Children rev up their reptiles for annual turtle race

NEW ALBANY – Slow and steady doesn’t always win the race – at least not at the annual New Albany Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 384 annual turtle race, which was held July 6.

“The race was started by two guys who brought it back with them from the Philippines, where they were stationed in World War II,” said Wylie Norton, a volunteer at the race since 1972.

The “race track” consists of a 20-foot circle with a smaller circle in the center. The first three turtles to reach the inner circle are the winners of the race.

“The turtle has to completely cross into the center circle to win. That’s where it gets interesting. Some turtles will go halfway across the line and then stop,” Norton said.

There is a 3-foot wide circle around the larger circle where the “raceturtle” owners can sit while their reptile races.

The children aren’t allowed to cross the line while the race is in progress but they do find interesting ways to encourage their turtles to go faster. The traditional method of encouragement is to pound the ground.

“I think that started right from day one, not that the turtles pay much attention to it, but it makes everyone feel better,” Norton said with a laugh.

This year more than 160 children, 12 and under, entered the race. It was an average turnout, Norton said.

“One year, we had 250 turtles entered but most years, it hovers around 160,” Norton said.

The race actually is more a series of races. Three winners are declared from each race and then the turtles are allowed a “cool-down” period before the next race.

“We run 15 heats and give awards for first, second and third in each heat,” Norton said.

Each race winner is given their choice of prizes from a table piled with toys and games the VFW has provided.

For Norton, the race is a special time to reminisce, rekindle friendships and see some new faces.

“You know you’ve been doing this a long time when you see the grandkids of kids you used to watch race,” he said.

Among the racers at this year’s race was Norton’s grandson, Alex Knight, 7, who comes to the race from Lancaster. This was Knight’s fifth race and he has an inside track when it comes to finding turtles for the race.

“My poppy finds the turtles,” Knight said.

Among the race day winners was Christian Conway, 2, from Jefferson Township. Although Conway was too young to “race” his turtle by himself, he had a string of supporters to help him.

“I guess you could call us his pit crew,” said Mike Lewczuk Jr.

Lewczuk helped Conway get his turtle to the line and later to reclaim his turtle when the race was over.

Each turtle is given a number with a piece of chalk, which fades away as the race day carries on.

The day isn’t spent entirely on racing, though. Several volunteers at the registration table help educate the young racers about their turtles and proper ways to carry and care for them.

All the turtles at the race must be released back into the wild from where they were found once the race is over, Norton said.