Archived Story

Optimists introducing pumpkin racing

Published 8:46pm Monday, September 17, 2012


Linus isn’t alone looking for great pumpkins.

Niles Noon Optimists are aiming to herd a hundred to the hilltop for a new family fun event at high noon Oct. 27.

That’s when tricked-out orange orbs careen down Sycamore Street past the Bell building balcony and dovetail with Halloween events planned that same Saturday — Niles District Library’s costume contest and downtown trick-or-treating.

Racers must be crafted from a single pumpkin, inserting at least two independent axles and attaching wheels.

Pumpkins may not be affixed to any kind of pre-fabricated chassis, such as Tonka trucks, office chairs or skateboards.

No pushing or “helping” your pumpkin at the starting line by Fourth Street. No last-minute shoves. No chasing your pumpkin down the track to make it go straight.

And no cheating, a component of mythic proportions at the pier in Manhattan Beach, Calif., the birthplace of the Pinewood Derby, where pumpkin racing was invented in 1990. There, the von Hoffman brothers have been scheming since 1995 to win by cheating with as much success as Wile E. Coyote building Acme contraptions to catch the Roadrunner. The race attracted more than 10,000 by 2009.

Optimists Betty Arndt and Michelle Morse have more modest goals — having fun while raising money for scholarships for local high school students.

Optimists also support spring youth soccer, Relay for Life, Big Brother and Big Sisters.

Last year, the club awarded more than $3,000 at Niles, Brandywine and Buchanan high schools.

“We used to work in the stands at Notre Dame to raise money,” Arndt said.

“I knew this was something we had to do because Niles would love it,” said Morse, who runs the soccer league. “We need more things that involve families. Not just kids, not just parents. A 5-year-old can race against her grandmother.”

There are two ways to play. Pick up a kit with axle wheels and a pumpkin at the Bell building Oct. 26 or Oct. 27 by 11:30 a.m. Registration and testing take place from 9 until 11:30 a.m. race day. The first kit costs $20, the second, $35; and $10 each after the first two, including the entry fee.

Or, free spirits can go free style and unleash their creativity for $10. You provide the pumpkin, wheels and axles, which must go through the entry pumpkin, or it will be labeled a cheater pumpkin and subject to the “mallet of destruction.”

Cheater pumpkins are why there are rules like “no explosives or pyrotechnics.”

Pumpkin pros point out that bigger or heavier does not mean faster.

Rarely does the biggest win. The key to building a coach that moves like Cinderella dashing home without her glass slipper is to make sure axles are parallel for a straight roll. Many racers risk elimination when their fruit veers into the side wall before crossing the finish line. Also, check ground clearance. The race is on a street with a crown. Make sure the racer sits high enough to clear it.

Akron has the similar Soap Box Derby, which has run every July since 1937.

In fact, when Arndt lived in Ohio, she worked on a team at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

“We’re going to give out awards for decorating apart from the race,” said Morse, who wants to find a pumpkin big enough to carve for her 7-year-old daughter to ride inside.

Bring an appetite for pulled pork sandwiches, two hot dogs or a combo of meat, chips and drink for $5 or chips and drinks for a dollar each.

If you want to race head-to-head with an enemy, race officials will try to accommodate.  There are also sponsorship opportunities, starting at $100.

Call (269) 684-3630 or email by Oct. 1.






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