For most of the teams that compete in the Waiter’s Race at the Birmingham Ethnic Festival, it’s
all about simply running fast and trying not to spill too much beer in the process.
But for Joe Sparks, there’s more to it than that. That’s why he’s been a member of the winning team for six years running.
“Learning how to balance the tray is where the skill comes in,” Sparks said. “You have to be really steady and light on your feet.”
|Joe Sparks ran the race barefoot. (Ken Grosjean)
The Waiter’s Race is one of the more popular events at the Ethnic Festival, which was held on Consaul Street in the Birmingham district for the 36th year. The race, which was first held in 1996, usually kicks off the festival on Saturday night, but this year it followed a celebrity eating contest.
“Each year the crowd gets larger and larger,” Sparks said. “People are lined up on both sides of the street. They had about 1,000 people show up this year.”
The race consists of usually six to eight four-man relay teams. The Hungarian Club is a consistent competitor along with teams from Tony Packo’s, the Iron Workers, the VFW, the Rumpus Room, and the Steel Workers.
“Each team starts from Tony Packo’s all the way to the VFW and back,” Sparks said. “Each person has a bar tray and on the tray there is a pitcher of beer and two full glasses of beer. You start at Tony Packo’s and exchange with the other runners on a four-man relay.
“When a person comes in, you have to fill both glasses up to the top. If it spills, you have to fill it back up. There are judges at each exchange. Each person runs their part, a quarter of the distance to the next exchange point.”
Sparks said the Ethnic Festival Waiter’s Race was modeled after a long standing European tradition.
The scoring is based on how much beer each team has left in their pitchers and beer glasses.
The Hungarian Club was this year’s overall winner, and Tony Packo’s and the Iron Workers tied for second.
Sparks, who was born in the Birmingham district and now lives in Perrysburg, was joined on the Hungarian Club team by Tim Whitney of Petersburg, Mich., Tom Fridrick of Toledo and Tony Szilagye of Rossford.
The Hungarian Club has won the Waiter’s Race six years in a row, tying the Rumpus Room for all-time wins.
“Tony and I practiced once for 15 minutes, and Tim and Tom practiced about the same amount of time about a week before the race,” said Sparks, who is a Hungarian Club committee member. “Because of our schedules, we didn’t all practice together. Tony and I have been on the same team for all six years. Tim has been on the team for five years and Tom for four years.”
Sparks is an expert in running, so he ran the anchor leg on the relay - barefooted. He has taught the Pose Method of running since 2002 and invented the EZ Run Belt, which teaches the skill of running properly.
|Tim Whitney, Tony Szilagye, Joe Barocsi-Sparks and Tom Fridrick. (Ken Grosjean.)
“I put all the pressure on myself to be the anchor,” he said. “I teach people how to prevent themselves from over striding and using proper running mechanics, so I’m a good guy to be on the team. These guys knew how to run, but I tweaked their form - short, tiny steps so the tray doesn’t bounce.”
Sparks said he wanted to compete in the relay for the Hungarian Club in order to honor his Hungarian heritage and “reclaim my roots.” He is adopted, but both of his birth parents are Hungarian.
“I wanted to do something that was fun and something I knew I was good at,” said Sparks, 54, whose Hungarian birth name is Barocsi. “The guys on this team are my friends and we like to run.
“We’ve competed in races and triathlons. We were probably the oldest team, running against guys half our age.”
He added that it was a “thrill” to win the Waiter’s Race and have the Hungarian Club’s name etched on the trophy for the sixth straight year.
“The trophy is a big keg of beer plastered with all the different clubs that have won,” he said. “Here’s our name on it the last five years and now we get to put ‘2010’ on there. If we win (again) next year — no one has won seven times. The Rumpus Room has won six times and so have we, so next year we can be the winningest team. It’s a lot of fun and it’s a way to connect with other people. And, we love the competition.”