Joseph Berman is a self-described Minnesota State Fair nerd. He can rattle off the names of famous butter sculptors and his favorite crop art artists from years gone by.
But there was one State Fair question he was unable to answer: What ever happened to the once-popular Rabbit Race carnival game?
Berman turned to Curious Minnesota, the Star Tribune's reader-powered reporting project, to find out the fate of a game that was one of his family's State Fair favorites decades ago.
"I was expecting to hear that it was trashed somewhere because it was very old and it always seemed to be a little worse every year," Berman said.
It turns out Berman wasn't the only reader curious about the game. Someone wrote to the Star Tribune in 1999 to ask why they could no longer find the racing rabbit game at the fairgrounds. The answer was short: The man who owned and operated the game died in 1998.
"With the passing of the owner/operator, so too went the rabbit race game," the article read.
Keri Huber, an archivist with the Minnesota State Fair, isn't sure what happened to the game itself after 1998. But she can attest to its long legacy before that: The Rabbit Race's presence at the Great Minnesota Get-Together dates back to at least 1930.
By the 1950s, it was a part of the Penny Arcade on the corner of Dan Patch Avenue and Underwood Street. (The Penny Arcade ran through 2006.)
The attraction itself was a kind of "derby" game, meaning multiple players competed against each other, racing rabbits alongside one another like horses do on a track. The rabbits had plastic bodies and legs that moved freely. Their ears were simple loops of pipe cleaners and they had pom-pom tails.
Players moved the rabbits by using a plunger-like mechanism to launch a ball toward two holes, one "main" and one "special." There was indeed an effective strategy to win, according to a 1986 Star Tribune article headlined "10 questions you always wanted to ask at the State Fair."
Aiming for the "special" hole was worth it, the article said. Landing the ball there would make the rabbit jump three times. The "main" hole was a bit easier to land in but only earned one rabbit jump.
A family tradition
Berman remembers sitting at the Rabbit Race as a preteen and plucking out quarters while his parents watched, eager to move on to the rest of the fairgrounds.
He remembers trying the "special" strategy. It was one he watched his uncle Teddy Berman perfect. But, Joe Berman said, "It's one thing to actually know the strategy and another to do it."
Teddy was nine years older and a bit of an older brother figure. He could fly model airplanes and was a champion-level bowler. He also happened to be, in Joe Berman's words, "a Rabbit Race virtuoso."
"It became somewhat of a legend in the family and when the State Fair came around, everyone talked about how Teddy would always win the Rabbit Race," Berman remembered. (Teddy had mastered the strategy of aiming only for the "special" bucket.)
Once Teddy aged out of the Rabbit Race, Berman was eager to take over the title. He did win several prizes. But he also lost pretty often.
"I never got as good as Teddy," Berman said.
Teddy died of cancer in 2010.
"This little attraction was kind of a part of my youth and my family story," Berman said. "It's one of those odd things — and the fair is full of odd things like it — that just become family traditions. For us, the Rabbit Race was that tradition."
Berman lives in Massachusetts now and hasn't been to the Minnesota State Fair since the pandemic. But he thinks he'll try to make it this year.
In addition to visiting the butter sculptures and the animal barns, he wants to see the north wall of the History and Heritage Center in the West End Market.
There, on display as a part of the fair's archive collection, he'll find one piece of the answer to his question: a little plastic rabbit with a pom-pom tail and pipe cleaner ears.