Hard-Shell Game : To Turtle-Racing Aficionados, the Thrill of the Chase Isn't Always Restricted to the Action on the Track

Times Staff Writer

Right before post time down at the track, the owners and trainers gather 'round the turf club, drinking beer and swapping stories about some of the great races of all time.

Turtle racing is like that. Somehow you get hooked on it, and before you know it, you are obsessed by it. You are spending all of your free time building up a championship turtle-racing stable, collecting hundreds of turtle-racing trophies and thinking about putting your prize turtle out to stud.

And every Thursday, you are down at the track outside Brennan's Pub in Venice, talking about who was the greatest racer, scale for scale, that ever crawled across the circular green carpet. You are wearing a jacket with a turtle insignia, a button that proclaims some form of "turtle power," and handing out business cards hailing yourself as a bona fide turtle trader.

No Easy Task

And if you are Jim (Duffy) Duffer, you are asking yourself when it's all going to end.

Duffer is one of the two men who first caught turtle fever, spread it, and now openly wonders whether the shell game has gotten out of hand. He has been the emcee for the turtle races for almost 13 years now--including many nights announcing in a velvet green tuxedo--and he acknowledges that the wear and tear has caught up with him.

"The whole thing is so dumb, I can't explain it," he said, surveying the 200 or so spectators who turned out at the track recently. "It's almost like a cult thing, but that doesn't even describe it. All I know is that I've been hung over almost every Friday for 13 years."

At first, the idea of turtle racing was just a good promotional gimmick for Duffer's friend, pub owner Ab Lawrence, who stole the idea from Zack's Bar in Sausalito after a visit there in 1975. It was just a lark, Duffer said, but then the lines to get into the pub started going around the block on Thursdays and turtle fanatics started emerging from the shadows.

Hash Feder brags that he has missed only five Thursdays in nearly seven years. He passes out business cards boasting "state-of-the-art turtle racing."

Steve Wisolowski started out with one turtle and now carts about 25 down to the track each week "in order to get more trophies." So far, he has won roughly 300 of them.

David Vincent personally caught the 30 or so turtles in his stable around his home turf in Baton Rouge, La. He has been doing it for eight years and says flatly: "Turtle racing is serious business."

Dan Brown thinks that the whole idea is a joke. Fittingly, he has named his turtle Touche, after the cartoon character. He and his friend, Mark Cosgrove, have been taking the turtle down to the bar in a small blue thermos for about six months now, watching Touche get trounced in race after race. Touche finished second once, but it was a fluke. The only way he might win is if the other turtles ran the race on their backs.

"Some people take it seriously, but they miss the point," Brown said. "It's funny, it's entertaining, and it's totally off the wall. How can you take turtle racing seriously?"

For Brown and the vast majority of people who come out to watch the reptiles run, or rather, crawl, the real lure of turtle racing is not in the race.

While horse racing may be the sport of kings, turtle racing is the sport of singles. It's an excuse to watch the races and play the field.

"Turtles are a great conversation piece," Cosgrove explained. "They're cute, like puppies, and girls are totally into it. They always want to know about your turtle."

Said Duffer: "It's like a social event. It's beyond a bar scene. There's a curiosity factor that brings people out. And they never go away."

On a recent, chilly Thursday, the curious saw a blend of the wackiness and seriousness that typifies the world of competitive turtle racing. More than 100 turtles were entered in the contests, which are broken down into eight size categories, ranging from miniature to tortoise. Before the races, the turtles are kept in their "stables," which are 25- and 50-quart containers filled with water. A peek into the coolers of some of the serious competitors is like a glimpse into the undersea world of Jacques Cousteau, with dozens of turtles climbing and sliding all over each other. Most are not fed the day of the race.

Feder, who runs Direct Connection Racing Stables for turtles, said the activity is like a case of pregame jitters. And they always know when it's game day by the actions of their favorite prey.

"The turtles can tell it's Thursday night," he said, "because the goldfish breathe a lot easier."

At 10 p.m., or whenever Duffer is ready to announce the races, the miniatures are taken out of their coolers and placed in the center of the green track, behind a metal cylinder. As with the other turtles, the owners rub their shells with their fingers, getting them ready for the races. Occasionally, an owner will throw a towel over one of them.

"It irritates them, makes them angry," Brown said. "There are lots of little tricks like that. You get to know them the more you race."

Then, as Duffer incites the crowd with expletives and bets owners cases of champagne that their losing turtles could not win a race against a two-legged tortoise, the countdown begins. " Cinco, cuatro, tres, dos, uno "--and they're off.

Well, sometimes they're off. A lot of times, the turtles just sit there, looking like they're waiting for goldfish from heaven. Then one of them will get the idea, and sprint for the finish line in a blowout. All the while, people scream and yell. And drink.

There are only two rules in turtle racing. People are not allowed to cast shadows onto the track and they are not allowed to point. Pointing and shadows can cause a turtle to freeze in mid-stride. Since a lot of the turtles freeze as soon as the starting gate is lifted, it does not make much difference. But those are the rules.

Differing Performance Levels

Some of the turtles actually are fast. The record for a medium-sized turtle to cross the finish line six feet away is 1.2 seconds. Often, the races are over in less than two seconds.

But turtles have off-nights, too. Duffer said the record for the slowest race is 25.5 minutes. That's about four minutes every foot.

"I think the turtles went to sleep in the starting gate," he said.

Serious turtle racers like Wisolowski and Vincent set up banners bearing their stable names at the track and spend hours each week getting ready for the event. Brown and Cosgrove spend about 20 minutes. That's how long it takes to park their car and drink two beers before the race.

Duffer said there has never been an injury on the track, at least to a turtle.

"Turtle safety is first and foremost here," he said. "Fun is second."

The races have spawned numerous imitations over the years. Some bars race crabs and lobsters, but those are done strictly for laughs, according to turtle-breeder Feder.

"This is serious, this is sport," he said. "And it's a popular sport. We've been asked to do parties, and we have."

Brown said that he and Cosgrove will probably race Touche until she wins a race or until they get tired of the social scene--whichever comes first.

"We could never take this seriously," Cosgrove said. "Touche is our pet, and this is a way to get her some exercise and give us an excuse to come out here once a week."

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