40 years running: Cortez, Waffle still fresh
Blue Ribbon Sports hit the ground running with its Nike Cortez in 1972. This was the first shoe to bear the now-famous Swoosh logo, as well as the name "Nike," which BRS officially became in 1978. This also was the first year of Nike's Waffle outsole, which still is found on a number of Nike's models.
By Striperpedia staff
The world’s leading producer of athletic (and athletically inspired) footwear celebrates a milestone in 2012: Its existence.
Not officially, of course, as Nike began as Blue Ribbon Sports (BRS) on Jan. 25, 1964, and became Nike Inc. in 1978. But this year marks the 40th anniversary of the first appearance of the word “Nike” on commercial footwear, as BRS introduced its Nike Cortez in February 1972.
This was not the first appearance for a shoe by this name, however, according to the book Bowerman and the Men of Oregon by former University of Oregon runner Kenny Moore, who was coached by Bowerman. In 1966, BRS co-founders Bill Bowerman and Phil Knight originally wanted to name this racing flat the Aztec, in reference to the upcoming international games to be held in 1968 in Mexico City. But learning that adidas already had a shoe to market called the Azteca Gold, Bowerman and Knight decided on the Cortez, a reference to Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes, who conquered the Aztecs of central Mexico in the 16th century.
BRS began as a means to distribute high-quality athletic footwear in the Western United States. According to Moore, Knight was working toward a 1962 MBA at Stanford when his research showed him that Japanese footwear could be made at lower cost than that from Germany — an industry leader at the time. After touring Japan that fall, Knight made contact on a cold call in early 1963 with Onitsuka Company in Kobe, Japan. Onitsuka’s Tiger line of performance footwear would become the product Knight sought.
Moore wrote that as BRS’ effectiveness as marketers and distributors grew, so grew demand for the Tigers. Thus, Onitsuka began seeking wider distribution of its shoe, while Bowerman and Knight began developing a brand of their own. The cushioned Nike Cortez was ready for market in February 1972, debuting at the National Sporting Goods Association trade show in Chicago. Bowerman and Knight parted ways with Onitsuka in May 1972, and the Nike brand was off and running.
Fed by a Waffle
Of BRS’ revolutionary ideas, perhaps the most influential among them was cooked up over breakfast.
Bowerman was nothing if not inventive. Always seeking ways to improve his runners’ performance during his tenure at the University of Oregon from 1948 to 1973, Bowerman took to handcrafting his own shoes and as early as 1954 tried selling his designs to shoe companies. Inability to gain traction in that way led to the formation of BRS.
Moore explained in Bowerman and the Men of Oregon the genesis of, among other things, the Nike Moon Shoe — a Bowerman creation.
According to Moore, Bowerman had a thought, during a track practice on a urethane surface one day in 1971, that a shoe sole made of urethane could either provide traction that would be either extremely grippy or extremely slick. After fashioning a sole of urethane and sending an athlete out on a test-run, he learned it could be the former. So on to the next step: the optimal traction pattern.
Moore tells that Bowerman was eating breakfast one summer Sunday morning in 1971 while his wife, Barbara, was away at church. Their waffle iron caught his eye and served up a bit of inspiration — the pattern was “halfway between spikes and cleats,” according to Moore.
Bowerman thought that if he poured liquid urethane onto the waffle iron and let it cool, he could make a revolutionary sole for a running shoe. He poured his concoction onto the iron but hadn’t added release agent and it stuck to the surface. Undaunted, he realized this “rubber waffle” actually would be the reverse of the pattern he wanted. It would give him indentations ideal for syrup and butter but not for gripping a running surface. He instead would need to use the waffle iron to create a mold and give him the protrusions he wanted.
So Bowerman bought two more waffle irons, Moore wrote — one to replace his wife’s and another on which he poured plaster to create a mold.
He took the mold to a friend at Oregon Rubber Company and asked to have molten rubber poured into it, according to Moore. The mold melted. Bowerman made another mold, which broke. Finally, he had a third mold created when a friend punched the desired shapes into a pattern on sheet metal. This victorious mold yielded an 18-inch-square sheet of rubber-nubbed sole material. Bowerman took it home to his shop and realized his goal: sheets of urethane nubs.
Bowerman’s breakthrough allowed Blue Ribbon Sports to spawn the Nike Moon Shoe in February 1972. This groundbreaker was the first with a Waffle outsole to bear the iconic Swoosh logo as well as the name “Nike.” The shoe was ready in plenty of time for the Track and Field Trials held June 29 to July 9 of that year in Eugene, Ore. Four of the top seven qualifiers at the trials wore Nike shoes.
Subsequent variations and refinements on the Waffle design concept have remained a staple on most of Nike’s running footwear.