MAY
2013

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

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Check out these books by Tom Turpin:

Flies in the face of fashion

What's Buggin You Now?

 

 

 

05-09-13

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Horse, Auto, and Cockroach Races


roach races
American racing roaches

Two of the most celebrated U.S. racing events are held each year during the month of May. At the beginning of the month, the Kentucky Derby features thoroughbred horses in the "run for the roses." Later in the month, during Memorial Day weekend, automobiles race in the Indianapolis 500.

Sport racing - defined as getting from point A to point B before anyone else does - has probably been around for as long as humans. Sometimes people actually do the racing by running, swimming or bicycling. Other times our participation is more in a management role. Think about horse jockeys, racecar drivers or speedboat pilots. Finally, humans might train the racing animals but not actually participate in the race. Dog and pigeon races come to mind.

In sport racing, and in most other sports for that matter, most human participation can be classified as that of spectator. This year, 19 horses and riders went to the post in the Kentucky Derby. There were 165,307 spectators on hand to watch the race.

The Indianapolis 500 begins with 33 cars and drivers. There are no official attendance figures for the motor race dubbed the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing." Permanent seats exceed 267,000 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway where the race take place, and with additional infield seating available, it's safe to say that a lot of people attend the race.

Both the Kentucky Derby and the Indianapolis 500 attract worldwide TV and radio audiences. So, if numbers of interested people mean anything, both of these races are real spectator sports. Of course, the spectators might have a heightened level of interest because they have money riding on the outcome. At least $187 million was wagered on the 2013 Kentucky Derby. No estimates exist about how much money is bet each year on the outcome of the Indy 500, but odds are the figure is substantial.

In 1990, the inaugural Purdue University Bug Bowl featured a cockroach race. Bug Bowl is a festival that introduces attendees to insects in a fun way. What could be more fun than a cockroach race?

roach tractor pull
Madagascar roach and tractor pull

Cockroach racing requires a dedicated cockroach racing facility. Purdue's is called Roachill Downs and is modeled after Churchill Downs of horseracing fame. Roachill Downs features a racing oval, an exercise arena and a tractor pull strip. Of course, the cockroach racing facility is scaled down from horse-sized to cockroach-sized.

Vignettes at Roachill Downs feature American cockroaches engaged in activities that humans exhibit at racing events. Such activities include cockroaches in the bleachers, cockroaches tailgating, cockroaches selling food, cockroaches lined up at the Porta-John and cockroaches sunbathing.

The racing oval at Roachill Downs is a two-"furshort" track. In horseracing, a furlong is 220 yards or one-eighth of a mile. A "furshort" is the number of body lengths of a cockroach equivalent to the number of body lengths of a horse in a furlong.

Also in keeping with horseracing tradition, the names of the cockroach racers can have meaning. The names of thoroughbred horses can reflect many things, including historical events, names of sire and/or dam or commentary on political offices. It's the same with the names of racing roaches. Over the years racing roaches at Roachill Downs have been given names such as Seattle Sewer, Tax Man Cometh, Spray Can, Under the Sink and Fluttering Antennae.

The main event at Roachill Downs is the All-American Trot, which features American cockroaches. American cockroaches live in steam tunnels in industrial facilities in Northern states but live outdoors in Southern states, where they are called Palmetto Bugs.  The American roaches run a five-furshort race or two-and-a-half trips around the oval track.

In addition to the All-American Trot, the cockroach race also has a tractor pull. In this event, Madagascar cockroaches pull miniature tractors. The first roach to pull its tractor the length of the track is declared the winner.

Roachill Downs and the racing roaches were featured at the Indiana State Fair for 20 years. In addition, the races have been demonstrated at a number of events across the Eastern United States over the years. All of which proves when it comes to spectator sports, even racing roaches are fair game.

 

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox