“I seen turtles all my life. They’re always goin’ someplace. They always seem to want to get there.”
-John Steinbeck, The Grapes of WrathTurtle racing was once a big deal in Minnesota. Almost every other bar throughout the state offered the spectacle, until it was ultimately heavily regulated by the government. They did this because turtles are notoriously bad about paying their bar tabs, and the economy suffered as the result. Few places remain where you can watch turtles engaged in competition against one another, and Nisswa is one of them.
This is the town’s 56th year hosting their annual turtle races, which take place every Wednesday afternoon from June 6th through August 21st. Thousands from all over the world attend the races, which are split into a series of bouts with 20 competitors each. A participant selects the turtle that they believe to be the fastest, whether they’ve noticed a certain spark in its eyes or some other ineffable quality which a turtle can evince to betray its athleticism and alacrity. (In reality the turtle is a turtle, so it is invariably slow and ambivalent about the concept of competition.) The turtles are laid down from the center of a circle and welcomed wholeheartedly to lumber over to the circumferential finish line. The aimless fashion in which a turtle may or may not casually mosey over to the finish line makes their race in every way a game of chance, but spectators find it no less riveting because humans are very strange creatures.
The winner of each bout receives a ribbon that they will cherish for life, as well a place in the day’s grand championship. There the final 20 square off against one another for all the beans — a medallion, bragging rights, and a $20 gift certificate to a local restaurant. For a child this may very well be their first opportunity to treat their family to dinner, so the tension hangs in the air thicker than pea soup. As the crowd fervently cheers, one turtle will amble forward to claim victory for its handler and make history.
Even the participants who have chosen a slower or markedly unmotivated turtle come out winners. Their $5 entry fee also gets them an ice cream cone from the local Dairy Queen, discounted admission to Safari North, and reaches into the many prize buckets kept by store owners throughout town. Human kindness benefits from the Nisswa turtle races as well, as a portion of the entry fees goes toward supporting Mounted Eagles, a local non-profit which provides therapeutic horsemanship to children with disabilities.
All racing turtles are painted turtles, a species uniquely qualified for interacting with children because they do not bite. Every spring they are recruited from the land that spans around Nisswa to be put up in luxurious tanks where they eat like princes courtesy of donations by local bait shops. Once the festivities have concluded for the year they are returned to the wild, where they are free to resume their business and contemplate what the heck just happened.
“We’re starting to see our fourth generation of racers now,” said Shawn Hansen, president of the Nisswa Chamber of Commerce. “Watching a grandmother with her son and granddaughter all participating together in the turtle races is wonderful. Most of our thousands of guests make the turtle races an annual excursion, and the winners from past years wear their ribbons and medallions with pride. It’s great traditional family fun, the kind that a community like Nisswa is just so honored to be a part of.”
Do you have what it takes to win a turtle race? It’s all well and good to say that you do, but only the real champions will go to Nisswa to prove it. Visit nisswa.com to learn how to do so.
By David Scheller