A bucket lifts. A herd of turtles sprints – and make no mistake, these things can move – toward the finish line. When one inevitably reaches the finish line, hundreds of boozed-up, revelry-filled twenty- and thirtysomethings scream in unison.
Welcome to the hottest thing in Midtown.
Little Woodrow’s Midtown, one of the franchise's many locations in and around Houston, has hosted its weekly "World Famous" Turtle Races on Thursday nights for almost a decade. The ninth season began earlier this month and will continue until just before Thanksgiving. Indeed, what began as a sort of unconventional way to draw patrons has become a literal destination spot.
“We get so many people who are in town on business and have heard about it, while others may be in town for a special event like the Super Bowl or Final Four,” says Nick Menage, who has been with Woodrow’s for more than two decades. “You always get an international flavor in there, and some of the younger people even bring their parents out. It’s a cross section of people for sure.”
To truly understand the origins and purpose of the famed Turtle Races, one must truly understand Nick Menage. He is the ringleader and emcee of this whole operation (as seen in the video below), the man who took a cute little bar event and turned it into a weekly tradition. Thursday after Thursday from March until November (the event typically runs from around 8 to 11:30 p.m.), hundreds upon hundreds of locals flock to Midtown for the Turtle Races.
On a recent trip, the audience was certainly diverse. Some folks, based on the overheard conversations, were attending their first-ever event. Others (yes, guilty) have been here more than a few times. And some never miss it.
Not that the Turtle Races are some overnight success story. Nearly a decade ago, Menage was watching television and saw a feature on this little phenomenon out in California in which people “raced” turtles. His mind instantly began racing (no pun intended).
“I figured I could put a little bit of a different spin on this and make it fun,” he said. “Most people were like, ‘This will never work.’”
Menage began with nothing more than a small amp and a microphone, a small deck, a few turtles and, to his recollection, “about five people.” After a few years, he noticed the weekly crowds growing larger and larger. By year four, when Woodrow’s added bleachers, lighting, cameras and television sets, the event had become a full-fledged local phenomenon.
“Year 4, that’s when it really blew up,” Menage affirms. “Something about word of mouth, man, it just spread. We started making koozies to help get the word out, a new one for each season, something with a little quirkiness to it. You can’t really see that anywhere else, and it’s become a staple. We get calls all the time, ‘When is turtle racing starting back up?’ It’s the most original thing to do on a Thursday.”
So, yeah, the turtles. They come from all walks of life. Some came from traditional means (i.e., pet stores). Others were donated to Woodrow’s by race fans, many of whom were either moving or simply unable to care for the reptiles. One was even rescued from a crawfish sack before one of Woodrow's crawfish boils!
The rules are simple. Race-goers head to the bar and pick a card that matches up to a particular turtle. A chosen “bucket babe” from the audience lifts a bucket, the turtles emerge and the first one to crawl to a chalk outline on the AstroTurf surface is declared the winner. (Don’t be fooled; these turtles are quicker than you might think.) Several races take place throughout the evening. If your card matches the winner, you get a free Turtle Races koozie.
Of course, these little sprinters aren’t just labeled Turtle 1, 2 and so on. They have names, personalities and backstories. James Franco, the unquestioned king of the turtles, is sort of a walking parody. #McYoloSwag desperately seeks fame and fortune. The Trumpster, like his namesake, had a pretty successful 2016. O Canada was named in homage of one of the local food trucks on-site, which is run by a Canadian. And Mini Squirtle? Well, he’s the little guy who was rescued from the crawfish sack.
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“I can’t even remember how we came up with some of these names,” Menage says. “Some are based on funny stories, others came from input from friends or people that work here. We like to get a dig in on people here and there, whether it’s Canada or people from Dallas. It’s all in good fun.”
Menage once toyed with the idea of expanding Turtle Races to other Woodrow’s locations in Houston, but ultimately decided that keeping them in Midtown helped maintain a special feel. Woodrow’s often gets requests for private parties, benefits and road shows, but for now, Menage and his merry gang of turtles are content with their weekly get-down in one of Houston’s central party spots.
“It’s still getting busier, and there’s certainly more exposure to it,” Menage says. “We want to keep it fresh and exciting, until people don’t want to come out anymore.”
Fortunately for Menage and Woodrow’s, not to mention gaggles of Houstonians and out-of-towners who need their weekly turtle-and-booze fix every Thursday night, that doesn’t appear to be much of an issue any time soon.