Pre Caution

The city of Eugene plans to add safety improvements to the Pre’s Rock roadside memorial 

The road to Pre’s Rock is a tight, winding hilly road in southeast Eugene. Once you’re at the roadside memorial for Steve Prefontaine, those paying tribute to the great runner have to stand in the middle of the street, constantly looking over their shoulder in case a car speeds around the corner. 

People visiting Pre’s Rock, where Prefontaine died in a single-car crash in 1975, are a safety concern for the city of Eugene, which owns the property thanks to a 2001 cash contribution from Phil Knight. The city plans to install safety measures this fall to make visiting Pre’s Rock safer for pedestrians. 

But the renovations and Knight’s presence take away from the wild characteristic of the roadside memorial, which was a fitting tribute to running’s rebel, says local videographer Tim Lewis, a longtime fan of the runner. 

“I was in junior high and high school when Pre was running at the UO,” Lewis says. “We were all distance runners and wanted to be like Pre. He was our Muhammad Ali.” 

Similar to James Dean and Ali, he adds, Pre had an edge. “He talked politics. He had his own individual attitude and spoke his mind,” Lewis says. “That was something that I felt was happening all over Oregon.” 

That’s why Lewis says he’s concerned about changes planned for Pre’s Rock. “Its wild look as it is, is beautiful,” he says. “When people want to get their hands on it and start building smooth sidewalks and plaques, I think it’s going to lose its wildness — and that’s who Pre was, a wild runner.” 

Lewis is no stranger to protesting changes to Eugene’s historical monuments to the running community. To protest the planned demolition of the University of Oregon’s historic Hayward Field, he ran onto the field, interrupting the 2018 NCAA Track and Field Championships. 

Emily Proudfoot, the city’s landscape architect, says Pre’s Rock as it is right now is a hazard for pedestrians. “Nike brings tour buses of people, and they stand in the street,” she says. “Everyone is standing in the street and people come driving around the corner — it’s a total hazard.” 

Nike’s tour buses of people aren’t the only people who show up at Pre’s Rock. Proudfoot says the road by Pre’s Rock gets congested when Eugene is hosting track and field events, such as the Prefontaine Classic, which had nearly 9,000 people at Hayward Field, about a mile away from the memorial. 

Proudfoot says the safety improvements have been planned for years, and that the city worked with Knight’s private office during the design process. “In this case they wanted a simple approach, nothing fancy,” she says. “There’s a real authenticity about that place in its relatively spare nature. So I think that’s something they wanted to keep.” 

Knight is involved with discussions around Pre’s Rock because he gave cash to the city to buy the property from the Oregon Department of Transportation in 2001. 

In March 2001, Knight signed an agreement with Eugene and contributed $121,905.31, according to a 2001 contract between the city and Knight. In return, the city promises to maintain the property where Pre’s Rock is and to keep it as a park for use by the public and dedicated to the memory of Pre. 

The city is in charge of maintaining the site, but after Jan. 1, 2026, voters could change the ownership — without Knight’s approval  — if the electorate decided to convert the property “to any public educational, artistic or other charitable purpose so long as any use is dedicated to the memory of Steve Prefontaine.” 

Whenever there are plans for improvements to Pre’s Rock, the city is obligated to notify the friends and family of Prefontaine, members of the track and field community, the Fairmount Neighbors Association and neighbors of the memorial, according to the contract. Proudfoot says the city’s plans are for the right-of-way, so they won’t impact the memorial, but the city did notify the Prefontaine family. 

Lewis says Knight’s involvement in changing track and field culture in Eugene — such as his effects on the local iconic places like Pre’s Rock and Hayward Field — would’ve upset Prefontaine, who “probably would’ve been bitching about Phil Knight and what he’s doing to track and field.” 

The city is going to add a sidewalk and shift Pre’s headstone plaque to create more space between the basalt rock outcrop and the sidewalk. “To view it, they won’t be standing in the street anymore. There will be a viewing area that is distinct, safe and out of the street,” Proudfoot says. 

The safety improvement is part of a larger construction plan for 19th and Fairmount. 

An increase in visitors to the memorial has led to more items being left behind at Pre’s Rock. “Any time we have a major event, the amount of memorabilia that is placed there quadruples,” Proudfoot says. 

The city had a previous policy of collecting memorabilia left at Pre’s Rock, but Proudfoot says that’s no longer the case. “Our staff is wary of handling memorabilia like this because it’s sensitive and precious in many ways, so we’ve made it a policy not to collect or store these items,” Proudfoot says. She adds she doesn’t know where the memorabilia disappears to now. 

The public will be asked not to leave memorabilia at the memorial during construction. “We’ll probably put everything in a box and then go put it back out there when we’re done,” she laughs. 

One of the first decorative objects at Pre’s Rock was placed by Lewis and his late friend, John Miller. Lewis says Miller made a bronze statue of Pre while at Lane Community College. A few decades later, in the early 1990s, the two planted the statue into the rock without approval from the city or anyone else. “That was the only statue at the time besides people painting RIP,” he says. “We thought he was a huge part of our young adulthood.” 

Proudfoot says the city doesn’t plan to make any changes to Pre’s Rock, though, or to the statue. 

But Pre’s Rock, as it stands right now, is a snapshot of what the area was like when Pre died, Lewis says. “Just the trees, blackberries all around and the worn out shoes and medallion. It’s always been that way, and I think that’s beautiful,” he says. 

“Fuck Phil Knight,” he adds. “This beautiful, simple little rock means so much to so many people that he has to put his fingers in that, too, and make it look slick like Hayward.”