Running after turkey traditions: 50 years of King Turkey Day racers
Members of Turkey Day race teams dating back to the original 1973 team recall the memories that make Turkey Day so special.
WORTHINGTON — It’s hard today to imagine Worthington without what has become one of its most well-known traditions — the King Turkey Day Race down 10th Street. Now in its 50th year, it's an event that has spawned a hundred different race teams between the two competing towns, countless friendships, and plenty of turkey-themed tales going back as far as the very first race in 1973.
It was radio station coworkers and longtime friends Jim Wychor and Lew Hudson who came up with the idea to race turkeys, having heard about a Texas town boasting the title of “Turkey Capital of the World” — a claim to fame Worthington also staked its name on at that time.
Hudson connected with the newspaper in Cuero, Texas; Wychor talked to the radio station and the rest is history. The Great Gobbler Gallop was born, and as members of the first race team, Hudson and Wychor were there for every step.
“Turkey Day, in the 60s, the day was going downhill,” Wychor said. “It was a nice big celebration and we had a carnival…We’d get a speaker. But it wasn’t nearly as juicy of an activity. The idea was to infuse something in Turkey Day to get it going again, really make it big.”
They lost that first race, Wychor noted, but the crowd was just unbelievable. They used white turkeys, and it wasn’t until the following year that wild turkeys would be brought in, and Worthington’s bird would get its iconic name “Paycheck” — because it goes so fast.
Prior to race day, the race team — which included Jim Hvistendal, A.J. Terrones, and Dennis Van Beest alongside Hudson and Wychor — would meet out at the farm, north of the Nobles County fairgrounds to practice.
“The biggest thing was that you wanted to get the bird used to you,” Wychor said, adding that developing a strategy in order to stop turkeys from taking off into the crowd was also a crucial aspect of "training."
He talks about the chaotic practices with a laugh and describes the unofficial uniforms they wore out in the field — cowboy boots and high school running shorts — in order to chase after the turkey.
“We couldn’t wait for it to come, and we couldn’t wait for it to go,” Wychor said. He handed over the racing team reins to someone else after two years, but he and Lew both stayed heavily involved in the promotion and coverage of the event. Wychor no longer lives in Worthington, and at age 90, he is one of the last surviving members of the original race team.
Wychor plans to be in Worthington to celebrate the 50th running of the turkeys. Just like many other former race team members, he’s looking forward to reconnecting with old friends and being in the community once more.
“You develop friendships that will last a lifetime,” said former race team member Matt Oleske. “You get to connect with people of your community, not just the Texas community, but you get to make new friends in this town. So that's really kind of special.”
Oleske was part of both the 1998 and 1999 race teams, and he’s looking forward to reconnecting with friends during Turkey Day, and taking part in the festivities — without the stress of having to chase after a live turkey.
“Half the time you’re scared to death because you don’t want to fail,” he recalled of his first race. “It’s just a turkey race, but for two minutes, that turkey race is the most important thing in your life.”
For Gary Hoffmann, what stands out to him from his time on a turkey team back in 1988 and 1990, was the feeling of stepping onto the street for the first time.
“It’s like the old instincts of being an athlete come rushing back,” he said. “It’s kind of like stepping on the football field right before kickoff or something like that.”
Hoffmann took part in the turkey race not long after moving to Worthington. He recalls a story from another race team member, who was traveling in Europe at the time.
“He picked up one of those international papers and was flipping through it, and there were the results of the Worthington turkey race,” Hoffmann said. “I always laughed about that.”
It was an amazing aspect of the race for Hoffman, just how much people cared about it. Family members who knew little else about Worthington were always eager to ask about the turkey race.
“It’s crazy, we’re talking about this small town celebration,” he notes, “but there’s the camaraderie between the people down in Cuero and the people in Worthington. I think that’s part of why people all over follow the race.”
It’s a sentiment Wychor echoes, as he launches from story to story about his days planning for Turkey Day and promoting the event alongside Hudson.
“It’s just a wonderful, wonderful celebration that pulls in people from all over,” he noted. “Lew and I were so proud of our efforts paying off and putting Worthington back on the map with Turkey Day.”