It wasn’t a sanctioned sport, exactly. It was more like a publicity stunt. In fact, it was entirely a publicity stunt, put on by an association of diaper delivery services. But for a while there, it was a rite of summer to hold baby races at an amusement park in North Jersey.

The action went down at Palisades Amusement Park, which closed in 1971 but back then was a popular center for family entertainment in Bergen County. In 1946 LIFE photographer Cornell Capa was there to document what was billed as the 8th annual Diaper Service Derby. As you might expect at a race where the competitors were too young to know the word “race,” the scene was chaotic, and not especially serious. No was going to mistake this for the Olympics.

“Some babies crawled in more than one of the four scheduled heats, which made little difference because there was no final,” LIFE wrote in its issue of Aug. 5, 1946. “Others fell asleep at the starting line. After three tortured hours, during which babies squalled, mothers complained about delays, and photographers stumbled over press agents for the National Institute of Diaper Services, which sponsored the event, the offspring of an adagio team was declared the winner.”

The winner was one-year-old Dennis Wendelken. LIFE wrote that he was given the championship ahead of three other heat winners “because we was better looking.”

But it is possible that the judges saw something in young Dennis, because the derby winner of 1946 would grow up to achieve fame based on his physical prowess. Under the name Dennis Wayne he became an accomplished ballet performer, and because of his dashing and rebellious qualities he became known as “The Bad Lad of Ballet.” (You can see some of that bad-boy streak in Capa’s photos—particularly the one where, during the victory ceremony, Dennis bites the microphone.) When he died in 2017 at age 72, he merited a substantial obituary in the New York Times which mentioned his derby triumph as well as his achievements in the world of ballet.

The Times obit quoted a 1975 review by Clive Barnes which praised Wayne because he “always moves with intent.” Perhaps the judges at the baby race noticed that too.

A scene from the 8th annual Diaper Service Derby at the Palisades Amusement Park in New Jersey, 1946.

Cornell Capa/LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Babies crawled toward a mobile row of stuffed rabbits during the 8th annual Diaper Service Derby at the Palisades Amusement Park, 1946.

Cornell Capa/LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

The 8th annual Diaper Service Derby at the Palisades Amusement Park in New Jersey, 1946.

Cornell Capa/LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

The 8th annual Diaper Service Derby at the Palisades Amusement Park in New Jersey, 1946.

Cornell Capa/LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

The 8th annual Diaper Service Derby at the Palisades Amusement Park in New Jersey, 1946.

Cornell Capa/LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

A baby crawled toward a mobile row of stuffed rabbits during the 8th annual Diaper Service Derby at the Palisades Amusement Park in New Jersey, 1946.

Cornell Capa/LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

The 8th annual Diaper Service Derby at the Palisades Amusement Park in New Jersey, 1946.

Cornell Capa/LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

The 8th annual Diaper Service Derby at the Palisades Amusement Park in New Jersey, 1946.

Cornell Capa/LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

The 8th annual Diaper Service Derby at the Palisades Amusement Park in New Jersey, 1946.

Cornell Capa/LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

A scene from the 8th annual Diaper Service Derby at the Palisades Amusement Park in New Jersey, 1946.

Cornell Capa/LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

A scene from the 8th annual Diaper Service Derby at the Palisades Amusement Park in New Jersey, 1946.

Cornell Capa/LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Dennis Wendelken, the winner of the 8th annual Diaper Service Derby at the Palisades Amusement Park in New Jersey, 1946.

Cornell Capa/LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Dennis Wendelken, the winner of the 8th annual Diaper Service Derby at the Palisades Amusement Park in New Jersey, 1946.

Diaper Derby, Palisades Park

Dennis Wendelken, the winner of the 8th annual Diaper Service Derby at the Palisades Amusement Park in New Jersey, 1946.

Cornell Capa/LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Dennis Wendelken, the winner of the 8th annual Diaper Service Derby at the Palisades Amusement Park in New Jersey, 1946.

Cornell Capa/LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

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