On Your Mark, Get Set …

Who says turtles are slow? At the Nisswa turtle races, victory can come in less than 10 seconds.

People racing turtles at Nisswa's Turtle Race Day.

photos courtesy nisswa chamber of commerce

Just so you know, turtles are not slow. They’re simply fickle about when (and where) they want to move. In Nisswa, a 2,000-person town less than half an hour north of Brainerd, thousands of adults and children experience this fact first-hand every summer.

For about a decade, once a summer, you could find me waiting in line to sign up for the turtle races that are held in Nisswa’s market square every Wednesday in the summer at 2 p.m. The quaint storefronts that lined the way were the annual splurge of my $8 per month allowance (really, $5 once you took away the $2 for savings and $1 for tithes), and while some have come and gone or changed over the years, the turtle races have stayed the same. Well, I suppose they have added a mascot. Smiley.

While the winding registration lines go quickly after they open at 1 p.m., the real incentive for promptness is the parking. On a good day, there are parking spots here or there along Main Street; on a Turtle Race Day, you might have to drive around a bit. The hub of activity is centered around the four concentric circles painted on the ground in front of what is now 46North Adventure Co. & Minnesota Surf, of what used to be Jo & Bill’s, where the wind socks and colorful, kitschy garden decorations greeted you on the outside. I used to get a little turtle statue every year there, whether I participated in the turtle races or not.

Now, this is not a bring-your-own-turtle event. Turtle Wranglers find the turtles out in the wild after they finish egg-laying season, and they are returned once race season is done. Once your heat is called (say, Nos. 25-50), you and whoever is racing with you go to the center of the circles and pick your turtle from one of the yellow and white plastic gallon buckets in the middle and find your preferred spot along the race’s circular starting point. Turtles start in the center of the circle and go until they cross its circumference; the radiating race course ensures as much spectator viewing as possible, and people of all ages—three generations over 55 years—come to take part.

A father and his daughter racing a turtle at Nisswa Turtle Race Day,

Your official turtle racing button gives you admission to the general numbered heats as well as the specialty races for locals, out-of-towners, grandparents, and more. Each turtle race heat goes pretty quickly—about a minute, tops—but when you’re No. 356, there can be a good chunk of time between signing up and racing. This means it’s prime time to venture to the nearby shops or perhaps grab an ice cream cone at the Chocolate Ox or a piece of deep-fried paradise at the 35-year-old mini doughnut hut.

If you’ve come for as many years as I have, you can see the town really is changing. It’s not losing what it is, but it’s been different to walk into my favorite shop, Rebecca’s Dolls & Miniatures, and hear the speakers go from the orchestral swells of Gone with the Wind and Elvis, to what I dare say is modern pop; where the shop once was filled with true miniatures and collectibles, it now includes more and more fashion and general girl-centered trinkets. The Totem Pole’s wall of childish pranks and collection of shimmery, enamel wooden boxes has shifted to make room for more North Woods-themed figurines and cabin-comfy sweaters. Zaiser’s has remained largely unchanged, much to my nostalgic relief. I won’t spoil what’s behind its red door, but there’s something for everyone, I can tell you that.

Anyway, I’m done waxing poetic. You’re not here for my memories, are you? You’re here to find out how to win at turtle racing.

Your actual racing experience can be over in a flash depending on the turtles. There have been times the turtle referee’s whistle has shrilled before mine even moved from the starting line, and there are times when it goes on. My turtles have made it three-quarters of the way before taking a hard left, and I’ve had them start out strong and then stop because they decided sun bathing was a much more pleasurable way to spend their afternoon no matter how hard I’ve cheered for them. Sometimes they’re little divas, turtles are.

A crowd at the Nisswa's Turtle Race Day.

It’s one thing to be a casual racer, and it’s another thing to strategize. Even if you only try the turtle races once, consider reviewing the following (unproven) philosophies on winning.

Here’s what you need to know

1. It is my personal belief that how big the turtle is doesn’t matter: It’s all about heart and willpower. The first turtle I ever raced when I was about 5 years old was the largest one I have picked to date—I think my small hands needed my dad’s help to hold him. I named him Lively. Other years I’ve gone small, thinking they would be faster. Turtles of all sizes win the weekly title, and you may never experience a more level playing field in your life.

2. While you can take your turtle out of the bucket as soon as you get him, I like to keep him in the water until the last 30 seconds so he stays nice, cool, and hydrated. Instead of holding my turtle above the tarmac at the starting line, which can sometimes prompt them to try and move to steady ground once you place them down, I like to hold mine just above and move him in a cyclical motion, so his feet lightly touch the ground, as if he were galloping across the course to the finish line. Because turtles gallop, obviously.

3. Some people believe in flooding their turtles with water to make them feel relaxed and cool enough to start heading toward the finish line. I’ve tried that, but now I just feel like it makes them want to enjoy the pooling water. My strategy is to try and sprinkle water ahead of the turtle to give them an incentive to move toward the oasis and the finish line.

And that’s about it—you now have inside knowledge from a person who has never won a turtle race heat. Whether you end up choosing your own elite reptilian athlete or just want to see what the hubbub is about, Nisswa’s turtle races give you a taste of the timeless spirit of the town.