“Racing turtles? Isn’t that kind of paradoxical?”
I overhear a woman wandering by the large, green arena with the Little Woodrow’s logo emblazoned across the center of it just before the series of races at the Southpark Meadows location of the bar are set to start. Already, the growing crowd is starting to buzz with the excitement that accompanies a sporting event.
But instead of hearing the crack of a bat against a ball or the whistle of a racket in the midst of a serve, we are about to witness half a dozen little turtles meander from the center of the ring with not a care in the world.
It’s actually pretty thrilling.
The idea seems a little silly, the sort of thing that Austin’s philosophy of keepin’ it weird might have originated — except the tradition actually began at the Little Woodrow’s Midtown location in Houston, where it’s a serious showdown. There, turtle races can attract a crowd close to a thousand, and the turtles, bless them, have to maneuver obstacles.
Little Woodrow’s Austin races, in the back patio at the Southpark Meadows location, are kept much smaller but aren’t any less exhilarating. After eight years, the turtle races have retained an enthusiastic following of people, beers in hand, who form a tight ring around the arena on Thursday nights in the spring and early summer. They’ve made their guesses about the winners, and they’re going to cheer on their favorites.
This year’s batch of red-eared sliders — the previous ones outgrew the arena — includes the nimble Whitey, who kept crossing the finish line first until I started betting on him, and the obstinate All Energy, who, despite his name, tends to move more like a boulder than a skipping stone. (Generally, but not always, the smaller the turtle, the faster they move.)
Narrating the action like a race announcer at a high-stakes derby is an Austin comedian who knows how to draw out the suspense. In previous years, that’s been the costumed Joel Keith, decked out in what he called his Turtle Master outfit. This year, his friend Adam Shumake, in bright green Converse, has stepped up to the position.
Having performers like them take on the role of race host helped to grow the popularity of the races, bar manager Adam Stockstill says.
“Originally, one of the managers would host. It was this cult thing we did here at Southpark Meadows, where year after year more people started showing up to watch. I think it was year three or four when we decided to hire talent for it,” he says. “Joel did improv and fell in love with the concept. ‘This is a character I can be!’ Having a host that can play off the crowd like him and Adam really makes the whole thing more engaging.”
A new component this year is that Texas breweries, like Uncle Billy’s, Thirsty Planet and Whitestone Brewery, are sponsoring the races and have named each of the turtles (Real Ale’s, for instance, is Pinsetter, after the brewery’s new amber lager). They rotate each week, showing up at the bar with one of their beers on tap and branded merchandise available.
Otherwise, turtle racing at Little Woodrow’s hasn’t changed much.
Here’s how it works: If you want to compete for prizes like a T-shirt or a free pass for a brewery tour, stop by the head table prior to each race, where you’ll get a ticket to place in a bucket corresponding to the turtle you think will win.
The race begins when someone from the crowd volunteers to raise the upside-down bucket that covers the turtles on a pedestal in the center of the ring. Once it’s up, they’re off — if you’re lucky. Sometimes they just stay put, oblivious, but waiting for them to cross the white line at the far side of the ring is still a thrill, because the anticipation, man, is just too much.
If your turtle was ultimately the speedy one this round, claim your prize at the table, where your ticket will be verified. There are multiple races each night. Once the fun is over, staff members care for the turtles outside the ring.
Since I was a kid, I’ve loved the hardiness and adaptability of turtles. The reptiles carry their homes on their back, hard shells they can retreat into when they feel threatened or scared. They prefer being in the water but can maneuver just fine on land, warming up in the sun. They can live a very long time.
After cheering them on at the races, I can tell they also have their own personalities. Stockstill, who has been managing Little Woodrow’s turtle races for several years now and has seen how beloved they are for some of the bar’s regulars, concurs.
“You tend to tell who’s who, just like if you had dogs,” he says. “You get to know these guys over time, and you want them to kind of show their personalities off while they’re racing.”
LITTLE WOODROW’S TURTLE RACES
What: Gather at the back patio of Little Woodrow’s Southpark Meadows to watch turtle racing and guess the winner of each round to try and win a prize
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through June 29, with a special July 4 race to close out the season
Where: Little Woodrow’s Southpark Meadows, 9500 Interstate 35, No. 100