Denton’s eighth annual Day of the Dead Festival was equal parts Dia de los Muertos and Halloween, while staying thoroughly “Denton.”
Costumes were more or less equally divided between Dia de los Muertos, sugar skull designs, sombreros and other signals of Mexican traditions and Halloween costumes. Darth Vader walked alongside his stormtroopers, Tinker Bell pushed a baby carriage and Fred Rogers watched the coffin races with goodly interest.
One could purchase a turkey leg from a vendor and pop over to the next tent to get a lonche de barbacoa, or walk a couple dozen feet away to get fresh coffee and craft beer. Artists sold Day of the Dead merchandise alongside Halloween apparel, T-shirts with prints of Frida Kahlo and hand-decorated shoes in a culturally fused display as charming as it was eclectic.
Perhaps no example of this fusion was more iconic than a lone participant in the day’s events: a man wearing a sombrero, black Converse Chucks, sugar skull makeup and a pumpkin suit oddly reminiscent of David S. Pumpkins, a Saturday Night Live bit from 2016 starring Tom Hanks.
Off to the races
The festival officially began at 11 a.m. when vendors opened alongside the pumpkin patch, an area equipped with puppet shows, carnival games and a bounce house for kids to enjoy.
Musicians played continually from 11:45 until 7:30, when the last band began its set on Industrial Street. The costume contest began at 6 p.m. and featured a handful of the talent present during the event.
These events served largely to satiate the Day of the Dead appetites of attendees. The main course, the coffin races, lasted from 1 until shortly after 4:30, when a champion was crowned.
Sixty coffins were entered into the races this year, the maximum allowed. The majority of those were from local businesses, but several were entered by an individual. Some groups, such as American Eagle Harley-Davidson and Low Voltage Solutions, entered multiple racers.
Joey Hawkins wielded a starting (cap) gun for half of the races. He claimed to be a central figure in the founding of Denton coffin races seven years ago.
“The biggest appeal [of the races] is that there is one day out of the year that adults get to be kids,” Hawkins said. He feels that moments, no matter how brief, cross people’s minds as they race in which everything fades except for the race itself.
Another explanation was offered by Scott Porter, the annual announcer of the event.
He sees the races as something unique to set the town apart: It isn’t another music or art festival — he stated each of those are important in their own right.
“And I think people just want to see people crash,” he said.
Coffins varied in style, shape and attention to detail, but all entries had to conform to a set of guidelines and be vetted by an inspection team before they could race on Saturday. The complete list of race rules can be found on the festival’s website.
Some looked nothing like coffins in the traditional sense, but several stayed close to their aesthetic inspiration. For instance, an entry from Low Voltage Solutions was a literal coffin with a panel removed to fit a driver.
Each coffin was given two opportunities to race the 400 feet down Hickory Street, with its fastest time used to determine who qualified for the finals.
After the first two rounds of time trails, the fastest 32 teams advanced to the final round. Unlike the other two, this round pitted two racers against each other instead of the clock. The faster racer advanced, and the slower was eliminated .
Times weren’t recorded for the final races, but the fastest recorded racer was Denton’s Finest, entered by Austin Hulcher. His coffin averaged 18.45 mph as it careened down Hickory, crossing the finish line in just 14.78 seconds.
Hulcher’s team could not recreate that success and was eliminated in the early stages of the final round.
New champion crowned, with a twist
Last year’s champion, American Eagle Harley-Davidson, had both entries make their way into the final round, but each was eliminated. Its winning coffin from 2017, The HOG, was narrowly beaten by last year’s runner-up, Secondhand Sports’ entry, La Bala.
This put Secondhand Sports against Greenpoint Technologies for the final . Excitement among the crowd was quickly drawing toward a peak. Sunlight was beginning to fade and the unseasonably warm weather was dying with it.
The Greenpoint Coffin Flier hinted at a secret weapon in its race against the formidable Mulberry Monster, entered by Mulberry St. Cantina, but few seemed to grasp its clear advantage.
Racers received gasps if they crashed and applause when it became clear they were all right. Several earned laughter with creative entries or antics during a race, but nothing compared to reaction to the Greenpoint Coffin Flier when it revealed a surprise that secured its victory in the final.
After strong pushes from team members, the two finalists seemed fairly evenly matched. With most of the track left ahead of the coffins, La Bala was taking and securing the lead when the Coffin Flier let loose the full force of two compressed air canisters, rocketing it into first place.
The crowd erupted, drowning out the unmistakable sound of the propulsion.
“I’m sure there’s gonna be some rule changes next year, but give it up for the winners!” Joey Hawkins said over a speaker system.
Darin Alley, site manager of the Denton branch of Greenpoint Technologies, was pleased with the victory.
With 12-15 volunteers working on the Coffin Flier, the coffin races are a team-building exercise for the company. When asked whether the compressed air gave them an advantage, Alley laughed and said, “Oh it did,” without hesitation.
During tests earlier in the week, his team figured the compressed air shaved between 1.5 and 2.5 seconds from their time.
DeMarco Johnson, 26, was the “pusher” for Secondhand Sports. His job was to get as much speed behind La Bala in the 20 feet allotted before letting momentum and gravity work their magic.
Even though he seemed a bit disappointed, Johnson wasn’t upset or angry about the results.
“[The air] gave them a boost, otherwise we would have won fair and square,” Johnson said.
He had heard the compressed air before, but didn’t know which coffin it was coming from; he just assumed it had been disqualified earlier. Like nearly everybody else present, he was shocked to see and hear the big reveal.
“Hats off to them, we should have used the same thing,” Johnson said.
Hawkins dutifully fielded questions from racers and audience members alike about the legality of the tactic, but there was no specific rule forbidding the use of compressed air as a means of propulsion. The rule that comes closest to addressing the issue reads: “No pedals. No motorized propulsion of any kind.”
“We’re putting on a show,” Hawkins said simply.
Regardless of ethical gray areas, the only things to win from the race were a small trophy and bragging rights with an expiration date of one year.