It’s hot out here, and all of these race fans aren’t making it any cooler. A welcome breeze blows through the venue while the fading orange and gold light of the sunset reflects off the backs of the racers waiting to wind their way around the track.
Rowdy fans line its edges, gripping beers in one hand and pumping their remaining fists high into the air as they cheer for their favorites. It seems impossible, but as the event begins, the racers seem to pick up speed in reaction to the shouting fans. Eventually, one makes a sudden, mad dash to the finish line. The crowd roars both in celebration and defeat as a winner is declared.
I’m talking about turtle racing.
Each Thursday during the summer, six red-eared sliders duke it out at Little Woodrow’s in Southpark Meadows to the delight of dedicated fans and revelers who happen to stumble upon the event (the downtown location has races the first Friday of each summer month).
“What’s going on here?” a guy asks bar manager Adam Stockstill as I chat with him before a recent race.
“Turtle races?” the woman with him asks, delightedly. “What time?”
They start at dusk when host Joel Keith dons his “Turtle Master” outfit, consisting of a large shell he straps onto his back (Keith made the prop from his kitchen garbage can lid); an oversize, tan, Willy Wonka top hat (also homemade); and a light-up plastic sword he tucks into his belt. At $20, it’s the most expensive part of his ensemble, which also features bright green pants and a borrowed Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles T-shirt.
Keith began hosting the event this year, although the Southpark location has been running the event for four years. It began at the chain’s Midtown location in Houston. “It’s huge there,” Stockstill says. “We do alright here, but they probably have a thousand people show up for it every week.”
I didn’t know what I would find when I went to check out the event. I didn’t expect international high-rollers like one might find at Circuit of the Americas, nor the Kentucky Derby’s big hats and mint juleps, but I swear I imagined grizzled, unshaven old men with stogies poking out from above their stubbly chins poring over racing forms and hatching strategies to make a big score.
In the case of the turtle races, that score would consist of a T-shirt, a beverage koozie and a Little Woodrow’s gift certificate.
Here’s how it works: Keith dons his get-up, grabs a microphone and heads to the middle of the arena, which is maybe 15-by-15-feet square, and announces that the race is about to begin. As fans and newcomers gather around all sides, Stockstill hands them each free tickets from a roll.
Meanwhile, Keith removes the turtles from a transport case. He holds them up and announces their numbers (which also appear on stickers on the critters’ backs) and names: Turbo, Pearl Snap, Boris, Soup, Testudo and crowd favorite Frank the Tank. Occasionally he will conduct a brief interview with a turtle, asking it how it thinks its chances are and translating the creature’s responses as it pokes its head out of its shell toward the microphone.
Stockstill instructs participants to keep one of their matching tickets and to drop the other into one of six numbered buckets on a nearby table, depending on which turtle they think will win.
Keith places each of the turtles into a bottomless black bucket in the center of the playing field, which is ringed by a large, white circle. Then he asks for a volunteer from the crowd — a “bucket babe,” he calls her. At his count of three, he instructs her to lift the bucket and run.
Keith then implores crowd members to cheer for their turtles while he offers a ridiculous play-by-play of their race to the line. Usually, at first, they just kind of sit there or take small strides, bumping into (or climbing over) one another. But, sooner than later, one or more of them makes a sudden, swift break for the edge of the circle (whichever turtle touches it first will win).
I’m not saying it’s Formula One-paced, but I’ve been stuck in rush hour traffic on I-35, and these little guys are not slow.
A turtle has to win two heats in order to take the race; a total of four races are run in roughly half-hour increments over the course of the night. In practice, it seems that whichever turtle is hot that day wins most (but not usually all) of the heats. Once a race is over, the bucket babe then draws a ticket from the winning turtle’s corresponding bucket and names a human victor.
“It was weirdly intense,” Sara Perparas tells me after her first race (she was cheering for a turtle that did not win). “I don’t like to watch football or baseball on TV, but turtle races — I think it might be my top one!”
“It does not get better than this,” says Crystal Cantu, a self-described big turtle fan whose winning ticket was drawn. “I was like, ‘Wait, what — they’re calling my number? Are they really doing this? And you win stuff? Alright!’”
Stockstill, who had no previous experience with turtles beyond tasting one years ago in Louisiana (it tasted like turtle, he says, not chicken), cares for the critters throughout the week. But if you’re worried about their safety, rest easy.
“I love these little guys,” he says of his pets, which live in a large terrarium that takes up most of his desktop. And although they can carry salmonella (that’s why only he and Keith ever touch them), Stockstill makes sure that he’s the only man or beast who gets injured. “I’ve been bit a few times,” he admits. “It doesn’t feel good.”
He gives them the occasional turtle treat but swears that’s the closest they come to any performance-enhancing drugs.
“I come in every day, they’re up there at the glass, I feed ’em,” he says. “They’re my homeboys, man — I’ve become very attached to these little dudes. This guy’s a little wider, this guy’s a little greener, this guy’s a little pointier, you know? They’re a lot of fun.”
Where: Little Woodrow’s at Southpark Meadows, 9500 S. Interstate 35, Austin
When: Every Thursday at nightfall through September, possibly October
Information: 512-282-2336; www.littlewoodrows.com
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