Wally Dallenbach and the Colorado 500
In 1974, professional motorsports racer Wally Dallenbach put his son on the back of his dirt bike and spent the next few days tooling through the San Juan Mountains, exploring their new home state.
That father and son jaunt was so wondrously fun that Dallenbach invited his buddy Sherm Cooper to ride the summer after. “The next year it was nine of us, then 38, 56, 85… and that’s how the Colorado 500 grew,” Dallenbach chuckles. It became “The Ride”, not a race. “We were just riding through the mountains having a ball; it never got old. It’s world-known now, with people from all over. The Colorado 500 is nothing more than a big story about sharing. I had such a great time, I had to share it with people.”
When asked how the Colorado 500 became a philanthropic venture, Wally thinks back a few decades to an accident. “Right out here,” he says, gesturing to the Frying Pan River across his lawn. “What happened, I was away racing one night. A pickup truck went off the road here, into the river. The guy was pinned in the truck.” The wasn’t a Jaws of Life around; Basalt didn’t have a rescue squad. It was a long time before a state trooper even arrived, let alone Aspen and Carbondale rescue teams. “It was 25 degrees out,” he adds, shaking his head.
A Hall of Famer several times over, Dallenbach raced thirteen years in the Indianapolis 500, coming so close, so many times. He knew first-hand the formula: speed + autos = danger. That accident was all it took for Dallenbach, at the age of 39, to lead 20 volunteers into securing EMT trainings, to get three other investors to secure a $20,000 loan with him, and to start the Basalt Rescue Squad.
With his radar out, Dallenbach found a used ambulance in Indiana. After his Indy 500 race, he literally hopped into the ambulance that same night, driving it all the way to Colorado. To see that ambulance cruise in Basalt’s 1976 Fourth of July Parade is a source of immense pride for Dallenbach.
From then on, Dallenbach continually saw need in the community, and repeatedly the generosity of the Colorado 500 riders rose into service. This was formalized in 1981 with the Colorado 500 Charity Fund; in 1983, the Art Lamey Scholarship Fund (to mention one of many that exist to date); and in 1993, with the Colorado 500 Scholarship Fund. In the last 40 years, the Colorado 500 has given more than two million dollars to organizations and shelters in Colorado’s small mountain towns, plus over half a million dollars in scholarships.
The benefit in making the Colorado 500 an invitational is being able to manage the direction of its growth. Dallenbach treats the 500 as an extension of his family, laying claim to “a strong camaraderie and friendship that can be new and/or renewed each year.” Some riders have waited six years to get in on it. People have written to ask for a sponsor. Fathers invite their sons. “It’s nothing to see ten-, twenty- and thirty-year riders,” Dallenbach says. “People can’t buy their way in and spoil it. Anyone can invite someone in, because they know what it’s all about, the personality that does or doesn’t work. That is the magic. It wasn’t like ‘Here’s the money. Where do I go?’” Dallenbach laughs and rolls his eyes, pointing out they’ve only had to ‘un-invite’ perhaps two riders in all these years.
With such a good group of people, the 40-year legacy of giving is no wonder.
“I was not rich,” says Dallenbach. “My parents were not rich. Everything it seemed that I wanted, I had to work hard for.”
In 2015, five Basalt students received $42,000 in college scholarships from the Colorado 500.
“As time went on,” he adds, “I thought, ‘Hey, I gotta share this’—whether it’s money or stories or experiences. It’s become part of my character to a point where I don’t even notice it. It’s the way I am. I don’t raise my hand and say, ‘Hey, I did something good.’
The list is too long to detail—in our valley, in Ouray, Silverton, Crested Butte or Lake City—many partook of the $82,950 the Colorado 500 raised and donated in 2015.
“I feel good when I give. That’s a big reward to me. I just enjoy quietly moving people into a smile,” says Dallenbach. “And that’s a big thing.”