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Kim Phillips: Discover Denton gears up for coffin races and Day of the Dead

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Kim Phillips

Her face was pasty white, lips black. Her nose was black with a little white stripe to mimic a black widow spider crawling down her sugar skull smile towards its web painted on her chin. With her hands, she wrestled her curls, urging them to lie flat. She positioned reflective pilot goggles over her face and donned a bright red helmet with orange, yellow and red flames waving out its top.

Just a few days before, Denton Convention & Visitors Bureau digital marketing coordinator Wendy Haun's parents called from Amarillo hoping to catch up with their daughter. But Wendy was in a hurry that afternoon.

"Can I call you later? I'm on my way to be fitted for the coffin," Wendy explained in a rush.

"You're what?" they exclaimed.

"Not that coffin," she laughed. "It's an event. Don't worry, I'll call you later."

Wendy Haun (driver) and Jake Laughlin (coffin pusher) head for the starting line in the Discover Denton coffin to compete in the 2016 Day of the Dead Coffin Races in downtown Denton.<p><span style="font-size: 1em; background-color: transparent;">Denton Convention &amp; Visitors Bureau</span></p>
Wendy Haun (driver) and Jake Laughlin (coffin pusher) head for the starting line in the Discover Denton coffin to compete in the 2016 Day of the Dead Coffin Races in downtown Denton.

Denton Convention & Visitors Bureau

Wendy shared that story in the Discover Denton pit stop tent, the rest of our team laughing at what her parents must be imagining right about then. We were all painted in sugar skulls and decked out to the nines in costumes that matched our old west theme.

It was Denton's Day of the Dead Festival 2016, and the much anticipated coffin races were about to begin.

Our coffin was a source of great pride, dreamed up, built and outfitted 100 percent by our staff, with a lot of help from spouses and friends. The crowds wandering pit stop row (Austin Street) appreciated its originality, taking pictures and asking questions about its construction.

Wendy's small form, light body weight and eager willingness earned her the spotlight role as driver of the Discover Denton coffin. Jake Laughlin, Discover Denton Welcome Center co-manager, lent his height and muscles to the role of coffin pusher. As the announcer called our heat to the starting line, we maneuvered the coffin from the pit.

The coffin was built like a 1800s-era wooden coffin branded with Discover Denton on both sides amid flames matching Wendy's helmet.

The crowning glory of the coffin, though, was perched on the back. John B. Denton, nothing but bones after 200 years of rest in his grave on the courthouse lawn, was #dentoning for Day of the Dead. A skeleton dressed in a #dentoning shirt and a black cowboy hat, arms raised in excited abandon, he sat sandwiched between replicas of his gravestone so spectators would recognize him and see how happy he was to be out and about.

The rest of us hurried to the finish line. Cameras at the ready, we spread out behind the hay bales where the speeding coffins would stop.

"Kaboom!"

With a running start, Jake pushed with all his might. Wendy's curls flying behind her and John waving frantically, they sped down the hill. The coffin in the other lane crashed, but Wendy held on to win the heat. Crowds along the track applauded and shouted approval as our team high-fived all around and congratulated our fearless driver.

The 2017 Day of the Dead Festival in Denton is scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 28. It's much more than the coffin races, though they are definitely a highlight.

A family event, Denton's Day of the Dead Festival harkens to days gone by when communities created reasons to come together and party. Cooler weather, harvest, Dia de los Muertos and Halloween — a hodge-podge of customs — are all mixed together in Denton-centric style. Costumes are prevalent, like a preview to Halloween night. Music, dancing, games, food, drink and Cirque du Horror are the mainstay conduits to a downtown Denton good time.

In the Discover Denton Welcome Center, face painters will be adding the finishing touch to costumed festival-goers of all ages while favorite monster tunes play from the DentonRadio.com studio. Day of the Dead details, souvenirs aplenty and seasonal treats await shoppers and visitors.

The coffin races will begin at noon on East Hickory Street between Locust and Industrial streets. Coffins race in heats, two at a time, until the fastest coffin wins the coveted sugar skull trophy. Some 70 businesses and individuals have invested months of time, resources and creativity into their entries. It's serious, and seriously fun to watch.

While we didn't win the 2016 coffin races, we had a blast. It's been just as much fun this time around — with an all-new theme. Think Mariachis when you see us on Oct. 28, musical madness and speed. That'll be Discover Denton, Wendy in the driver's seat once again. This year, though, her parents aren't staying in Amarillo. If she's going to be in a coffin, they want to be here.

For more information on Denton's Day of the Dead Festival, visit discoverdenton.com, dentondayofthedeadfestival.com or cirqueduhorror.com.

KIM PHILLIPS is vice president of the Denton Convention & Visitors Bureau at the Denton Chamber of Commerce. She loves promoting Denton's original, independent spirit through the city's sense of place and cast of many characters. She can be reached at kim@discoverdenton.com.