The Pre Classic began as the Hayward Restoration meeting in 1973. Bill Bowerman asked Steve Prefontaine if he would race in a meet built to put some much-needed repairs on the hallowed Hayward Field.
Steve Prefontaine did just that. In the first year, he took on Olympic gold medalist Dave Wottle in the mile. Wottle, the 800m Oly champ, went by Prefontaine with 440 to go but Prefontaine persisted, as was his desire to win. Wottle ran 3:53.3 for the mile, and Pre ran 3:54.6. At the time, Wottle had run the second fastest American time in the mile.
In 1974, Rick Wolhuter ran a 1:44.1 for the 880 yards, setting a new World Record. With his bouncy stride, the Chicago Track Club star just ate up the track, with Art Sandison second in 1:51.
Steve Prefontaine had invited 1972 Olympic gold medalist Frank Shorter to run a 3 mile. Remember, Shorter had serious wheels, having set AR at 2 miles indoors (Pre, then broke it). In the 3 mile, Frank Shorter took the lead with 300 yards to go, and the 12,000 fans were on their feet, as their hero was looking very mortal. From somewhere inside, Steve Prefontaine put together a furious kick and took the near victory away from the Olympic champion, running a fine 12:51.4 American record.
On May 29, 1975, Steve Prefontaine won the 5,000m at the 3rd Hayward Restoration meeting, running near his best and fastest time in the world for the year. Early in the hours of May 30, 1975, Steve Prefontaine died underneath his MG in what was reported as a one-car accident.
That next night, Walter Cronkite, the iconic CBS news anchor, announced Steve Prefontaine’s death on the nightly news. I recall that announcement, and as a junior in high school, feeling a pain in the pit of my stomach. My buddy, Bob Lucas, and I were shocked that our hero was gone at age twenty-five. What a fucking waste, I thought. I still have the same thought 48 years later.
On June 1, 1975, the Oregon Track Club renamed the meeting the Prefontaine Classic. In 1978, Nike came on as a sponsor, and they have never left.
This writer has been to 35 of the last 37 meetings. It is a rite of spring for me, and this year, it is the end of the amazing 2023 season.
Sometimes, if I wipe the sleep from my eyes, I can picture Steve Prefontaine, in Oregon track jacket and jeans, holding a beer in a paper bag in one hand and a spicy burrito in the other hand, sitting up…