Racing costume-coordinated teams with bathtubs on wheels careening down historic Bathhouse Row in Hot Springs may seem like an odd image, but it is the dream that a local merchant had nonetheless. This year will mark the wacky idea’s 19th year in practice, and Stueart Pennington’s World Championship Running of the Tubs will take place May 31 to June 1. Judging by the number of teams that will return to compete, the event is just as fun as it sounds.

 

Free and family-friendly, the Running of the Tubs is a decidedly unique event, and Pennington’s idea came to fruition in celebration and acknowledgement of Hot Springs’ rich history. Countless thousands of tourists have flocked to the world-famous thermal waters through the years to bathe in the warm springs and engage the therapeutic offerings provided by the many locations along Bathhouse Row.

 

Pennington’s dream was built with the goal of acknowledging the past and creating fun for the future. The idea was just offbeat enough to catch the attention of a local tourism council known for its own offbeat events such as the World’s Shortest St. Patrick’s Day Parade and Spa-Con pop culture convention.

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Costume-coordinated teams racing bathtubs on wheels may be unconventional, but Stueart Pennington’s World Championship Running of the Tubs has erupted into a much-anticipated event for Hot Springs.

“As the lore goes, [Pennington] had this idea to have a bathtub race, and everybody thought he was crazy. They thought it was a ridiculous idea,” said Bill Solleder, director of marketing at Visit Hot Springs. “He unfortunately passed away unexpectedly, and the powers that be decided to honor him and his crazy idea.”

 

The event seems like a fever dream in the best way possible, described properly as costumed teams pushing bathtubs filled with water down historic Bathhouse Row while spectators douse them with water guns.

 

Solleder said the event is fun for tourists and locals alike, and many of the original judges still participate as judges today. At this year’s races, the categories will include the following divisions: traditional, which are classic cast-iron tubs; modified, where tubs are created from other materials, such as fiberglass and sheet metal; and stock, which are small tubs created by Visit Hot Springs for those without access to a tub.

“We were finding that there were people interested in racing, but they didn’t have the wherewithal or knowledge to build a tub on wheels, so we built a couple of small tubs and introduced the stock tub races,” Solleder said.

 

“Any team can race on behalf of a nonprofit organization in the tub we provide for them, which then enables anybody to be able to race. We were hoping to make [Running of the Tubs] more accessible, and we found that there was a rejuvenated energy. Then ESPN and PBS got involved.”

 

Such national attention created a snowball effect, and the bathtub races grew exponentially, gaining teams statewide and across the country. Downtown merchants witnessed new life being brought in by the races, and the title eventually changed to include World Championship in its branding.

 

“Ever since then, it’s just been going gangbusters,” Solleder said. “It’s been a huge and super fun success for people who come to see it every year.”

Solleder said there have been several teams repeating throughout the years as they compete for the official title of World Champion, including teams from the local police and fire departments, Riser Ford in Hot Springs, and, notably, the Austin Weirdos, who are accustomed to the best of the wildest events.

 

It is to nobody’s surprise that teams and regular attendees have fun at the event, but according to Solleder, some of the people that have the most fun are those who have traveled to the area. He said the reactions of those visitors, most of whom have unknowingly stumbled upon grown adults acting like kids, is priceless.

 

“Imagine staying at a hotel in downtown Hot Springs, waking up in the morning to take a stroll to the promenade, and all you see is costumed teams pushing bathtubs down Bathhouse Row. It’s just ridiculous and super fun,” he said.

 

For first-time guests, Solleder recommended stopping by the races on Saturday. The actual running of the tubs is only half of the fun; the other half comes from people on the sidelines creating what feels like the world’s largest water fight.

 

“Definitely bring a Super Soaker. If you don’t already have one, go buy one, because it makes it so much more fun,” Solleder said. “A lot of the downtown merchants are setting up refill buckets so you can refill your water toy, and that’s a great way to get into it.”

 

The Running of the Tubs is as serious as it is fun, and competition ramps up both the night before and during the races. Friday night marks the judging of the tubs, for which teams present their costumes and tubs. While most teams have been courting judges for weeks at this point, they still come prepared as best as they can for the written rules, as well as the larger, unspoken rule, which states that judges have the right to modify the rules at any time.

 

While there are victors in every category, judges are arguably the ultimate winners as gracious teams attempt to bribe each judge with tasty and sometimes outlandish gifts. Solleder said teams such as Riser Ford give out free oil changes, and the police department passes out get-out-of-jail free cards.

 

“Bribing really ramps up the closer we get to the judging of the tubs, and as the judges go around from tub to tub to judge them. It becomes kind of like Christmas at every tub,” Solleder said. “They’re given boxes of drinks and food and toys and T-shirts and who knows what. It’s all really fun for everyone.”

 

With their costumes on and their tubs dressed up, teams gather at Hill Wheatley Plaza. Judges walk around to each tub to check for four wheels, a steering wheel, a flag and whatever else may be in the rules for the year. As far as costumes go, teams tend to go all out, and with the rules in place, it is kind of hard not to.

 

“They all have to wear hats and have suspenders. Each team also needs to have a bar of soap, a bathmat, a loofah and a towel,” Solleder said. “They’re all voted on these things and other things like team spirit, originality and creativity.”

 

Many of the rules, such as the suspenders, were created just to add additional amusing qualities to the race. By the next morning, teams are aware they can be told to do whatever judges want at essentially any time, and the bribes pour in even more.

 

“Teams can be told to do whatever they want, pretty much at any time. They are looking for ways to get a head start at the starting line, or to pass through the obstacles without having to stop,” Solleder said. “If you bribe the right judge, they might just let you through the obstacle, but if you get to the wrong judge, they might just hold you at the obstacle.”

 

With a recipe for an unforgettable memory on every front, the Stueart Pennington World Championship Running of the Tubs is truly an event like no other. Folded with a dash of unpredictability that makes the event so beloved, Solleder said he and Visit Hot Springs have high anticipation for this year’s race.

 

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