Five-year-old Victoria Stidham lines up along the inner of two concentric circles, gently setting down a dark grey plastic storage bin, preserving every drop of water inside. Although she is half the size of the seven competitors around her, she’s twice the racer.
“On your marks.”
She reaches into the bin, eyeing up the competition for false starts.
A turtle gingerly peaks over the top of the bin at the crowd. Victoria holds its sides, avoiding its claws swimming through the air.
Victoria sets her turtle down with care. To her right, another child drops his turtle to the ground. It immediately pulls into its shell, remaining still for the race. To her left, a turtle takes three steps forward before its racer dumps her entire bin of water on it. It promptly turns 90 degrees to the left, away from the outer circle marking the finish line.
Amid the chaos, Victoria inches forward with her turtle, gently splashing at his feet until he takes the win.
Ambridge’s P.J. Caul Park was the target of the turtle takeover. The main walk leading to the central gazebo was adorned with inflatable turtles and checkered flags. To the left of the park’s World War II memorial, Penny’s Delight Restaurant sold pierogies dyed bright green and pinched into chelonian shapes.
Three green kiddie pools with turtle heads and fins were flanked by a crowd of children as the nearly 20 turtles inside climbed over one another to snap at reaching fingers.
Resting at the corner of Merchant Street — Ambridge’s main business corridor — and 11th Street, every other car slowed as drivers gawked at the spectacle.
“Ambridge Turtle Racing,” declared a banner across the gazebo.
“Where else in the world are they racing turtles other than Ambridge, PA?” DJ Bill Rohm asked the crowd.
Organizer Jeffery Deceder and his 6-year-old son Rycker stumbled across turtle racing while watching YouTube videos. As it turns out, Minnesota is where else in the world they race turtles. The event benefits the Rycker’s Heart Heroes Foundation, which raises awareness of congenital heart defects and provides support to affected families. Rycker was born with a congenital heart defect.
The Ambridge Regional Chamber of Commerce had been hosting the races on the second Saturday of the month since May.
In a slow and steady twist of fate, the inaugural season of turtle racing is already over. If you were caught taking a hare nap, don’t fret! Ambridge Turtle Racing will return in the summer of 2024.
The last event, held on Saturday, Sept. 9, had nine heats; others have had up to 12 depending on attendance. The final race of the day was the Grand Championship, where all heat winners competed for the trophy, Turtle Racing merch and a gift card to Vocelli Pizza — one of about 60 event sponsors.
The races themselves are “Nascar-like.” For a $5 entry fee, racers select a turtle and an event sponsor placard to rep for the race. Once all participants are lined up along the inner ring of the two concentric circles, racers use a small bucket of water to splash at their turtle, urging them forward.
Most racers settle for whichever turtle is available from the pools. Winners like Victoria, though, scrupulously select one.
“He was the smallest,” she says.
While she claims she picked her turtle “because I liked him,” seasoned racers know — but don’t often tell — that smaller turtles move quicker.
Racing turtles was not a part of the Stidham family’s afternoon plans; they saw advertisements on Route 65 earlier that day. Once there, Victoria was given some money for a bottle of water and ended up with a ticket to race a turtle, her mother Megan Stidham says.
“Give a kid $5, you don’t know what they’ll come back with,” Stidham quips.
Others, like Mike Brown and his kids, forego the rental turtles and bring their own, hoping familiarity and trust breeds success.
“There were signs [for Turtle Racing] everywhere, and my son and my family are really loyal customers of Off The Hook — that’s where we got our turtle from,” Brown says. Off The Hook is an Ambridge-based exotic pets shop and headline sponsor of Ambridge Turtle Racing.
“We were like, ‘We’re competitive. We’re going to race, and we’re going to win.’”
The Brown family and their turtle — aptly named Turtle — did take home a medal for their heat. Brown attributes the success to their strict training regimen.
“We did a couple little racing courses,” Brown says. “We had the Husky give her some pep talks. On the way over here, we had pre-race music. There was some ‘Eye of the Tiger,’ but, you know, you can’t play too much tiger music, so a lot of ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ was played.”
Contrary to popular belief, turtles can move fast. Some races last only about a minute. A turtle can be stubborn, however, and will pull into its shell if set down too roughly or will stray away from the finish line if the crowd at the end is too large.
Throughout each heat, Deceder provided live commentary, calling out sponsor names attached to turtles as they splashed forward toward the checkered flag.
Three hours after her first win, Victoria was back at the starting line for the Grand Championship. Her strategy was locked in. As she set her turtle down, she grinned.
She crouched over her turtle as the two moved as a cohesive unit, gaining ground faster than the competitors around her.
But there was a dark horse — turtle, I mean.
To her left, another racer crossed the finish line just ahead of Victoria’s turtle.
She straightened, and let her arms go slack with the weight of her water bin. For a moment, her lower lip swelled and eyes tightened as her turtle, alone, pushed forward through the last inches to the finish line.
It was alright, her mother consoled her, she had made it so close. With water bottle money, nonetheless.
When Victoria finally picked up her turtle, she shed her disappointment and smiled. A bond between a girl and her turtle is not so easily broken.
Victoria held her turtle — beaming all the while — as the trophy was given away, invigorated by the thrill of the race. She smiled as the crowd posed for a picture, paying no mind to the water in her Crocs or the girl next to her who had just been bitten on the hand by a turtle.