Right now, in a secret training facility south of Deming, approximately 175 ducks are preparing for the defining moment of their lives: the Great American Duck Race, a weekend event this summer that will judge the feathered beasts’ speed, strength and general sense of direction under festival duress.
The name Great American Duck Race is slightly misleading. Sure, the duck race is great and certainly American, but the event has blossomed into something so much more. It’s burgeoned to additionally contain a duck pageant, parade, tortilla toss, carnival, balloon ascension and even an outhouse race (which involves a person on a commode, wheels, handles, a team of pullers and a jaunt down Silver Street, one of Deming’s main roads).
A flat desert town whose population at the last census teetered just above 14,000 and whose current viability rests largely on its location between the much larger Tucson and El Paso, Deming became in 1881 the completion site of the second transcontinental railroad. Today, the dusty interstate city survives largely off of agriculture until, come the last weekend of August (this year´s festivities begin Thursday, Aug. 26), it swells with what organizers estimate to be an extra 10,000 to 20,000 people.
The titular events—the duck races—occur on either a wet or dry track. For a $5 entry fee, contestants are furnished with a duck to compete in a series of races, complete with preliminaries and quarterfinals on Saturday, Aug. 28 and finals on Sunday, Aug. 29.
The man behind the 31-year-old Great American Duck Race’s ducks is Steve Smith, a duck wrangler who has been raising the ducks and organizing the racetracks for 10 years.
How does one become the Great American Duck Race duck wrangler and track coordinator?
“I received a phone call several years ago asking if I’d be interested in raising ducks locally—they were getting away from allowing the racers to bring their own ducks,” Smith says. “The next year, the gentleman who used to put the tracks together retired. I assumed that job and can’t get rid of it.”
Perhaps the unlikely event is just too compelling to abandon. It attracts visitors not only from the region, but also from all over the world.
“Over the years, we’ve had reporters journey from as far away as Japan,” Smith says. But mostly, it’s a “Southwest, Texas, Colorado, familyoriented event.”
Last year, Smith oversaw 122 duck races and, over the years, he has seen all walks of people win, notably children as young as the age of 1.
In that time, he’s seen a lot. “It’s a little hard to pick something out of the crowd,” Smith tells SFR. “One year, we had a young boy racing on the water track and his father was telling him to splash the duck, and the little boy ran through the water to chase the duck. Unfortunately, we had to disqualify him.”
For each race, there are eight lanes, which means eight ducks face off at a time in the battle for best bird.
The dry race is arguably the less exciting of the two, as ducks sometimes span the 16-foot racetrack in under two seconds. For the wet track, which was introduced a decade ago, birds glide atop foot-deep lanes of water. The race takes upward of 30 seconds and draws the largest crowds. The winners from the wet and dry races split the prize money, which last year turned out to be $1,300 apiece.
Diana Chadborn, owner of Circle S Western Emporium, is the president of the Great American Duck Race committee and organizer of the duck pageants for both kids and adults. Chadborn says that, in addition to tourists from around the country and world, Deming’s residents turn out in droves. She describes the sight as “big shade trees, tables, blankets, lawn chairs, food everywhere, great-big family entertainment.”
Last year, Chadborn says, there were 89 participants in the parade and 45 entrants in the children’s portion of the duck pageant alone.
This year’s theme of “pirate duck” is as untimely and unlikely as those of years past, which have included everything from “Elvis duck” to “gonecountry duck.” Entry into the pageant is free, but requires that, in addition to dressing up according to the year’s theme, contestants perform a skit based around the theme.
Over the 31 years that the Great American Duck Race has graced the Luna County town, much has changed, but much also has stayed the same. Take, for example, the event’s mascot, Duck McPride or, as he was revealed to be last year, Josh Lewis. Now 23 years
old, Lewis has been dressing up as Duck McPride for 11 years.
“One day they needed help doing it, and 12-year-old me wasn’t shy at all, so I said I’d do it,” Lewis tells SFR. “It start ed as one year a decade ago.”
In that time, the Duck McPride costume has granted him many opportunities, including meeting Gov. Bill Richardson (who was the event’s grand marshal in 2005) and Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, riding in a hot air balloon and receiving a scholarship for college.
Lewis, who attended New Mexico State University at Las Cruces, retired his post last year. He had planned to join the Idaho State Police but, as he says, “life happened” and he is back home in Deming. Though he had intended to pass the Duck McPride torch to his little brother, since he is still in Deming, he will suit up once again for the Great American Duck Race.
For Lewis, it’s a mixed blessing. “All through high school, I could not wait to leave Deming. I could not wait to see the world,” Lewis says. “I know there’s things better for me out there but, long story short: Deming’s home.”
His tenure as Duck McPride had been largely a secret until last year, though it had always been a source of humor for his friends and family, of which he considers the committee a part. Lewis even considers Chadborn—who has been tailoring the Duck McPride costume to fit him ever since he grew out of the first one when he was 15—his second grandmother. “I’m their duck. I’m their baby. I grew up with them.”
Chadborn sees Lewis’ return to Duck McPride differently: “He couldn’t give up his fame and fortune here.” Instead of ruminating on whatever has past, she quickly turns to the task at hand. “This year, I’ll have to make him some sort of pirate suit,” she says.
Questioned as to whether it’s strange for a now 23-year-old man to sport the duck costume of his childhood, Lewis is definitive.
“I’ve always been different, independent, always done my own thing—and I think that’s one reason I did start it. I wanted to do something different. I wanted to be different,” he says pointedly. “How many other people in the world can say they’re the Deming duck?” For that matter, how many people have ever even raced a duck?