VERMILION — While world-record sprinter Usain Bolt has nothing to worry about, Shadow the caterpillar slid to victory in a record 13.7 seconds to take Sunday’s 39th annual Woollybear Festival.
Handler/jockey Aiden Adams credited his technique — “when I pet his back, he goes faster” — for Shadow’s smoking the competition in the “Woolly Bear 500.”
Aiden, 11, of Vermilion, received a $50 gift card from Toys “R” Us, a sash and trophy.
As excitement mounted among the thousands gathered by the main stage during the three opening caterpillar heats, festival co-hosts and former WJW-TV 8 television personalities “Big Chuck” Schodowski and “Lil’ John” Rinaldi sought to defuse the tension.
“We scrutinize everything,” Rinaldi said. “All of these caterpillars have had urine tests.”
“Everybody having fun?” Schadowsky asked. “OK. We’re going to put an end to that right now.”
Shadow’s triumph was followed by Fox 8 meteorologist Dick Goddard’s annual winter weather forecast. He predicted a harsh winter, but not as rough as last winter.
Reading a written forecast to the crowd, Goddard said woolly bears’ overcoats are not as heavy and black as last autumn.
“That suggests temperatures will be much closer to normal,” he said. “Snow will come and go, but with enough moderation to bring more periods of wet snow or rain than last winter.”
Goddard devised the idea of holding a festival around the winter weather prediction, and local school boards saw it as a way to raise funds. From about 2,000 people at the first festival in 1973, the event has become gargantuan.
While no official count was available Sunday, Goddard estimated this year’s crowd topped the approximately 120,000 who turned out last year.
The event included a parade, children’s race and Woollybear King and Queen costume judging.
Traffic was bumper-to-bumper downtown around 4 p.m. Festival goers were often elbow-to-elbow downtown, stopping by dozens of booths offering food, jewelry and other gifts.
Among the vendors was Ron Puglisi, owner of Puglisi’s Pizza in Ashland.
Puglisi, who said he’s been working the festival since 1988, credited the large turnout to warm weather and Goddard’s popularity.
“It only gets better,” he said. “The crowd gets better. The entertainment gets better. The costumes are better. The races are always entertaining.”
Contact Evan Goodenow at 329-7129 or firstname.lastname@example.org.