The 2014 Root Derby at the International Horseradish Festival had barely finished and Larry Oaster was already plotting a way to dethrone two-time defending champion Mike Gafford. Oaster may find a way to build a faster car in 2015, but it’s doubtful he will find a way to out-talk Gafford.
Most of the contestants in Collinsville’s unique version of a soapbox derby have known each other, and competed against each other, for years. The only thing faster than some of the lead-weighted cars, were the good-natured barbs.
When Greg Bauer took the stage with his entry in hand, he wore a shirt with “MGIACAYSCHC” freshly scribbled across it in permanent marker.
“Mike Gafford is a cheater and you should check his car,” Bauer said to the judges while pointing to the letters on his shirt. The judges nodded and continued the contest.
Bauer may have had a point. According to the official rules, weights are allowed on the cars, but they must be permanently affixed to the vehicles. Gafford’s car, named the Bauer Basher, was weighted down with a contraption that looked like it came from a plumber’s tool belt. Each time the Bauer Basher finished a race, the weight would come flying off the root car. The judges did not rule the aptly named vehicle illegal, however, despite Bauer’s request for inspection.
Unfortunately for Oaster, his Renfro Roadster performed more like a roadster than a racecar. Despite planning for the competition “since two hours after it ended last year,” Oaster did not win his heat.
Oaster prepared the Renfro Roadster by hallowing out the horseradish root that came with the official Root Derby kit. Inside, he placed small, antique, lead printer plates. Oaster stood with his several-pound creation in hand after the contest, eying Gafford’s winning vehicle, and vowed to start preparing promptly for next year.
“I need to stay up tonight and do some research on the internet,” Oaster said.
Gafford, Andy Bennett (9) and Glen Bennett (8) won the three heats and competed in the race for the championship. Glen’s car, Bruins, finished third while his older brother’s car, New York Rangers, took second.
As the top three contestants were ready to leave the stage, Gafford, who stands every inch of 6-feet tall, bent down to address the other two finalists. To someone watching from a distance, it may have appeared Gafford was offering words of encouragement to the Bennett boys, but those within earshot were under no such illusion.
“Tell your dad I beat you, again,” Gafford whispered, as those on stage broke out in laughter.
Andy and Glen’s father, David, works with Gafford as a Collinsville firefighter.
After the contest, the Bauers, Oasters and Gaffords stood together reflecting on the contest, and last year’s, when Gafford’s Bauer Beater took home the top prize – a 5-year-old beat Gafford in 2012. Michael Gmoser, whose car, The Root is the Problem, took home the prize for Most Original, approached Gafford and shook his hand, promising to come for the crown next year.
Getting ready to disperse, Bauer asked the gathered families what they wanted to do. Gafford couldn’t pass up one last chance to rub in his victory.
“Gloat,” he said.