases. I didn’t know much. But this was an image I portrayed. It was kind of a shell. This all helped me to come out of my shell and grow in my own self-image.”

Blase evolved into his own person. “The Italian thing sort of faded away as I developed my confidence and persona,” he says. “It left over time as I gained in confidence. The movie showed a sudden end to that with the crash sparked by the Italian Cinzano guy. In reality, the interest faded away more slowly as I grew in confidence. That was how it happened.”

The character of Dave Stoller in Breaking Away likewise went through a transformation, albeit much quicker, eventually pulling away from the Italian persona and becoming his own man on the campus. For both Dave Stoller and Dave Blase, the bicycle was the vehicle to become himself. Steve Tesich thus captured his friend very well in the film. Here was an introverted guy whose cycling achievements bolstered his self-esteem, allowing him to break out of his shell and break away.

And thus, Breaking Away is the story of Dave Blase in a deeper way than anyone (other than perhaps Tesich) ever understood.

Finding Who You Are and What You Have

Dave Blase shared with me some other things that the film got right. It accurately represented the physical appearances of the four guys who won the 1962 race: One was Dave, one was Steve Tesich, and then there was a tall guy named John Odusch (played by Daniel Stern), and a little guy, John Berry, who looked like “Moocher” in the film. But none were “cutters.” They were all IU students.

The film also got partly right Dave’s father, who in the movie was played by Paul Dooley and was a hilarious character. Dave Blase’s non-fictional father (a furniture salesman rather than a used car salesman) was indeed the same “go-out-and-get-a-job!” type, and yet also a softy. “My father had a bark but no bite,” says Dave. “In reality, he was very soft-hearted. Steve caught that well.” Steve visited Dave’s house and knew Dave’s parents. Incidentally, Dave Blase grew up not in Bloomington but, appropriately, in Speedway, Indiana, about a mile from the famed racetrack.

Again, truth is stranger than fiction. And Steve Tesich called Dave Blase “Blaser.”

Oh, and I certainly asked Dave Blase if there was a lovely, doe-eyed “Caterina” whom he had serenaded on campus in his best voce Italiano. “Not anyone in particular,” Dave says. “I wouldn’t have had that kind of self-confidence yet to grab the book of a girl who dropped it and chase her down on my bike. And yet, the confidence that grew from the biking would eventually give me that kind of confidence.”

Finally, not until 1978 did Dave learn that his old friend Steve was writing a Hollywood script about him and that period at Bloomington. “It was a big surprise to me,” he says today. Dave actually made two cameos. The first briefly captures him on a bike in a “TI-Raleigh” jersey bobbing and gasping while his stage actor, Dennis Christopher, glides by him to catch the Italians. In truth, Dave Blase was gripping the break to slow himself down so Dennis could pass him. The second cameo has Dave Blase as the P.A. guy during the Little 500. The voice is Dave’s.

Dave Blase eventually pressed ahead in life. He became a high-school biology teacher for 42 years in Indianapolis, at Thomas Carr Howe High School and Arlington High School. He imparted to his students the life lessons he experienced. “The ultimate goal is to have peace and serenity in your life and those around you,” he advises. And above all: “The real competition in life is not with others but with yourself, to really find out who you are and what you have within you — to reach out and find that little extra that you didn’t know you had.”

That’s precisely the message of Breaking Away.

About That Quarry

Now, what about that quarry I was looking for, and what does it have to do with this?

Breaking Away has many memorable scenes. Those who have seen the movie will recall the quarry scene in which the Dennis Quaid character (who, like Dave Stoller, is dealing with his own life challenges) swims into an underwater refrigerator and shuts the door. Unbeknownst to his panicked cutter buddies, who fear the Quaid character is stuck inside and suffocating, the refrigerator had no backside — as the Quaid character had known. It was a prank. A very nervous prank.

In a really strange stroke of pure coincidence, I happened to meet Dennis Quaid for the first time the day after I began my expedition in Bloomington searching for a trailer and a quarry (yes, you can’t make that up). Quaid plays Ronald Reagan in the upcoming Reagan: The Movie, which is based on my 2006 book, The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism. I happened to be on set in Oklahoma the day after my Bloomington visit. I had only a few minutes with Quaid in the makeup room as he was getting ready to shoot the scene where Reagan was shot by John Hinckley in March 1981. “Hey,” I interjected, “I think you might find this interesting and a strange coincidence. I just left Bloomington, Indiana, where you did Breaking Away. That’s one of my favorite films. I was looking for the quarry.”

Quaid knew what I was referring to. He looked at me: “That film has held up really well.” He reminisced about the quarry scene, noting that they had been told during filming that stone used in the construction of the Empire State Building had come from that quarry. He wasn’t sure if that was true, but he was curious as to whether I found the quarry. I told him I would be back in Bloomington again and would let him know. He told me to send him pictures. I promised I would.

I must pause to note another Spectator connection here: In a weird foreshadowing of the Breaking Away horseplay at the quarry, Bob Tyrrell a decade earlier at that same quarry pulled off a dangerous stunt with his buddies. Tyrrell had decided to dramatically dispose of his 1952 Packard sedan from the same 50-foot cliff overlooking the quarry. He hopped into the driver’s seat of the car he purchased the year before for well under a hundred bucks, while his pals pushed him toward the precipice. He and his friend riding shotgun planned to jump just as the vehicle was about to go over the cliff. “We barely got out of the car in time,” Tyrrell told me, recounting his sense of terror that his friend hadn’t gotten out. The Packard plummeted, and the water bubbled it up. It sank to the bottom. No one got hurt.

It’s always fun when no one gets hurt.

There is, however, a sad ending to the quarry story, and an even sadder ending to Steve Tesich.

Tesich graduated from IU in 1965 with a BA in Russian and went on to Columbia, where he earned an MA in Russian literature. He prematurely passed away at age 53, dying unexpectedly from a heart attack in Nova Scotia, Canada. In the interim, he had stayed a friend and fan of Bob Tyrrell and The American Spectator. Testimony is the August 1982 edition of the magazine, which sported a photo of Tesich holding a copy of his old friend’s publication, begun in Bloomington.

As for Long Hole, alas, I must report to readers that I was unable to visit the quarry and dive in that hot July day 2021. It has been filled in by local authorities — or, more specifically, by lawyers. It is a swimming hole no more. May Long Hole (and Bob Tyrrell’s 1952 Packard sedan) rest in peace.

Nonetheless, the quarry remains a landmark, forever captured on film by Steve Tesich and his epic Breaking Away, a film that is a landmark itself.

May the good work of Steve Tesich, and the good inspiration of Dave Blase, ride on.

Paul Kengor
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Paul Kengor is Editor of The American Spectator. Dr. Kengor is also a professor of political science at Grove City College, a senior academic fellow at the Center for Vision & Values, and the author of over a dozen books, including A Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Communism, and Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century.
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