Turtle racing draws raucous crowd

"I won!  I won!" yells Michele Johnson of Lakeview as her turtle, Lucky Dan, wins the third race of the night. She proudly shows off her prize, a new T-shirt, in a ritual that is becoming increasingly popular in Ravenswood.

Each Friday night, Big Joe's Bar, 1818 W. Foster, transforms itself from a typical neighborhood bar into a hotbed of urban turtle racing. Nestled between a fur shop and a storage facility, Big Joe's seems an unlikely venue for the raucous pastime, which draws screaming and cheering patrons for each one-minute race.

Big Joe's does no advertising for their turtle racing, instead relying on word of mouth. And judging by the crowd, they've been successful.

Bar staff declined to discuss the turtle races, saying news coverage could draw too many people to the bar.

Nelio VanHouten of Lemont, heard about the place through a friend's mother. "She told me about," he says sheepishly, "But it is my first time here and I love it. It is just something different."

Big Joe's chooses race participants by handing out raffle tickets with drink purchases. Before each race, tickets are chosen at random. Winners become turtle jockeys, and are paired with a randomly selected turtle.

After the jockeys are chosen, six turtles are placed under a large lid in the center of a large white circle on a bar table.  Once the cue is given, the lid is lifted and the turtles started working their way towards the outer edge of the white circle.

During the races spectators chant for their favorite turtles and make side bets.

Jockeys of winning turtles receive a bar T-shirt. Those whose turtles finish last win a free drink -- and raffle tickets for the next race.

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