Every year, somewhere around the first weekend in May, thousands descend upon Conway for Toad Suck Daze, an annual festival to celebrate, well, who knows? There's the famous toad race, the funnel cakes, the cotton candy, corn dogs, massive turkey legs. There are craft booths and carousels.
But under one tent at the corner of Oak and Front streets, in a small bank parking lot, there's something different, something drawing people in like a magnet.
It's an endurance contest, a battle of wills, if you will, that has grown into a phenomenon. It's a tournament where locals put their health and their sanity on the line for a brand new Ford pickup truck. Desperation and sleep deprivation combine to form a human spectacle that will become the talk of the town over the course of the next four or five days.
Stuck on a Truck was modeled after similar contests in other southern small towns like Longview, Texas, and has been going strong for nine years now. Would-be participants sign up at local businesses for the chance to compete. The rules are fairly simple. Contestants must stand next to the truck, keeping at least one hand on the vehicle, until only one person is left standing.
Five-minute breaks every hour and 15-minute breaks every six hours are the only relief contestants have from the monotony. The parking lot of the bank, behind the big tent covering the truck, resembles a refugee camp. Ramshackle tents, make-shift massage centers and port-a-potties are crammed into the small lot and surrounded by a cattle fence. It is here that contestants use their precious-little break time to use the bathroom, eat, hear words of encouragement from family members or lie down for a change.
This year, the contest ended dramatically after 92 hours and 44 minutes. That's almost four days. Wearing sweaters and standing in puddles that had accumulated from the constant rainfall that weekend, the final three stood bleary-eyed and determined they would be the last to go. At 92 hours and 42 minutes, 24-year-old Jason Beck, who according to other contestants had so lost touch with reality that he thought he was in a food-eating contest at the time, took his hands off the truck to stretch his fingers and get ready to dig in.
As judges escorted him away, 19-year-old Carlie Porterfield struggled to hear her dad call out to her as the crowd cheered on the remaining two. Porterfield's father was trying to tell her that she had made it to the final two. When she couldn't make out his words, she took her hands off the truck and walked toward him. That left only Chuck Speer, the 36-year-old athletic director at Conway Christian High School, as the winner. The crowd, which was filled with about 200 Conway Christian students, erupted.
“They told me twice that I had won and I could take my hands off the truck,” Speer said. “But I asked them if I could just to make sure.”
Speer said he felt excited and relieved to have won, but the contest had been a trying one. Speer is a diabetic and he and his wife, Kim, who is a nurse, had to constantly keep track of his blood sugar.
“It was probably a pretty good experiment,” Speer said. “I don't think any diabetic has stayed up for four days to see what happened to their blood sugar. But we were checking it every hour and I was eating a really low-carb, fruit and vegetable diet. It stayed pretty normal.”
When I showed up to the contest it was hour 77. Eleven people were still stuck to the truck. The smell of funnel cakes was dampened by light rainfall and a hundred or so people were packed under the tent to watch. Speakers blared “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns N' Roses. Supporters in the crowd scribbled trivia questions on dry-erase boards in an attempt to keep the contestants' brains sharp. I moved toward the truck to snap some photos. Before I got too close one of the organizers pulled me aside and said, “Just don't touch them. At this hour you never know what they'll do.”
Speer's “team” was there in full force, each person decked out in a custom-made “Chuck on a Truck” T-shirt. At that point, Speer's wife was tired and hopeful, but realistic. She said she honestly did not know if he was going to make it to the end or not.
“During the break around hour 60 he wanted to quit,” she said. “He told me before not to let him, so I told him he could quit on the truck, but I wasn't going to let him quit while he was hiding out in the tent.”
How did it feel to force her husband to do something he didn't want to do? She sighed, sounding exhausted and said, “It's breaking my heart.”
“That was a really rough time,” Speer said. “I couldn't stay awake. I started to hallucinate a little bit. There was red paint on the ground and I was standing on it and I thought blood was coming out of my feet. At that point my wife reassured me that my feet weren't bleeding, then I just thought it was really funny and I couldn't stop laughing. I think I was crying because I was laughing so hard. I also thought I saw the grim reaper around that same time. There was a guy standing by me with a black poncho and I thought it was the grim reaper.”
Lori Case, one of the event's organizers, said the hallucinations are part of the routine.
“One guy thought his wife was trying to poison his food,” she said. “One person thought that something was flying through the air and kept ducking to avoid it. One guy thought there were grasshoppers in another girl's hair and he kept trying to pick them out, but he eventually snapped out of it. That's the funny thing. They all come and go.”
Arlene Sullivan, an advanced practice nurse at Baptist Health Sleep Clinic, said it's only a matter of time before psychosis sets in to the sleep-deprived.
“Nothing will work faster to break you down mentally and physically than sleep deprivation,” she said. “Acute sleep deprivation does lead to psychosis, and it could be dangerous. I mean, that's what they use at Guantanamo.”
It was likely sleep deprivation-induced psychosis that led to the death of Richard Vega, a participant in the “Hands on a Hard Body” contest in 2005 in Longview, Texas. The 24-year-old took his hands off the truck after 48 hours, quietly walked down to the Kmart across the street, pulled a shotgun off the shelf, loaded it and shot himself. The contest was cancelled after Vega's death.
Case said there are measures in place to prevent a similar tragedy at the Conway event.
“When a contestant leaves, they have to have someone sign them out. They're basically saying, ‘I'm responsible for this person and I'm taking them home,' ” Case said.
