Zucchini races bring googly eyes, dinosaurs and fun to Center 50+

“Ladies, you can’t have a wiggle!”

Joyce Birkenheier made the announcement as she carried a zucchini decked out in googly eyes with a black and white racing flag protruding from its back.

The wooden axles protruding from her squash were shaking as she raced the vegetable down a colorful green and yellow track outside Salem’s Center 50+ Tuesday. That led to the car getting stuck before making it to the bottom of the track.

Birkenheier returned to a tent nearby to wrap a shiny gold pipe cleaner around the axle in an effort to stabilize her vehicle.

She was one of a half-dozen people participating in the inaugural zucchini race at the senior center — an activity she learned about while line dancing. She decided to come out “for silly fun,” she said.

Joyce Birkenheier cheers as her zucchini car makes it to the end of the track at Center 50+ on Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2023. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Other contestants added dinosaur figurines to the backs of their squash and traded tips on getting wheels to stay in place.

“Can we take our cars home? I’ll eat mine later,” Birkenheier said.

The race was the brainchild of Heidi Miller, the Center 50+ outreach coordinator.

The center has a partnership with Catholic Community Services where volunteers tend several beds in a community garden. That got Miller thinking about racing produce, which led her to Google.

“Lo and behold, zucchini races are a thing,” she said. “I thought ‘Salem needs this.’”

Miller said it’s an ideal activity because it’s “age-friendly”: something nearby anybody can participate in, whether they’re 8 or 80.

A basket of zucchini donated by Salem Harvest sat outside alongside other crafting supplies for people to make their own zucchini cars and enter the race. It was the featured event at the Center 50+’s block party for National Night Out.

Ray Lewallen, a volunteer supervisor at the center’s woodshop, built the track with a veteran woodworking group he leads weekly.

Lewallen prefers his zucchini cooked and said he was initially skeptical when they got the request.

“I thought, ‘Why in the world were we doing something like this for adults?’” Lewallen said. He looked over at the track, where a small group of people were making last-minute adjustments to their zucchini cars. “Now it’s obvious.”

Donna Bodkin, left, Billie Larson and Joyce Birkenheier celebrate after completing the inaugural zucchini race at the Center 50+ on Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2023 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

The (disputed) winner of the inaugural zucchini race was Donna Bodkin, who took the contest so seriously she brought her own squash and a small cheering section of friends she goes chocolate tasting with.

Three other women and her husband sat in the shade of the Center 50+ awning, sporting paper signs reading “Team Donna,” as racers lined up their squash.

Bodkin learned about the race while volunteering at the Center 50+ and thought it would be the perfect use for her husband Henry’s squash.

She built her vehicle at home after thinking the wooden wheels and axles provided wouldn’t cut it. A trip to a thrift store yielded a toy race car, which Bodkin intended to disassemble for its wheels. But, lacking the mechanical ability to retrofit her squash, she settled for zip-tying the gourd on top of the race car with a Godzilla-like figurine in the back serving as a miniature driver.

The resulting stability meant her car easily sailed down the track, and led to some playful trash talk between contestants.

“You have a real car!” Birkenheier objected after the first heat.

“You’re just jealous,” Bodkin said.

After collecting her party horn badge of honor, Bodkin returned to her friends to celebrate.

“It’s just for fun — although I am glad I won,” Bodkin said.

Zucchini races will next come to Englewood Forest Festival Aug. 12 and the Salem Saturday Market Aug. 19.

People of all ages will be able to build and race cars on site for free, though the Center 50+ will collect donations to fund outreach programs.

Bodkin intends to compete again.

“I’m going to try to have the wheel through the squash so I don’t get all this hassle,” she said.

Zucchini cars roll down the racetrack at Center 50+ on Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2023. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)
Racers build zucchini cars at Center 50+ on Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2023. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)
A zucchini car ready to race at Center 50+ on Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2023. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.