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Outhouse racers battle the heat; six-time winner claims crown

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Posted on July 9, 2018 |
By James Finn



outhouse3426.jpg
NEEDLES IN MOTION, powered by Chris Berry, right, and Casey Babcock and ridden by Lizzie Russell, compete in the fourth heat of Wednesday’s Great Bristol Outhouse Race. Below, runner Emma Carter dictates a fast pace for the Carter Insurance outhouse with rider Lexi Perlee. Perlee, Carter and fellow pusher Nate Selby won their heat and advanced to the finals. Independent photos/Trent Campbell

BRISTOL — At last Wednesday’s 40th iteration of the annual Great Bristol Outhouse races, a perennial water-closet racer extraordinaire emerged victorious from a competitive field characterized by closely contested finishes and unexpected upsets.

Of the eight times Chris Berry of Bristol has participated in the event — casually referred to as the “world championship” of outhouse racing by organizers — he has taken home six crowns that attest to his porta-potty-pushing dominance.

“He’s been off the past two years so he’s trying to get back out here and get his crown back,” Casey Babcock of New Haven, Berry’s racing partner for the day, said before the event’s final round that saw the two friends walk away with the championship trophy.

That the Needles in Motion-sponsored trio of Berry, Babcock and Lizzie Russell, the team’s rider, took home the crown didn’t necessarily come as a surprise to most who attended. When asked before the race who they saw as the most daunting competitors across the field, though, other contestants mostly pointed to returning champions Bristol Financial Services and frequent finals presence Hatch-31 as the clearest obstacles on the path to outhouse-racing glory.

But Hatch-31 was sent packing in the fourth heat — teams race in one of four preliminary heats with winners of each heat moving on to the final — by Needles in Motion, and Bristol Financial Services ultimately fell to Berry, Babcock and Russell in the final round.

After racing in the fourth heat, Berry and Babcock had just minutes to rest weary legs before taking on Bristol Financial, the Carter Agency and Bristol Youth Sports in the final.

“It was definitely really tiring racing back-to-back like that,” Berry said after crossing the finish line to claim his sixth crown. “Could have used another 15 minutes or so for a break. Legs are Jell-O.”

HENRY WAGNER, LEFT, Henry Swan and Alex Loomis bring up the rear in the second heat of Wednesday’s outhouse race with the STEAM Vermont Summer Camp entry.

Independent photo/Trent Campbell

That final round was fiercely competed; the Carter Insurance Agency trio of Emma Carter, Nate Seley and Emily Crowe finished just feet behind Needles in Motion; and Coleman Russell, Sofie Wolak and Chris Wood of Bristol Financial Services came in seconds behind the Carter team.

As is tradition, each crew was composed of one rider and two runners responsible for moving their decorated outhouses-on-wheels from a starting line in front of St. Ambrose Catholic Church on West Street to the traffic light just beyond Holley Hall. Time-tested strategy dictates that one runner push the rolling contraption from behind and the other pull from the front, the better to provide both power and steering on a course that can get treacherous.

TREACHEROUS COURSE

Once a heat begins, as contestants will tell you, it’s essential to gain position in the middle of West Street: anyone who doesn’t risks nasty spills brought about by the sloped surfaces and grates that punctuate the street’s shoulders.

THE IN STITCHES outhouse, pulled by Jessie Otis, left, and Calvin Bessette and ridden by Kayla Bessette charges down Bristol’s Main Street during Wednesday’s outhouse race.

Independent photo/Trent Campbell

Bristol Youth Sports’ Brent Crum, head track coach at Mount Abraham Union High School, was rudely reminded of this during the final round: As the four neck-and-neck teams jostled for advantageous position, he lost his balance and fell to the ground as the Bristol Financial outhouse surged past. He re-gained his footing quickly, though, and he and Ethan Dewitt hauled rider Jack Crum across the finish line to the cheers of a crowd that was clearly as happy to support those simply embracing the challenge of the day as those who finished victorious.

This reporter got a taste of the dangers of outhouse racing for himself when, in a harrowing turn of events during the fourth heat, the off-balance Hatch-31 outhouse came barreling toward him after failing to establish position in the center of the street. A rolling outhouse presents no small hazard to life and limb when moving at full-speed with a rider inside, and his life flashed briefly before his eyes until a more-alert friend whisked him out of the way just in time.

FAMILY ATMOSPHERE, FAMILY HISTORY

The atmosphere in downtown Bristol on the morning of July 4 was one of family cheer, with hundreds of spectators braving near-90-degree heat in order to support friends and relatives participating.

“The great thing about the July Fourth celebration in Bristol is it’s a real family affair,” Brent Crum said. “Everybody gets together, decorates the outhouses, then we come together and all have fun at the races. It was a real family event for us.”

The race was a family affair in more ways than one. Race co-founder Larry Gile, a longtime resident of Burlington, Richmond and Bristol, died on June 3 and was remembered at Wednesday’s race by his son Carl, who was working to get racers organized and call out starts in front of the church.

“They asked me to do this in his memory, so I’m honored to be here,” the younger Gile said.

ETHAN DEWITT, LEFT, and Brent Crum go all out with their Bristol Youth Sports outhouse in Bristol Wednesday morning. Jack Crum was the rider.

Independent photo/Trent Campbell

Gile shared memories of early races, thinking back to the days when participants used real outhouses that he said would make the simple, wheeled wooden frames of today look light and maneuverable.

“This is the only place in the country, from what I understand, that does these outhouse races,” he said. “It’s an incredible history. When they first started this, they used to use real outhouses and they would go all the way around the park. It got pretty dangerous back in the day.”

Gile and other volunteers walked around between heats, selling raffle tickets for each team in order to raise money for the town’s Fourth of July festivities. An announcer updating spectators on race progress sprinkled jokes into his commentary. (“I hear the Bristol Financial team trained for 10 or 20 minutes yesterday. That should give them a serious leg up in this final round.”)

How do racers prepare for competition as technical and specific as outhouse-push-pulling, you ask? The answer is that among the athletes vying for victory at the Great Bristol Outhouse Races, training doesn’t play quite the same role it does in other sports.

“It took a lot of willpower and adrenaline, a lot of preparation,” Coleman said when asked what it took to win his preliminary heat. “Just kidding, no preparation.”

Babcock agreed.

“We don’t really prepare,” he said. “Had a piece of watermelon before the race. I imagine that helped.”

NEEDLES IN MOTION finishing up the third heat.

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