The Nike Waffle Racer Changed America

The Nike Waffle Racer Changed America

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One lightweight shoe fundamentally changed how the world looked at staying fit and ignited the multibillion dollar fitness industry. This shoe, known as the Nike Waffle Racer, was developed by Bill Bowerman and marketed by Phil Knight in 1972. It had innovative features like the first rubber outsole and moisture wicking fabric and started America's obsession with exercising.

Bowerman was born in Portland, Oregon in 1911. He went to the University of Oregon where he studied physical education, wrote a best seller about running, and from 1949 to 1972, coached his alma mater into becoming a top-tier school for track and field. Bowerman was known for always demanding the highest effort from his athletes; he would demand the athletes to run three times a day. The Oregon coach always tried to be at the cutting edge of technology by designing better track surfaces, improved training, and, most importantly, developed the obsession for lightweight, high quality running shoes. Because of his constant desire to have the best shoe out there, he was able to innovate the running shoe industry, which had still relied on designs from fifty years ago, and developed the Waffle Racer, on which all running shoes are still based on. Yet as innovative as the shoe was, had Nike not had his former steeplechaser, Phil Knight, marketing the shoe, none of this would have mattered and casual runners today most likely would be still wearing canvas shoes.

Phil Knight was born in Portland in 1938 to Oregon's only billionaire, where he became interested in track in part because it "Allowed the people that trained the hardest to succeed." So in college, he studied shoe design while being coached by Bowerman. Knight was convinced that he could market the innovations developed by Bowerman. Knight successfully convinced star athletes to endorse his product, including Steve Prefontaine, a middle distance star racer, and four of the top seven American track Olympic qualifiers. This convinced other athletes to wear Nikes and it eventually trickled down to the ranks of Joe Jogger, who had just become part of the first running boom. Knight helped developed advertisements such as the famous Just Do It, and promoting the first ever cross-training shoe by getting famous two sport athlete Bo Jackson to endorse with the campaign “Bo Knows”. These slogans helped convince Americans to run and do other fitness activities.

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Had it not been for Phil Knight's brilliant marketing, Nike might be an obscure brand.

Since a shoe as innovative as the Waffle Racer had never been successful before, Bowerman faced two major challenges when trying to develop it. First, he needed a good sturdy sole that would have excellent traction to allow racers to easily move on the track. Bowerman had previously poured metal into an inverted waffle iron, in an attempt to get a good treaded shoe. Yet the outsole would wear out in five minutes. Then the Oregon coach used latex instead of metal, which ended forever the use of iron in track shoes. The second major challenge was to develop a material lighter than leather and canvas, materials used for running shoes at the time. Bowerman looked to mesh, which he had used for his steeplechasers. He found that a thick mesh coated with stuffing was the answer. Because of these innovations, elite runners and joggers bought the shoe, and reported on the Waffle's "buttery soft feel". After forty years without innovation, the industry, then later the world of fitness, under went a massive transformation, thanks to the use of latex and new materials for the shoes.

The Waffle Racer looked like no other shoe that had come before it. Shaped like a cone with a canvas opening at the end for a foot, it had a massive swoosh, the trademark image for Nike, and was made of light mesh material with latex treads, and at the bottom. On the outsole, the outside bottom of a shoe, were small bumps that made running more smooth. Thanks to Knight's marketing, the bounce and power that many runners felt would convince them that they could be the next Roger Bannister, the first runner to run under a four minute mile. At the side of the shoe was the iconic swoosh that looks like a demented curvy check, which helped give Nike the arguably most distinctive logo ever and instilled customer loyalty. There were fewer eyelets than previous running in part due Bowerman’s attempts to make a light shoe. The new mesh material of the shoes replaced the hard stiff leather that had been the dominant material. For runners used to wearing a shoe that caused chafing, excessive sweating, and slower times, the Racer was practically a godsend.

Though the Waffle Racer affects everyone who has ever exercised after 1972, other shoes helped influence it. In the nineteenth century, a leather spiked shoe was introduced to England. About a hundred years later, Adolf Dassler, the founder of Nike's chief rival Adidas, invented a shoe using tent canvas and an outsole made of rubber from fuel tanks. After this shoe was developed, virtually all major innovation in the running shoe stopped until Nike came along. The Nike and Bowerman's book gave rise to the running boom of the 1970s by making Americans appreciate the value of exercise, this led them to buy sports apparel and better equipment, soon the sports industry became a hundred-billion-dollar industry, all due to a shoe that used latex and whose ads encouraged runners to be like Steve Prefontaine and later to "Just Do It".

Bowerman's brilliant use of latex in a waffle iron, and Phil Knight's marketing genius helped launch the fitness industry. In Bowerman's book Jogging, he showed eager boomers and older people concerned about their health that running was a cure-all , and that the casual runners needed the latest gear, whether it be a Nike latex shoe then or Goretex tank tops today. People who believe that noncompetitive sports changed their life and got them into shape should thank the company with the demented, curvy checkmark.
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