Racing turtles draw big crowds to Sixth Street


Nathan Goldsmith

Turtle handler Otis (foreground) presents a turtle to the crowd Friday night at Little Woodrow’s on 6th street. When they are not racing, the turtles live in an aquarium at the Little Woodrow’s offices.

Laura Wright

When I asked long-time bar manager Jonathan Richards, the mastermind behind the turtle races at Little Woodrow’s bar who has organized “everything from banana pudding wrestling to mechanical bull riding,” where turtle racing ranks on his list of booze-fueled spectator sports, he nodded enthusiastically and said it’s got to be in his top three. Sure, he admitted, it’s not number one — there was, after all, that wet T-shirt mechanical bull contest he used to organize at a Beaumont honky-tonk. But honky-tonks aside, the spectators at Little Woodrow’s love the reptilian races. Rhinestone Sally, an “80-years-young” fan, has been coming regularly since the races started three weeks ago and drives 35 miles each Friday to attend the event. “It’s just so unique,” she said cheerfully, her bedazzled cowboy hat glittering beneath the bar’s lights. Last week, as a token of appreciation, she even gave the team at Woodrow’s an enameled turtle figurine on a bed of fake grass.

Little Woodrow’s on Sixth Street holds turtle races every Friday night at dusk (they attempt to respect turtles’ nocturnal preferences and only race them when the sun sets). If you are so inclined, you can bring your own turtle and enter it free of charge, but know that smaller, red turtles are preferred to 40-pound snapping ones.

So how, you ask, might turtle racing work? Each Friday night, the Little Woodrow’s team assembles a miniature ring in the center of the bar. Inside of this ring lies an AstroTurf mat painted with a white circle. The six noble red turtles that compete in the games must cross this white ring twice to win eternal glory. At no additional cost, onlookers can place “bets” on the turtle they deem destined for greatness. These bets are dropped in buckets that bare the turtle’s number. If your turtle claws its way over the shells of its competitors, a ticket will be drawn from the bucket, automatically entering you in a raffle for a nifty turtle-racing T-shirt.

But before the turtles are released from their holding bucket, they are presented to the crowd by their handlers, allowing the bar’s enthusiastic patrons to cheer or jeer. The handlers, who will have taken a 30-minute class on turtle care, delicately take the turtles from their tanks and hold them out proudly to the audience, the way one holds a panini, aggressively insisting their friend take a bite of. The turtles respond to this attention in one of three ways: squirming energetically, hiding inside their shells or peeing on themselves and their handler.

The turtles, now energized by the support of their fans or the hatred of their detractors, are placed in a bottomless plastic bucket. A female volunteer is selected from the crowd to seductively lift the modified trash can and let loose the turtle fury. And … they’re off, scrambling across the AstroTurf as if to disprove every ill-informed iteration of the “turtles are slow” stereotype they’ve had to put up with in their tiny turtle lives. When I attended, every turtle ran but No. 4, whose immobile stance in the center of the ring suggested that he was either very ill or, more likely (Little Woodrow’s pampers its turtles and makes sure they get regular veterinary attention) disheartened by the cruel comments of that drunk guy who totally bet on No. 3 instead. In 15 minutes, the race was over after three rounds. The winner that night? I don’t remember, but it was a turtle.