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September 20, 2000
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ALONG THE WAY: Handcar Races

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With team names like Steel Magnolias, Sisters of the Rail, Thunder Pumpers and Chastity Choo Choos it’s obvious from the beginning that you are at a very different kind of event. It’s also immediately apparent that the real object of this affair is to have fun. Colored flags adorning an announcer’s platform, bleachers filled with families, and booths selling food and drink make it feel as if you’re at a small town fair. But the real reason that hundreds of people have gathered here in Boulder City is to witness and take part in the Rattlin’ Rails handcar races.

If you’re looking for a family outing I highly recommend this one. First of all it’s easy to attend. To get there just take highway 93 into Boulder City. When you see the Taco Bell turn left. You can’t miss it. When you arrive is equally easy. Unless you have friends in the competition you won’t really care about who ultimately wins the event. So it really doesn’t matter what time you arrive or depart the festivities. Show up anytime that’s convenient on either Saturday or Sunday of the last full weekend in September. That’s this weekend. Although this is fun for everyone to attend it’s particularly great for the kids. In between the races volunteers will take children for rides on the handcars giving them an opportunity they aren’t likely to get otherwise. This is a great chance for your children to experience a past that they probably know little about.

Here in the West we have such a recent past that it hasn’t had time to get away from us yet. And it won’t, as long as we keep it alive with events like mining games, pony express reenactments, and handcar races. In these events tools that were used to forge the west continue to be employed in competitions that help us to experience and understand some of the past that is being overshadowed by technological advances. But over the last eight years at the Rattlin’ Rails handcar races technology has seen little or no advancement. The handcars are virtually the same as they were back in the late 1800s.

Many of us are familiar with the handcar because we’ve seen them in old movies or history books. The teeter-totter bar atop the flatbed railcar has long been one of the symbols of the wild west. The drive mechanism is simplicity itself. Pushing on the teeter-totter drives a post up and down. The post rotates a large gear, which is attached to a smaller gear on the axle. And that’s it. To stop, you simply step on a foot brake. The same type of brake used on the old Conestoga wagons. Because of the simplicity of the apparatus you’d think that the winner of each event would always be the biggest and strongest. But then you’d be wrong.

There are 5 people on each team. A pusher and 4 pumpers. The pusher positions themself behind the car with their feet on a bar stretched between the tracks. One of the race officials then sets a metal stop on the track to keep the car in position. When the race starts the pusher will propel the car forward by first extending their arms and then their legs. When done correctly the pusher will wind up parallel to the ground and fall about two feet down onto a mat between the tracks.

After the pusher has been positioned the pumpers lift the front of the car so that another race official can set the bar with one side of the teeter-totter slightly higher than the other. This way when the race starts two of the pumpers will be pulling up on the bar while the other two push down. Once the car is in position the race begins.

Of course strength plays a significant role in this race, but certainly no more than teamwork. The four pumpers will have to work as one if they hope to maximize their efforts. If any one of the pumpers is pulling up on the bar while the pumper next to them is pushing down they will negate each other’s efforts.

In theory that shouldn’t be difficult to do, but once the car has picked up some speed it is almost impossible to actually push and pull the bar. The bar is moving so feverishly that all you can do is try to push down on the bar and wait for it to come back up. It requires a tremendous amount of concentration. And yet it’s amazing how many other things you notice. The sound of the rails, almost a heartbeat, the team next to you driving you to go faster, and the audience spurring you on. And before you know it, it’s over.

What a rush. Perhaps if you visit the Rattlin’ Rails handcar races this year, you may be inspired to get a team together and compete in the event next year.

See discussion rules.

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