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Monday, May 2, 2016

Roach races return to Roachdale

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Putnam County Museum Director Ann Lovold displays the original roach racetrack that is stored at the museum. Three-time winner Larry Kersey showed off his trophies from the event that is making a comeback on July 3 in Roachdale. [Order this photo]
ROACHDALE -- On July 3 at 6 p.m., a renowned tradition will return to the town of Roachdale -- roach races.

There are several stories about the beginnings of this event that put Roachdale on the map back in 1981. One story is that a group of Lions Club members were trying to keep themselves warm by chasing cockroaches around.

Another, and more likely, story is that this same group was sitting around trying to think of a gimmick for the Fourth of July carnival and someone excited suggested a roach race.

Next thing anyone knew, they were mapping out an oval track on a four by eight piece of plywood. Steve Irwin and Jim Holland made the board (which is now housed in the Putnam County Museum).

They painted it to look like the I-465 loop. A plastic container that the racers were dropped into was placed in the center of the board. The first roach to reach the perimeter of the board was declared the winner of each heat.

Roaches were imported from labs in South Carolina because of their size. One year an English Hissing Roach made its debut at the race. Unfortunately, it was big and scary, but not fast enough.

"They lifted that dome and my roach was gone and that big old roach was still standing there trying to figure out where England was," laughed three-time winner Larry Kersey.

Over a short span of time, the race was so popular it appeared on a segment of "Good Morning America" and "Across Indiana." Articles appeared in numerous newspapers including a full-length feature in the Living Section of the Indianapolis Star. It even garnered a write-up in Ripley's Believe It or Not. Over 300 people attended the race in 1987.

Kersey claimed he trained his roaches for weeks going into hard training by mid March. For motivation, he claimed his famous "Turkey Merle" roach watched stock car races.

Kersey also claims to own some beachfront property in Arizona and is looking for a buyer.

Kersey told the Banner Graphic he entered his first race to entertain a close friend -- Merle Miles -- who was dying of cancer.

"I wanted to do something to make him laugh. Turkey Merle was named after him," said Kersey. "When we won, we went over to his house to tell him about it."

Inside the container of roaches is three-time Roachdale Roach Race Winner "Turkey Merle," or at least one of his relatives. This is the bucket of winners from the 1987 race that Larry Kersey's "Turkey Merle" won.
Many people dressed up their roaches. Kersey added blinders and a saddle to Turkey Merle. Another person glued a top hat made out of paper to his racer's shell.

"People made roach castles and little houses. One guy had hula dancers lead his roach in for the race.

The roach race expert was immortalized in a song sung to the tune of "Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy" by a group of three girls who sounded like the Andrews Sisters. It includes a line about Kersey.

"Kersey's here so let's give him a cheer and start the race. Get your bugs and run and let's have lots of fun at the Roachdale Fourth of July."

When the Lions Club disbanded around 1996, their 4th of July festival and the roach race died out.

Kersey would love to see the race return.

"I hope there are some parents today who participated as kids who will bring their kids to race this year," said Kersey.

Last year, the Roachdale Pride group joined with the VFW Post 3284 who hosts a fish fry on July 3 to bring back the parade and other events.

They were successful and hope to build on their program from last year.

Kersey offered some advice for would-be roach racers this year.

"Don't squeeze them too hard when you catch them. Make sure you train them and get a number painted on their back so you know which one is yours," he said.

He also advises trainers not to get too attached because at the end of the race the roaches are put in a barrel, spritzed with insecticide and disposed of by their pit crews.

For information about the Roach Race or other events at Summerfest 2009, watch the Banner Graphic for time schedules or contact Connie Edwards at 522-1781 or by e-mail at scedwards@tds.net

The Putnam County Museum is planning an exhibit that will include the roach racetrack and original soundtrack of the "Boogie-Woogie Bugle" song about the race.

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I think this is a great thing, Roachdale is a very very friendly and caring town, it used to have the biggest and best celebration of all in the county, I now reside in New Palestine IN, and let me tell you I sure do miss Roachdale and all of the friendly folks there,

go roach racers.

K Smith

-- Posted by katt3166 on Sat, Jun 27, 2009, at 11:53 AM

I would go with the story of the guys trying to think of a gimmick for the Roach Race rather than trying to keep warm. Either way, it's one of those things that make small town living so fun.

-- Posted by purple_heat on Sun, Jun 28, 2009, at 9:36 PM

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