Three identical keys sat atop a silver Ford Focus hatchback at Crater Lake Ford on Biddle Road Saturday morning, as three moms and their ingenious offspring weighed their options.
Lauralee Wallace of Montague, Calif., Pamela Gibson of Ashland and Jennifer Gonzalez of Weed, Calif., were the last moms standing out of hundreds whose names had been recommended in essays written by their children.
One of the three — whomever chose the key that fit the 2013 Focus — would drive away in either the Ford or a 2013 Mazda3.
Gibson, who got to choose first because the essay written by her daughter, Leah, garnered the most votes in the Mother's Day contest, selected the key on the left.
Gonzalez, picking second, chose the center key.
Wallace, picking third, had the least pressure, because all she had to do was take what the others left her.
"It was a pretty good leftover," she said, admitting that she had a hunch all along that the key on the right was indeed the right choice.
As a result, Wallace was able to check off the "Win A Big Prize" box on her life's Bucket List.
"I've never won anything, and I didn't expect to win," she said. "I told Sam, we'll have to stand there and be all happy when the car doesn't start."
By making the final round for his essay about his mom, Sam Wallace, a Yreka High School junior, had already secured a $500 scholarship. When the first contestant stepped forward, he told himself there was a 1-in-3 chance. When Gibson failed to ignite the engine, he knew the odds had improved to 1 out of 2.
"I told her we were going to win a car ... I really think so," he said.
The Mother's Day weekend contest was conceived by Crater Lake Ford General Manager Mike Frame, who spent the better part of 18 months piecing together the details. He bounced ideas off his staff and cast as wide a net as possible, promoting the essay contest on Medford radio station KTMT-FM.
That's where Sam Wallace heard about it, during his 30-minute morning commute to school in February. Being a bright young man with a B-plus grade point average, Wallace figured he could write a convincing essay and, just maybe, get a new car for his mom.
He huddled with his pals Dalton Dutra, Matt Boutin and Colton Goyeneche, who made sure he referenced "The Brady Bunch" and "Addams Family" along with other childhood moments. His initial draft far exceeded the 250-word limit, and revisions ensued.
"When he handed it to me the first time, he said, 'Don't worry Mom, it's all lies,' " said Lauralee Wallace, a physical therapist at Fairchild Medical Center.
They both knew better.
"I cried because it was so nice," she said. "I have the greatest kids in the world."
Then came the online-voting stage of the contest.
Not only did victory require a convincing piece of writing, marketing skills were needed, as well, to capture enough of the more than 4,600 online votes to get a shot at those shiny keys.
Sam went door to door at local shopping districts asking to put up flyers, which contained pull tabs bearing the contest Web address and a pitch about his contest essay. Most of the shopkeepers he approached jumped on board, and enough tabs were yanked to require a second round of flyers at some sites.
"Then we had to sit around and stress out," Lauralee said. "We asked everyone to think good thoughts."
When they were notified that Sam's efforts had paid off, mom and son climbed into her Honda Civic with 180,000 miles on it for the 75-minute trip to Medford. It's a familiar drive for them, because twice a week they motor to Chip Wright's Champion Karate where Sam, a fourth-level green belt, takes lessons.
On Saturday, the talk was mostly about cars, and after looking them over, Sam determined the Mazda3 was a better fit for the family.
"It's got disc brakes on the front and a sports shift, so you can kick it over and shift speeds manually," he said.
Sam's essay related how his mother had endeared herself to him forever by allowing him to dress up like Batman every day in his early years. True to form, he wore a Batman T-shirt — the 1992-'95 genre — at the event.
Lauralee's younger son, William, and husband, Daniel, were off on their own adventure Saturday, attending the Kyle Singler Southern Oregon Open basketball tournament across town.
"We'll be driving three cars home now," Lauralee said.
Sam's twice weekly trip over the Siskiyou Summit will be a bit lonelier this summer, but he won't mind driving his mom's Civic.
The prize did come with a few strings attached. As a California resident, there is sales tax to pay on the $20,000 silver Mazda3, and then there's the pesky 1099 form required by the IRS.
Still, she said, "It's a pretty sweet discount."
Leah Gibson of Ashland and Noah Gonzalez of Weed earned $500 scholarships for their efforts on behalf of their moms, while Jewett Elementary School students in Central Point earned $1,500 for their school having the highest number of participants.
Frame is eyeing another contest in 2014, this time aimed at dads.
"We'd give away an F-150 and make it a little different," Frame said. "People have to think they can win or they won't participate. It's all about participation."