With names like conker smashing, cheese rolling, and haggis hurling; strange sports abound in western Europe. The Ottery Flaming Tar Barrel Race is no exception. Unfortunately, rising costs may mean the end of this 400 year old tradition.
Every year on November 5th, the small English town of Ottery St. Mary hosts a very strange race. Each participant runs through the city streets carrying a tar-soaked whiskey barrel on his or her back. If that weren't strange enough, the barrel is also on fire.
Racers are grouped by age and gender to compete. Barrel size varies as well. Smaller barrels are selected for youths, while women run with slightly larger ones. The largest barrels are reserved for the men's race.
Women and children race earlier in the day. The men's race, the festival's highlight, is run after sundown for greatest effect. The event is so popular it draws over 20,000 spectators each year. It is also one of the last of its kind.
Preparing the barrels
Ale houses and restaurants around town donate empty barrels each year's race. The inside of each barrel is coated repeatedly with coal tar over the course of 12 months. The tar sinks into wood of the barrel, making it quite flammable. Just prior to the race the barrel is filled with wadded paper and kindling.
The end of tar barrel racing?
Back in 2009, the Ottery St. Mary's race was put at risk. An aerosol canister was somehow tossed into racer's barrel during the race. The can exploded, tearing through the barrel, and sending flaming shards into the spectators and racers nearby. Many were injured, some requiring prolonged medical treatment.
Prior to the accident, the town paid roughly $3100 in insurance costs to hold the event. Injuries and subsequent legal fees increased insurance costs for the 2010 event to nearly $40,000. The Flaming Tar Barrel Race has been in jeopardy ever since.
The city has never charged fans to watch the race in the past. Donations from both the public and private sector have kept the tradition alive so far. But in 2011, event organizers were forced to put out collection tins for fan donations at various points in the race. Will the event continue to be held in 2012?