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Gad-zukes! Veggie car races stir up fun

Racers look on as zucchini cars race down the track Wednesday at the Cortland County Junior Fair.

Bob Ellis/staff photographer

Racers look on as zucchini cars race down the track Wednesday at the Cortland County Junior Fair.

CORTLANDVILLE — Here’s a question: what’s the top speed of a zucchini? The answer: Not very fast at all.

But the kids participating in the 24th annual Veggie Car Race during the Cortland County Junior Fair Wednesday morning weren’t really interested in finding that out, anyway. They were there for two reasons: to learn more about agriculture and to have fun.

Jackie Hartnett, a director on the fair board and an administrative assistant for the Cornell Cooperative Extension’s 4-H youth development program, explained the rules.

The idea is simple: take a zucchini and a few long, blunted nails, slap some wooden wheels — and maybe some stickers — onto the sides, and send the vegetable hurtling down a race track identical to what one would find at the Boy Scouts’ traditional pine wood derby event.

Out of all different types of produce that could have been selected to be fashioned into racecars, Hartnett said zucchini is the preferred vegetable of choice. That’s because it’s seasonal, abundant and it already looks like the body of a car — sort of.

With the occasional gobble coming from the turkey judging competition going onin the background, dozensof kids lined up to test their ingenuity.

“You’ll see a lot of different designs with the cars,” Hartnett said. “It’s amazing some of the things they come up with.” A large tent set up just outside the barns would serve as the kids’ research and development lab to test their summer squash speedsters — and the ideas were flowing.

Sure, some stuck to the traditional four-wheeled model, but others opted for six or eight wheels. In an attempt to weigh down the “front” of a zucchini, someone even stuck a wheel to one end of his race car.

Daniel Ortlib, 8, of Cortland, was testing out a design where instead of one wheel, he placed two wheels down the sides of his veggie car.

A test run down the track would reveal the techniqueonly weighed down his car. But using what he’d learned from past veggie car races, plustips he’s picked up as a pine wood derby competitor, he quickly began hammering out a solution.

“I’m trying to get the nails more even … (and) I’m trying to make the wheels spin,” he said.

Whoever managed to get their veggie car the furthest along the track advanced to the next round. In the end it would be 11-year-old Cortland resident Suzanna Manns who would win the overall event.

Her friend, Sophia Melbrand, 10, from Buffalo was close to tasting victory but her squash was knocked out of the race, bumped off the track by another high-velocity vegetable.

Manns said since she has been competing in the event since she was 3-years-old, she had a bit of advice for newcomers to next year’s race and, despite being the reigning champ, she wasn’t shy about sharing.

“I’ve noticed that a lot of people put the wheels high and the zucchini drags so you want to put them lower,” she said.

After the race, Manns didn’t receive a trophy but it seemed the real prize was having fun with her friends and, of course, the zucchini. When asked what she planned to do with the winning veggie racer, she had just two words.

“Stuffed zucchini,” she said.

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