WATONGA, OKLAHOMA — The distance from Watonga to Geary and back is just a few rail cars past 36 miles. Engineer Aaron Boechmann knows it pretty well. So does Ladd Lafferty. “It’s all 4 lane starting out,” he says.
Aaron runs his locomotive between Watonga and El Reno on a regular basis. Lafferty is the L in the AT and L Railroad, a short line operation that transports wheat from its headquarters in Watonga. “It helps when you own the railroad,” says a visitor. “It does help,” says Ladd. “We can put the trains where we want them.”
A couple of years ago a friend of Lafferty’s, Steve Newman, had an idea based on another bike/train race he’d heard about. What if you held a contest between train and bike across the flat terrain of Blaine County? “So 3 years ago we took our first run and it,” says Newman, “And it’s been successful every year.”
Now the track is only rated for 10 mph, so the engine gets a head start at the halfway point in Geary. Bicycles have to try to catch up, to beat the train back to Watonga. Lafferty estimates, “Each year about 25 to 30 percent of riders will beat the train.”
Wind speed is the real X-factor in a race like this. A locomotive has enough power to keep its speed in a headwind. Ladd knows his legs don’t. Nevertheless, he has a trophy rail spike given at the end of every race to prove he’s beaten the train at least once. “I’m sure as I get older it will be more of a struggle,” he says.
Racing trains is one of those things railroads, police, and moms everywhere tell us never to do, but under the right circumstances the challenge is intriguing. Can a bike beat a slow train with a head start? Plenty of pedlers would like to try.
The Race the Rail race begins Saturday morning at 9am on October 12. Registered racers also get a free ticket to the Watonga Cheese Festival, which is also held that weekend.