But watching the contestants lose it is part of the spectacle. Before the Longview contest was canceled, a documentary was made, titled simply “Hands on a Hard Body.” Part of the draw to these events was watching the lengths that people will go to win a truck.
Stuck on a Truck is reminiscent of a depression-era novel, and later a movie, “They Shoot Horses, Don't They?” about two poor, unemployed actors (one of whom is from Arkansas) who decide to enter a dance marathon competition, simply for the free food and the hope of a $1,000 prize. The novel is a tale of desperation, where contestants are treated like animals, corralled by event organizers and gawked at by passers-by.
It's not just Toad Suck-goers that watch. The whole contest is streamed live over the Internet. According to Case, the website had over 372,000 page views, 20,763 unique visitors (including web-surfers from Canada, England, Germany, Australia, Greece, South Korea, Italy, China and Spain). Stuck on a Truck also had nearly 150 Twitter followers and 400 Facebook friends.
Speer said it was strange having people watch his every move. “I kind of felt like a zoo animal. People were walking by and pointing at us. The joke is, that at the end you actually smell like a zoo animal because you haven't showered for days.”
During his “freak out” Speer got some help from his wife, family, friends and a man named Jumbo. At hour 77, Jumbo Cauthen, who's 6-foot-3 and weighs 350 pounds, was still going strong. He was a crowd favorite, with Stuck on a Truck in his blood. His younger brother Shane won the competition in 2006. His other younger brother Kevin placed second in last year's competition, lasting 85 hours and 4 minutes. “Be sure to put that four minutes on there,” he told me.
Case told me Cauthen had taken to entering the tent, upon his return from breaks, by doing a cartwheel. His brothers stood on the bleachers in the crowd to offer support and at the end of each break, in a true display of brotherly love, would slap the hell out of Jumbo's face, followed by high-fives and chest-bumps.
“I had a couple of bad hours there, but nothing too bad,” Cauthen said. “That's one good thing about having brothers that have done it before. They were telling me I was going to have some ups and downs but I just had to ride it out until I got to the next break and then everything would be OK. That's exactly what happened.”
Former winners are not allowed to enter the contest, but either way, Shane Cauthen said he would never enter the contest again.
“It was basically the worst time of my life,” he said. “The boredom and the monotony are what drive you crazy.”
His brother Kevin agrees.
“It's hard to stay alert when everyone around you is going crazy. I mean, after awhile it's hard to tell who's the crazy one, you or the guy next to you,” he said.
Cauthen and Speer stood next to one another on the truck. The clean-cut, slender Conway Christian coach next to the tattooed and pierced mortgage company “field rep” with a long goatee. It wasn't long before they found at least one common link: football. In addition to being the athletic director at Conway Christian, Speer is also the head football coach and Jumbo used to be a lineman himself. The two became fast friends, talking football and helping each other through the low points. The duo earned the nickname “Chumbo,” coined by Speer's students who had shown up to support their coach but quickly took to Cauthen as well.
“I thought it was going to be a big competition but it wasn't really like that,” Speer said. “I couldn't have done it without Jumbo. He kept pushing me and encouraging me and telling me to focus and that I could do it. He kept saying let's get to the next break, let's get to the next break, so we became pretty close. I think he lasted 85 hours, so I got to know him pretty well and he's a great guy.”
Cauthen said he would definitely participate again, if given the chance. He maintains that he stayed sharp throughout and lost simply because of a “brain fart.” Cauthen took off knee braces he was wearing for support and when he dropped one on the ground, he took both hands off the truck to pick it up.
“I was more lucid than anybody there, I just made a dumb mistake trying to pick up that knee brace,” he said. “But you know, both of my brothers wore back braces and I didn't have to. I was proud of that because I'm the fattest one.”
Once Cauthen was disqualified his parents took him to their house to sleep it off. After catching a few hours of sleep, he decided to check the webcam. He thought there was no way contestants would still be on the truck by Monday morning, but he was wrong.
“As soon as I saw Chuck was still on there, I shaved and showered and went down there,” Cauthen said.
“It was pretty crazy,” Kim Speer said. “The principal at Conway Christian told students that if they could get a note from their parents, they could go watch Chuck. So there was about 200 students there cheering him on.”
“They were starting to use my motivational speeches against me,” Speer said. “All my football players were there saying things I always tell them in two-a-days, like ‘one foot in front of the other,' stuff like that.”
Kim Speer said it was really nice that all the students showed up. But the roof nearly blew off the tent when Cauthen came back.
“The kids just went into a frenzy,” she said. “He traded one of the students for a ‘Chuck on a Truck' shirt that was a size medium. So it was way too small for him and his belly was hanging out and the kids just went nuts. I think it deflated the other two contestants, because they were just up against a lot. Jumbo was there about 10 minutes and then it was over.”
“That was the first time we've ever gone from three contestants to one in a matter of seconds,” Case said.
Speer and Cauthen have been in contact since the contest. Cauthen said he's going to try to make it to a couple of Conway Christian football practices to help out any way he can.
Speer is starting to settle into the Conway cult-status that comes with winning the contest. Winners have to keep the truck, sponsor stickers and all, for at least 90 days. The Speers have decided to keep it, but it's been tough to get used to.
“Chuck is such a humble person, he just wants to stay in the background,” Kim Speer said. “But it's so funny because he does not like attention and that truck is a magnet for attention.”
Fortunately, another Conway man has been getting a lot of attention lately. “Kris Allen has drawn a lot of that away from me though, so that's a good thing,” Speer said.
Would he ever do it again?
“I was kind of naive and didn't know what was coming. But having been through it already, no, I'd never do it again.”