One more item for your bucket list: Oregon’s Tillamook County Fair Pig-N-Ford Races.
By Noah Davis
Photographs by Sol Neelman
It’s hard to say whether or not Henry Ford had pigs in mind when he developed the Model T in 1908. But not too long after his first mass-produced vehicle rolled off the line at Ford’s Detroit, Michigan, Piquette Plant on September 27, 1908, a swine escaped from an Oregon farm, and two men began chasing the animal with cars that Ford built.
After a pursuit that probably should have been scored with a banjo, the men captured the renegade porker, and they enjoyed the experience so much they decided to make it an annual tradition. Their vehicular hog hunt blossomed, and will roll out its 87th installment in August 2012: Gentlemen, start your engines for the Tillamook County Fair Pig-N-Ford Races.
There may not be an event on the planet that so unexpectedly combines the sublime and the ridiculous. The latter part, of course, is a shoo-in, but there’s an evanescence to the races, and a dedication among the drivers that—along with their setting beneath a slate-gray sky on the Oregon coast—makes the event more than just the sum of its porcine, automotive, and human components.
For starters, there’s the dedication and skill required to maintain a car that has been out of production for longer than the average American life span. It’s more art than science, according to E. W. “Punk” Dunsworth, president of the Tillamook County Model T Pig-N-Ford Association (yes, that’s a real thing). “Those cars are tuned to perfection, I’ll tell you,” Dunsworth says. “Mostly by ear and feel.”
The Model Ts that run the Pig-NFord are stripped down, essentially a running gear with a seat on them. Twelve-volt batteries have replaced the magneto flywheel that powered the cars when they rolled off the assembly line. Despite the simplicity of the driving machine, they can and do break down, and, well, try finding parts for a Model T. “We had one guy break the crankshaft last year and it took him all year to come up with enough parts to rebuild it,” Dunsworth says. “You can’t call the parts store and say, ‘I need a crankshaft’ or ‘I need a piston.’ You have to locate them [yourself].” An out-of-commission owner must scour eBay for parts, or call one of the few old-timers around the country who has a supply.
What this means, of course, is that eventually wear, tear, and a lack of parts will bring the Pig-N-Ford races squealing to a halt. At some point, the Tillamook County Fair will have to go on without its signature event.
When that sad yet inevitable day will arrive is anyone’s guess, but one thing is certain: The fans won’t be happy about it. In 2010, more than 74,000 people (almost three times the population of Tillamook) attended the county fair. Many came specifically to see Pig-N-Ford. “One year, it rained during the horse-racing event that precedes the Pig-N-Ford. The fair officials didn’t want us on the track, so they forced us out of racing for a day,” Dunsworth says. “They got more than 1,200 calls asking why there was no Model T racing.”
Here’s what the people were clamoring for: At the start of the race, five drivers stand along the fence on the grandstand side of the Averill Arena horse-racing track, their Model Ts parked at the starting line. When the starter’s gun fires, the racers sprint across the width of the dirt track to a series of bins housing locally raised pigs weighing between 20 and 60 pounds. Each man plucks a porker from the bin assigned to his car, races back to his vehicle, crank-starts it while holding the animal, and then mounts up and tears off around the 1.25-mile loop, clutching his pig—not a euphemism—all the while. (We use the term “tears off” loosely, by the way; the Fords’ top speed is 45 miles per hour.)
After completing the oval, racers kill their engines, trade one pig for another, and repeat the process. If a racer drops his pig, he must go get it; drivers may not cross the line pigless. The first person to complete three laps wins. Races can last up to 15 minutes.
Think of it as a more concise, pigcentric alternative to NASCAR.
The Pig-N-Ford is a three-day event, with two races on Thursday and two on Friday; the semifinals and final take place on Saturday. Matt Walker, who inherited his car from his septuagenarian father, won the 2010 edition, earning a trophy and considerable bragging rights.
Dunsworth is as close to an official spokesman as the event has. As president of the Pig-N-Ford Association, the 72-year-old retired logger is responsible for calling the meetings, organizing the race, and ensuring that participants adhere to the bylaws designed to keep drivers safe. (Model T brakes are not exactly the stop-on-a-dime variety.) Dunsworth, who has been a member of the organization since 1958, competed in the race for 18 years, and he’s sort of the Buffalo Bills of the event, having come in second place five times. He no longer handles wheel (and pig) work, but Dunsworth still tunes his car with a buddy while another friend’s kid drives it. (Dunsworth’s own son lives too far away to inherit the family franchise.)
The Tillamook County Model T Pig-N-Ford Association knows how important its contribution is to the festival. The group is a close-knit one, consisting of 10 franchises, around 20 cars, and roughly 30 members. The fair organizers pay the club a fee for its efforts, and the money is split evenly among the men.
As we said, it’s a tradition that will inevitably go extinct, but as long as Dunsworth and the rest of the crew keep their mechanical wiles sharp and their crankshafts turning, the pigs will be grabbed, the dirt will be flying, and the races will continue—and we can keep wondering what Henry Ford would have thought of his most famous vehicle having a second life, hauling pigs around a dirt track along the Oregon coastline.