World Championship Cockroach Racingin Brisbane, QLD, Australia
World Championship Cockroach Racing
Words by Joanne Lane
Only in Australia would they celebrate their national holiday by racing cockroaches.
Yes, that's right I'm talking about those pooey brown, hairy legged, skin crawling, under the fridge indulgers and lights out kitchen partiers that infest much of the land Down Under.
On a day when most countries would be flag raising, parading the streets and celebrating their nationhood Australians head to the pub for some serious cockroach action.
A sport that has become a bit of a tradition.
At the Story Bridge Hotel in Brisbane they've been racing the insects every hot summery January 26 for the past 21 years. It all started in 1982 when two barflies began arguing that the roaches from his part of town were the fastest in Brisbane. They tested their alcohol-fuelled convictions in a parking garage, the bar crowd enjoyed it and thus the races were born.
Now described as "the greatest gathering of thoroughbred cockroaches in the known universe" the event has not come of age that much. There's a bit of sponsorship, TV cameras, microphones and live bands but much of the tradition has remained the same.
The beer comes out, the water guns, the Australian hats with the dangling corks, the tattoos and all the best of Australiana. It's Australian Bogan culture at its understated best.
"It's great, we've taken one of our national animals and made it into a mascot, after all they're as much a part of Australia as the koala or kangaroo and far more common," says one spectator in an Elvis wig and braces. "Why not have some fun with them, after all they've been living it up in our kitchens for years."
"They're an integral part of Australian society," says another character with nipple rings, "every household's got 'em."
No one can argue with that, and as long as the RSPCA doesn't attend everyone's happy.
And they all get in on the act. There are Australian flags and songs during the day (after all it is Australia Day) but much of the fashion is on the cockroach theme. There are pleasant motherly types wearing cockroach necklaces, kids with shirts saying "I am very appROACHable" or family groups with matching t-shirts saying Dwarf Roach and Papa Roach.
People walk the crowds with roaches in plastic cups, although the numbers of back flipped squashed roaches by the end of the day littering the ground shows they are not that revered even though the rather humorous program states that "Kissing the winning roach is also not out of the question".
The races have names like the "Fat Cat Classic", "The Cocky's Plate" and "Miss Cocky" as do the cockroaches with such colourful names as Fat Chicks Swimming in a Wheelie Bin (rubbish bin), Osama Big Cockroach, Legless, Krusty the Cockroach (aka The Simpsons), Fellowship of the Cocky Ring and even the more crass He's a Cocksucker.
And there are rules clearly displayed in the race program. Some of these include penalties for performance enhancing substances like coffee, sugar and red cordial; fines of $100 000 000 for pitch invaders on the race course; and people disagreeing with any race rules or arrangements will be considered "wowsers" and "not very Australian at all".
Midday arrives and the first set of races is due to start, although these are considered mere crowd pleasers and warm-ups for the 13 more to come. The crowd gathers around a boxing style ring. Anticipation builds as the bagpipe band marches in with much aplomb to announce the arrival of the cockroaches. These are displayed by the headrace steward in a clear plastic lunch container, which he displays to various members of the public, holds proudly above his head or occasionally shakes to rattle them up.
The stage is set for a good race. For a lot of the roaches it's their first time out from under the fridge so nerves are expected and anticipated. Some of them never overcome their stage fright and remain frozen in the middle of the ring. The shaking of the box is one way to alleviate this.
The stewards position themselves around the ring. The head steward removes the lid of the box and turns it upside down on the ground. The cockroaches mill over each other, still trapped inside.
Each cockroach is introduced as is any competitor in major sporting events. The roach backers cheer and spray their rivals with water, beer and any other substance they can locate. Others rise in Mexican waves, chant, or scream. It's a hubbub of noise and excitement.
When the head steward finally releases the cockroaches it's the climax. The cockroaches scramble and scuttle in every direction. The stewards dive all over the mats to locate the first three. Inevitably a few manage to get past them and escape into the screaming and recoiling crowd in the front rows.
It's seconds of confusion, then the winners are announced and their human representatives come out to cheers or booing from the crowd. Some bring water pistols and gun down other spectators, others carry their XXXX (Queensland beer) or VB's (another Australian beer) with them to stand on the podium in singlets and flip flops / thongs (Australians never dress up, not even for cock roach races), and others run laps of honour around the 4m wide ring.
It's pure fun and revelry and as the afternoon wears on it only gets more vocal as the beer flows more freely and the top grade racers are brought out. Beer is poured into the mouths of some podium winners from spectators in the stands above, the stewards throw left over cockroaches into the crowd and the pub does a roaring trade.
However all proceeds of the races go to charity, including the $5 entry fee or the $5 buying fee if you didn't have your own roach.
The famed Australian poet Henry Lawson, probably summed up the whole experience when he wrote Australia was "the nurse and tutor of eccentric minds, the home of the weird" although even he probably never predicted an Australia Day spent racing cockroaches.
Believe it or not roach racing and similar events are held in other parts of the world although the Australians basically head the world stage. Another event is the world lizard racing championships held every August at the Paroo Track in Eulo, Queensland, Australia. There is actually a plaque there commemorating the death of a champion racing cockroach called Destructo killed after winning the challenge against Wooden Head the champion racing lizard.
In other parts of the world insect races of all kinds are held at Purdue University, Lafayette, Indiana at the annual Bug Bowl every April. In the past at the Cell Space Casino in San Francisco high stake cockroach racing was a feature event.