Don’t put your money on Myrtle the Turtle. There’s no gambling here.
Besides, the turtles change names every couple of races. Myrtle could become Stalin, M.F. Jones or Saturday Soup. You never really know which one is which. The turtle wrangler switches it up to keep the audience guessing and prevent the same turtle from winning every round.
Forget slow and steady. The fastest turtle wins this race.
Crafted Tap House and Kitchen in Coeur d’Alene has been hosting turtle races on Friday nights for about two years. The owners implemented the competition for added entertainment, another attraction to draw people to the restaurant and bar. Admission is free.
The turtles, widely known for their plodding nature, are the main attraction. They’re surprisingly fast. Each round – there are six – is usually over in a matter of seconds.
“They’re not snails,” said spectator Kate Conley, 22.
She and her boyfriend, Kasey Potts, 24, drove from Spokane just to watch the turtle races on a recent Friday night. It was their first time. They had arrived early for dinner. She had the Scorcese: roasted pork loin with red lentils, bacon, and carrot and beet crisps.
That’s another reason people come here: the food – and the atmosphere and beer, too. The gastropub has 50 beers on tap and a half-dozen hand-helds on the menu, including burgers topped with Cambozola, black pepper bacon, garlic-bacon jam and arugula. In warm weather, the patio – twice as big as the dining room and dotted with fire features – is open, too. Don’t forget the sweet potato fries smothered with Gorgonzola fondue.
Nosh on them while waiting for staff to lower the custom-built turtle track. It measures just under 13 feet in circumference. The turtles scamper from the center of their circular race course to the finish line: a ring around the outskirts of the track, which drops from the ceiling around 10 p.m.
Fans start bellying up to the boards as soon as it hits waist height. Cellphone cameras come out, too. But there’s more at stake than getting a good photo for Facebook or Instagram. There’s cheap beer.
Before each round, fans have a chance to vote for the turtle they think will win by dropping a ticket into a box marked with the turtle’s name. There’s a box for each turtle. Guess the winning turtle, win a $1 beer.
Some hard-core fans come every Friday. Many win at least one cheap pint. Some win more than one.
The most Tanner Carr has won is five. The 31-year-old hadn’t missed a turtle race since moving to Coeur d’Alene in June, except for the one that was canceled.
“I was just curious about how it worked,” Carr said in American Sign Language through an interpreter, his girlfriend, Madison Call, 25. They had come to Crafted for lunch, saw the turtle races advertised for that night, and made a point to return that evening. They’ve been going ever since.
“It’s fun,” said Carr, who used to go to goldfish races at a bar in Boise. “I’m deaf, and it’s really boring for me to watch other people socialize.”
The turtle races, he said, “keep me entertained. I have something to look at.”
Rob Berger and business partner Chris Evans opened Crafted in 2014. The turtle races started a few months later.
The rules are simple. No touching, blowing on or otherwise messing with the turtles.
“If you do, we’ll throw you out,” Evans said.
But, you can yell and cheer, even point.
That’s not the case at Brennan’s Pub, a dive bar in Marina del Rey that’s the grandfather of turtle racing on the West Coast. Brennan’s has been hosting weekly turtle races since 1975. Spectators caught pointing are fined $10 the first time and $20 the second.
Crafted, which seats 97 inside, isn’t that strict. The vibe is hip, not divey – industrial and modern with rustic accents. Chairs are fashioned from rebar and wood. At least one server sports a man bun. Another has blue hair. A line cook doubles as the turtle race emcee.
“First turtle over the line wins!” Steven Quinonez, standing atop the race track on a recent Friday night, shouted into the mic. The 26-year-old has worked at Crafted since it opened but took over the turtle races at the beginning of the summer. He usually roots for Myrtle.
“The owner, Rob, actually researched the turtles to get the fastest turtles, not some sluggish turtles,” he said.
These are red-eared sliders, the popular pet breed that inspired the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. They reside in a 400-gallon tank just inside the front door.
“They’re well cared for. They’re like everybody’s pets,” said Taylor Patrick, 21. It was her first night on the job as turtle wrangler, but she has worked as a server at Crafted for a year.
“I love the energy,” she said. “And I love people and I love animals, so it’s a good combination.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration warns that, while turtles may be cute, they also commonly carry salmonella bacteria on their skin and shells. People can become infected with salmonella by touching turtles or coming into contact with their tanks. That’s another reason customers aren’t allowed to touch them.
The kitchen is usually closed by the time the races start, and staff members who handle the turtles don’t come into contact with food or beverage after they’re over, co-owner Evans said. The track is bleached after the races, he said.
Staff members usually switch the rubber bands bearing the turtles’ names after every other round. Without those name tags, which one’s which?
“We don’t even know,” Quinonez said.
This night, Stalin won the first round by a landslide. But in rounds two and three, Saturday Soup dominated.
“The first race most people have a wild guess,” Carr said. “I’ll see who wins the first round, whether I was right or wrong. I’ll follow the turtle who wins because usually it’ll keep winning.”
His girlfriend has a different strategy. “I’ll pick who he picks,” Call said.
Tyler Cannon, 23, votes for Stalin “because he usually does me good. He’s usually my prize winner. He won for me the first time I came, so I stay true. I’m loyal. Stalin’s kind of like my turtle girlfriend.”
He’s watched the turtle races “six or seven times. I like the atmosphere. The music’s loud. They turn it up for the turtles.”
Friday nights, Call said, the place is “full to the walls.”
That’s how Quinonez likes it. “The crowd is what fuels me,” he said. “That’s the best part. The more people, the merrier.”
Between rounds, there’s usually a five-minute wait while staffers hand out beer coupons to winners. Busy nights, Quinonez guessed, anywhere from 15 to 20 people might win.
Conley bet her beer tickets on M.F. Jones, saying, “The law of averages has to be on my side at some point.” But in rounds four and five, Stalin won again.
“It’s just fun,” Conley said. “There’s nothing else like this around here.”
By 11:30 p.m., the turtles were back in their tank, and Crafted was shutting down. Carr had won four times: twice by voting for Stalin, and twice by voting for Saturday Soup.
Stalin had taken the last round.
But, Quinonez said, “It was close.”
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