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Hometown U.S.A.: Virginia City, Nev.

Outhouses are No. 1 in Nevada town's race

A former boomtown thrives on tourist-friendly Old West kitsch and oddball events.

October 25, 2009|Ashley Powers

You can't say Virginia City lacks a sense of humor: Its unofficial mascot is a local man who, in homage to 19th century prospectors, goes about as a long-john-wearing, scraggly-bearded character named StinkE.

The 1,000-resident town relies on a string of oddball events -- International Camel Races, Pet Parade and the Testicle Festival -- to lure tourists, again and again, to the 1860s-era main drag.

But even here in Nevada's former silver country, where folks often gussy themselves up as harlots and gunslingers circa the Comstock Lode era, the goofiness of the World Championship Outhouse Races is somewhat remarkable.

One brisk afternoon this month, wool-wrapped tourists lined 200 feet of C Street. Doc Durtin and Miss Kitty -- he armed with a black whip, she stuffed into a red bodice -- unfurled toilet paper to mark the finish line. The Plungerettes, a mock drill team wielding plungers like batons, marched up the raceway.

The next two competitors trundled out of a parking lot as dozens of onlookers laughed.

The Party Pooper outhouse, No. 00, was painted pink with red flames and a list of, um, sponsors such as "I.P. Daily." The rival Haunted Outhouse, No. 13, sported spider webs, skeleton heads and a sign warning: "Enter if you dare." Both had won earlier heats in the two-day contest.

Two members of each team readied to push their outhouses uphill while drivers sat on the toilets and steered. The Haunted team's driver wore a skeleton costume; the Party driver, a fat suit and red gloves. A cowboy stage-named Pinky (no relation to StinkE) raised his pistol and -- CRACK!

The outhouses sped off.

Virginia City has long cottoned to tweaking the Old West -- its signature scribe, after all, was Mark Twain, who wrote for the Territorial Enterprise newspaper in the 1860s.

A century later, when the former boomtown revived itself as a tourist magnet, it did so with plenty of winks.

Think period costumes, pretend gunfights, nods to "Bonanza," a Mark Twain Casino and a saloon touting its "suicide table" (in its day, a terribly unlucky place to bet). The Testicle Festival -- officially the International Comstock Mountain Oyster Fry -- showcases recipes for lamb and calf privates.

The town, 26 miles south of Reno, boasts nearly 1 million visitors a year, though that has dipped somewhat during the recession.

The World Championship Outhouse Races began in the early 1990s, after the state Legislature voted to ban outhouses. The Virginia City Chamber of Commerce and tourism officials, never ones to snub a stunt, decided to race them, parade them and, this year, give awards to the prettiest, most traditional and most unusual loos.

There's a 12-page rule book of sorts. Outhouses must weigh at least 200 pounds and stand 6 feet tall, with 9 square feet of flooring, a toilet seat and a roll of toilet paper. No motors, no sails, no dogs as teammates. Steering and brakes are optional. And please, contestants, tape your lids shut. "One year someone actually used an outhouse," the rule book laments.

This month, in a parking lot near Grandma's Fudge Factory and the 124-year-old Piper's Opera House, eight teams mingled with the boisterous crowd.

The Flapper Crapper, No. 69, was all purple feathers and red velour. The Urinator, No. 7, bore drawings of Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Terminator promising: "I'll Pee Back."

Even StinkE (real name: Danny Beason) had constructed a big wooden outhouse, though it weighed too much to race, and lots of miniature ones he hawked for $10 each. He tried to emcee a long-john and bloomer contest between heats, but it never quite caught on.

Around the parking lot, the stakes were far from high. Competitors whiled away the half-hour between races with hot dogs and Miller Genuine Draft. (The main drag doubles as a state highway, so organizers block it off for only a few minutes at a time.)

Phil Parker, 55, a painting contractor and Party Pooper teammate, was barely audible among the laughter and fizzing Coronas.

Seven years ago, he spotted an outhouse race flier and, with friends, pieced one together with a bed frame, scrap wood and rudimentary "Flintstones brakes."

"This is our idea of what an outhouse looked like," said teammate Michael McCurry, 58, of Timbuctoo, Calif.

"We always used to get voted ugliest," said Parker, who lives in Rough and Ready (which, like Timbuctoo, is a real place in Northern California). So they scrapped the outhouse's original name, Stool Shed.

They still haven't won many races, but that never matters much.

Their Haunted Outhouse rivals, most of whom work at Nevada State Prison in Carson City, were competing for the second time. Matt Tilley, 45, who also builds street racing cars, poured at least $300 into his outhouse, crafted a back story and posted it near the outhouse for folks to read. In the story, Julia Bulette, a charitable town prostitute who was famously murdered in 1867, puts a curse on her neighbor's outhouse.

"It's a little strange, a little Nevada," said Tilley's girlfriend, Shauna Stark, 44.

Like other races before them, the Party-Haunted heat was over in less than a minute. The teams heaved up the hill, past the Bucket of Blood and Delta saloons and toward the Mark Twain Museum at the Territorial Enterprise.

Their pace was nearly identical. Neither outhouse could pull ahead. Steps before the finish line, as the crowd cheered, the Haunted team made a successful last-gasp push.

"And that was a close race!" an announcer bellowed as toilet paper fluttered to the street.

--

ashley.powers@latimes.com

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