I learned something new about myself Friday night. I am a master turtle racer. That’s right. You heard me - a turtle racer.
There is a bar on the north side of Chicago named Big Joe’s (or the 2-1-6 if you live in that hood). It is a dive bar with wood paneling and the most random juke box I’ve ever heard. During the week it is a hot spot for the old man crowd in the neighborhood, but Fridays are a different story when people from all the neighborhoods of Chicago converge for the odd sport of turtle racing. Apparently, all it takes to pack a bar is the promise of live turtle racing.
My friends and I arrived at Big Joe’s around 9:30 p.m. We ordered drinks and with our domestic bottle beers received raffle tickets. It was later explained to us buy a veteran turtle racer how the tickets fit into the night’s event.
Turtle racing begins promptly at 10 p.m. There are six races, with one taking place every 15 minutes. Turtle racers are selected by a raffle, hence the tickets. (It needs to be said that the bar owners were thinking when they schemed up this idea. It’s very easy to deduce that the more a person drinks, the greater their chances of getting their ticket called.) Once a person’s ticket is called, he or she goes to the racing area and picks a numbered ball from a Tupperware bowl. (It’s all very formal.) The number corresponds to one of the six turtles: Lola, Swisher, Doozy, Chicks, Lucky Dan and Jolanda (“And what’s Jolanda?” the announcer calls. “The slowest fucking turtle in the world!” the crowd responds - like clockwork.) Raffle tickets are called until the six racers are selected. Then the turtles are brought out.
By this time the crowd is at a fever pitch, jockeying for position around the pool table.
The race takes place in the raised back portion of the bar. The pool table is covered by a giant plywood board with a big, white circle encircling a smaller green circle. The turtles, with a number taped to their back, are brought out and placed under a giant cake topper centered in the green circle. The “going to the Races” music is sounded, the cake topper is lifted and the turtles take off. Well, they’re turtles. They don’t really race.
The first turtle to make it out of the giant white circle wins as does the person who was assigned to that turtle. The last turtle to make it out of the circle loses but the person who had that turtle gets a free drink - the idea being I guess there really are no losers. After the first race, I surmised these turtles get a little tired of the same race week in, week out. Some don’t even budge. (I’m not naming names. Jolanda and Doozy.) The first part of the race is usually over quickly then everyone settles their eyes on the two motionless turtles in the center. It then becomes a race to see which one will set foot out of the middle green circle. If they still don’t budge, a tie is declared or an audience poll is taken. Given the noise level in the place already, it generally ended up being a tie anyway.
For the genuine winners though, there is a free Big Joe’s t-shirt and a chance for the grand prize. The winners from the evening’s six races then race a final race. The winner of the winner’s race already with t-shirt in hand gets something better. He or she gets their name submitted and a chance to compete in November against all the other winners for a free trip for two to Vegas.
As I said in the beginning, I learned I have some turtle racing skills. Needless to say, I now own a Big Joe’s t-shirt and a shot at a free Vegas trip in November. I’ll keep you all posted. November is a ways away, so that means plenty of time to hone in my turtle racing skills. I’m really hoping Friday night wasn’t just a bout of beginner’s luck.