Bar Stool Racing Puts Zip Into an East Texas Town
By Megan Hix
BEN WHEELER, Texas — Bill Jenkins didn’t set out to start a local cultural phenomenon when he told his neighbors about his offbeat personal history with St. Patrick’s Day. But when he mentioned he had an airport hangar full of motorized bar stools tailored for the occasion, a town tradition was born.
Jenkins, 73, and other residents of Ben Wheeler will race in the town’s third annual motorized bar stool race on March 18. Hosted by local restaurants The Forge Bar and Grill and Moore’s Store, this year’s event aims to raise $1,000 for the local volunteer fire department through accompanying concerts and attractions.
Organizers say the event will feature a race of about a dozen bar stool pilots — some of whom typically don tutus or leather road gear — in one straight shot down the town’s main street. The spectacle is expected to attract more than 1,000 onlookers from around the state.
Hidden behind the “pine tree curtain” 25 miles northwest of Tyler, Ben Wheeler is an unincorporated town of 400 surrounded by the East Texas Oil Field. With no mayor or city council, the residents have taken it upon themselves in recent years to set the town apart. Enter the bar stool grand prix.
While most stools average speeds of 30 to 40 mph, says Jenkins, a retired engineer, he’s been refining his ride for more than 30 years, and it’s been clocked at speeds up to 100 mph.
In 1978, when Jenkins lived in Dallas, he and his pals were looking for a new way to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. One of them suggested attaching an engine and wheels to bar stools, and racing them in an empty parking lot.
“The police had gotten wise to us already, so we couldn’t do our usual St. Patrick’s Day stunts [like] painting the center stripe down Knox Street green,” Jenkins said.
After a 13-year run, the annual Dallas race fizzled out. Years later, an old friend who had moved to Ben Wheeler told Jenkins about the town. “He said, ‘You’ve got to get out here. We’re all having fun,” Jenkins said. Jenkins promptly relocated.
That friend, Brooks Gremmels, was a former oilman who had made it his mission to revitalize Ben Wheeler by buying up land and restoring the dilapidated downtown. Before Gremmels died in 2014, he started the Ben Wheeler Arts and Historic District Foundation and brought businesses and a children’s library back to the area.
Gremmels also established a community for artists by providing stages, gallery space and opportunities to perform. “It’s a strange little cultural hub,” said Sara Brisco, owner of The Forge. “We get artists you wouldn’t normally see in a little community like this.”
Over the years, Jenkins, a licensed airplane pilot, had been stockpiling bar stools left to him by his friends in a leased hangar in nearby Terrell. When he was ordered to clear the stools out, Brisco came up with a solution: Auction off the bar stools and let people race them through town. “It was supposed to be a joke,” Brisco said. “But … it is serious now. The fire department closes off the streets, and the constable says have at it.”
One of the stools, called “I’d Rather Be Flying,” won the Dallas version of the race six times and sold for $3,000 at the 2014 auction. Another came with a keg trailer. Jenkins’ personal machine is complete with radio, horn, cannon and a detachable five-car train for ferrying passengers.
“It looks like a crazy lawnmower,” said Summer Gilchrist, 35, co-owner of Moore’s Store. “Hands down, his is the best.”
Brisco, 37, says the town prides itself on being quirky. It hosts an annual festival celebrating a frequent, yet often despised, guest, the feral hog, which is abundant in East Texas’ pine forests. The festival features a parade including a “hog queen,” floats and a pink school bus with a pig nose, ears and tail.
As naturally as the races fit the town’s new reputation, not everyone was eager to start a tradition so firmly rooted in bar culture. Van Zandt County, where Ben Wheeler is located, is a dry county. To sell alcoholic beverages during concerts and the St. Patrick’s Day celebration, The Forge and Moore’s Store are both registered as “private clubs,” Brisco said. While the alcohol sales are legal, Brisco says Gremmels had to assuage the concerns of nearby churches by speaking to the congregations.
The only requirements for the racing stools are that they be high enough for drivers to put their elbows on the bar, and narrow enough to fit through the bar entrance. Last year contestants raced to win a yearlong happy hour at The Forge and Moore’s Store. Organizers say they keep a portable Breathalyzer to prevent people from racing under the influence, and all drivers must wear helmets.
Because of the short duration — Brisco called it “the quickest two minutes ever”— organizers are augmenting the race with a cornhole tournament, a raffle and evening concerts. In the past, proceeds have gone to the Ben Wheeler Arts and Historic District Foundation. This year, they’re earmarked for the volunteer fire department, which typically relies on donations, garage sales, an annual pancake breakfast and a fish fry to make up the bulk of its yearly budget, says Fire Chief Chris Meyer, 32.
Holly Stamps, Moore’s Store co-owner and executive director of the Ben Wheeler Arts and Historic District Foundation, 36, said the addition of more activities provides a chance to “invite people to stay a little while” and get to know Ben Wheeler.
“The philosophy here is, if it isn’t fun, we aren’t going to do it,” said Brisco.