It takes patience to race turtles. At the Thursday night turtle races behind Brennan's pub, a seven-foot dash to the finish line can last nearly half an hour.
"The longest race I remember was last winter. It took 25 minutes because the turtles kept going to sleep. They were hibernating," said turtle-breeder Hesh Feder, a five-year veteran of the races. His Direct Connection Stables sports nine racing turtles.
For 11 years, turtle aficionados from around the world have gathered weekly at Brennan's in Marina del Rey to cheer on their prized reptiles.
The race begins when the starting gate is lifted at the center of a 14-foot-wide arena. The first creature to lumber across the white line around the edge of the ring is the winner. A judge looks on in case of a photo finish.
Drawn to Shadows
Malibu resident Dave Schwab, whose Mudsliders Stable includes two red ear slider turtles and a Mississippi Map variety, said the animals are drawn to spectator shadows at ring's edge.
"What happens is the turtle is looking for darkness to hide," Schwab said. "So when it sees the shadows of the people watching on the sides, that's what it's racing towards.
"That's why pointing is not allowed. First of all, they think you're a snake and will stop right there and hide their head."
The amphibious turtle is surprisingly fast. But the land tortoise lives up to its reputation and is agonizingly slow.
Reptiles arrive at the track in picnic-style ice chests. Cars pull up, tailgates come down and owners struggle with red and white metal boxes more commonly found at football games. The coolers bathe the turtles in 80-degree water to maintain their body temperature.
"They're cold-blooded so the only way to keep their metabolism up is warm water," Schwab explained. "A turtle is only as warm as its environment. Of course, we don't recommend keeping them in soup."
Competition can be fierce and fickle, Feder said.
"There used to be a tortoise here named Flip. He would come up to other tortoises during the race and flip them over on their back. He'd just grab the shell with his beak, flip them over and walk away.
"During the summer, male tortoises fight for territory and it's basically a push-and-ram situation, like goats when they butt heads. And we've had turtles that have actually pushed other turtles across the finish line backwards."
Jim (Duffy) Duffer, producer of the Brennan's races, divides his events according to size and breed. If there are several of the larger varieties, an additional monster category is added. An all-star match finishes off the evening.
Champagne and Trophies
"We don't race snapping turtles because they're endangered and dangerous," said Duffer, who awards trophies and champagne to the owners of the winners in each category.
"And we keep records of the entries, breeding, number of times raced and amount of wins.
"Sometimes, people will try to slip a mechanized turtle in, but I always catch it," he added.
The races are popular with tourists from Japan, Sweden, Australia and New Zealand, Duffer said. During the summer months, he added, up to 500 people and 150 turtles have attended. First-timers can shell out $3 to rent a turtle for the night if they want.
On a recent Thursday, there were about 50 people in the crowd. One race lasted almost 10 minutes as several entrants turned around and went back to the starting point.
When a small but quick tortoise crossed the finish line in a mere four seconds, a boisterous fan joked that the race was fixed and demanded the animal be tested for drugs.
Like their equine counterparts, turtles require special treatment on race day, turtle owner John Clack said. His foot-long, six-pound South American tortoise, Gwendyln, has won 19 races and is often the largest turtle at the meet.
"You don't feed them. If you do, they're fat and lazy," Clack said.
Schwab said the turtles, which can live as long as 100 years, are not as exotic as they appear. "Unless they're the Jacques Cousteau type, they come from your neighborhood pet store."
As for pre-race training, Feder said, "Turtles are turtles. If you're lucky enough to have one that races, it's great."