Roach Racing at Roachill Downs
Roachill Downs Racetrack
Purdue University's Spring Fest has become a major event on the West Lafayette campus, drawing crowds of as many as 50,000. And it all started with a cockroach race. The first roach race was held in 1990 as an extra-credit activity for Tom Turpin's Entomology 105 class. Word got out that there was going to be a roach race. It was even announced on the radio. As a result, in addition to the class, about 130 people showed up. "Two things dawned on me at the time," relates Tom. "First, there might be a broader interest in watching cockroach races than just students wanting some extra-credit points. And second there's not a lot to do in the springtime in Indiana." Turpin decided to do it again the next year, add a few more entomological things of interest, and officially open it to the public. I wanted to be involved, as did Al York and a few others in the Department. With that, "Bug Bowl" was born.
The Ag Display Shop constructed us a very nice 3' x 6' racing arena. It contains an oval track for the "All-American Trot," which features speedy American roaches, and a straight track for the "Tractor Pull" featuring impressively large and strong Madagascar hissing roaches. There is also a circular "practice arena" where people can observe Madagascar roaches working out between races. All of these tracks are lined with three inch high clear Plexiglas rails to help contain the racers.
Initially, Madagascar Roaches pulled little sleds. However, we thought it would be funnier if they pulled tractors, rather than simply being the tractors. The next year we bought three miniature toy tractors and I made Purdue, Notre Dame, and IU flags for them to fly. The first year, for the All-American Trot, the roaches were simply dumped out of a paper cup onto the track. As you might imagine, this did not go very well. Roaches went everywhere, including out into the audience. The next year, a Plexiglas wall was added around the outside of the track to help keep the roaches from running off while still allowing the audience to see the race and I developed a much improved starting gate which we are still using today.
In the beginning, the arena was simply a large white board. Tom asked me if I could make it look more like a real race track. I took up the challenge. I covered the arena with model railroad grass and added a few miniature trees. Then I got carried away. I mounted dead American roaches so they stood upright, provided them with hats and sunglasses, and set them in various venues. There are bleachers full of roaches; a Port-A-Potty with a sign that reads, "Catering and Carryout;" a roach walking its pet ant by a fire hydrant; a "Green Gunk on a Stick" vender and many more including a hippy roach wearing a brightly colored top-hat, rose colored glasses, and carrying a peace sign that reads, "Make Pheromones not Pesticides. " The track was dubbed "Roachill Downs" (not to be confused with Churchill Downs). By default, I also became the Official Voice of Roachill Downs, and we were off to the races!
Decorating the race track turned out to be a much bigger project than anticipated. I got a lot of flak from several members of our department for taking so much time making these ridiculous miniatures instead of doing "real science." However, I'm glad I did it as I have reached many more people and have had a greater impact with the races than with all of the real science I have done over the entire course of my career.
We started racing roaches at the Indiana State Fair in 1993. We have held races twice a day for every day of every fair since then. Over the years, we have also raced in almost every major city in the eastern half of the United States.
Roachill Downs and Bug Bowl have received a great deal of national and international publicity, being featured in Time magazine, People magazine, National Geographic, and the Wall Street Journal. Late night talk show hosts Jay Leno and David Letterman, as well as radio personalities Bob & Tom, have made fun of us from time to time and we have been featured on several CNN and other national TV news programs. During the early years of Bug Bowl, Purdue's higher administration was not very enthusiastic. However, when they learned that Bug Bowl was the number one worldwide news hit for Purdue, they eagerly got on the bandwagon.
The main purpose of our extensive outreach effort is to educate the general public about insects and the many roles they play in our environment and to try to do it in a fun way. Our general philosophy has been that if "a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down," it will also help the mealworms go down. By using humorous 'hooks', hopefully people, especially children, will pay more attention, will better retain what we are teaching them, and will discover that science does not have to be boring. The roach races are one of these fun educational 'hooks'.