On Your Mark, Get Set, DUCK!
A flock of fun is heading to Cherry Fest for first time ever
By Kristi Kates | June 30, 2018
The athletes are poised for action at the starting line, their coaches behind them for one last pep talk, their competition lane before them.
The air vibrates with the sound of the starting horn, and all webbed feet and wings suddenly rev up into full speed…
… wait, what?
Yes, these aren’t your typical athletes. They’re ducks — real live Mallard ducks, to be specific — and they’re the competitors in the Great American Duck Race, a touring event run by Robert Duck (and yes, that is his real name) that will be making a stop at the Traverse City Cherry Festival this year.
BIG BUCKS FOR DUCKS
The event got its start back in 1980 as the Great American Duck Race of Deming, in the city of Deming, New Mexico.
“They’d started a local festival there, thinking it would be fun to round up 50 or so ducks and race them,” Duck explained. “They just expected maybe a couple hundred people would show up.”
At the time, Duck and his wife live 200 miles away from Deming, in Albuquerque, running a jewelry store. When they heard about the event, they decided to enter the two pet ducks they’d been raising in their backyard.
“We got there and found out that there were way more than 50 ducks — there were 176,” Duck said. “Our ducks got third place that year, so we thought it might be fun to train them. The next year, we brought more ducks, since our ducks had hatched baby ducks. There were over 400 ducks competing, and we won first place.”
The Ducks’ experience with the duck race went swimmingly; they won for 12 years straight — and there was prize money.
“We made $50,000 racing ducks over that 12 years,” Duck said.
They also won a lot of attention, between winning that many times and the fact that Duck’s name is Duck.
“We were in People magazine and The Wall Street Journal, and a Japanese TV show even came out and filmed us training our ducks,” Duck said. “We also got to bring one of our ducks, Quacky Simone (named after a local news anchor in Albuquerque) onto the Johnny Carson show.”
The whole experience was so much fun Duck decided to take a quack — er, crack — at making a living racing ducks.
In 1999, he and his wife sold the jewelry business they’d owned for over two decades, got all their ducks in a row, and started their own branch of the Great American Duck Race, touring it around the country.
“We’ve now been racing ducks for 20 years, full time,” said Duck.
In today’s version of the duck race, only Mallard ducks compete.
“Back when we were racing duck competitors, we’d experimented with racing different types of ducks,” Duck said. “Rouen ducks, Indian Runners, and Khaki Campbells. But Mallards were always the fastest.”
The Duck bring their own stable of ducks to the races, traveling with a total of 41 ducks, and rotating the ducks, 20 at a time, so the ducks can rest in between shows. (They get the ducks from a hatchery, and train them to race using the ducks’ natural instincts to return to their flock.)
“The non-competing ducks rest in a shaded pen at each venue,” Duck said. “And we have a little setup where people can buy duck food from a machine and feed them.”
Six ducks in particular hold the “fastest duck” honor on the Ducks’ team, and they all have stage names: Nitro, Buttercup, Justify, Crazy Girl, Rocket, and Turbo.
“And two of our ducks are now 13 years old,” Duck said. “Which is pretty good, considering the average lifespan of a Mallard duck in the wild is about two years.”
The Ducks loan their ducks to guests who wish to participate in the Great American Duck Race, which is quite the show (this will be the race’s — and the Ducks’ — first visit to Cherry Festival). The event includes the race itself, plus plenty of enthusiastic commentary and lots of fun facts about Mallard ducks.
“We race the ducks four at a time, on a 16-foot-long water tank track,” Duck explained. “The ducks’ feet don’t touch the bottom; they swim and use their wings a little to propel forward.”
The guests chosen to be the ducks’ ‘coaches’ simply set their ducks into each duck’s lane as the starting horn blows, and the ducks know what to do. The ducks race for four heats and then a final round. During the final round, the guests get to bestow a temporary name on their temporary duck.
“It’s fun to see what names people come up with!” Duck said.
Some of the ducks have even become exceptionally good at racing, taking to it like — well, like a duck to water. One of Duck’s ducks holds the world record for the 16-foot duck racing course at .83 seconds.
The Great American Duck Race will take place July 4–7 in Clinch Park, Traverse City during Cherry Festival (see cherryfestival.org for exact race times). For more information visit racingducks.com.