Brennan’s Pub celebrates 40 years of its world-famous turtle races

By Alci Rengifo

Reptilian athletes race to the delight of large crowds on Thursday nights in Marina del Rey Photo by Joe Piasecki

Reptilian athletes race to the delight of large crowds on Thursday nights in Marina del Rey
Photo by Joe Piasecki

It’s another Thursday night, and once again Brennan’s Pub in Marina del Rey is packed. More than 150 patrons with cold beers or cocktails in hand have gathered around the bar’s large back patio to take part in a unique Westside ritual: turtle races.

Brennan’s Pub celebrates 40 years of turtle racing on July 23, but this isn’t some nostalgic social scene. It’s a festive environment as turtle racers and fans — most of them in their 20s or 30s — offer wild cheers and toasts as they gather around a large outdoor racing mat.

Dozens line up to “rent” a turtle for the evening for $5; others bring their own.

When the races finally start at well past 10 p.m., emcee Uriel Matus goes over the rules. Most important: 1) “Don’t point at the turtles [That’s cheating; they’ll think you have food] and 2) “Don’t throw anything toward the turtles: We like turtles more than we like you.”

Before each race begins, turtle sponsors place their reptilian athletes in the middle of the mat (the first turtle to cross a painted outer circle is the winner). That gets interesting because of yet another rule: You can’t bend your knees while lowering your turtle, so ladies and gentlemen end up showing off their posteriors with varying degrees of flamboyance to a hooting and howling crowd.

The turtle races at Brennan’s have been featured in media broadcasts as far away as Eastern Europe as well as close to home, including an often-mentioned MTV appearance.

“A question I keep being asked is: ‘You really have turtle races here? Real turtles?’” says Brennan’s Pub co-owner Steve Windmiller. “What can I say? It pays the bills.”

The bar hosts six turtle races each Thursday, pitting turtles of similar sizes against one another to avoid having large turtles race smaller ones.

Brennan’s Pub cares for 10 “house turtles” that live in a 200-gallon aquarium inside a small building adjacent to the outdoor patio, where an exterior wall features a cartoon turtle race mural. The in-house champion, according to Matus, is a veteran turtle named “The Golden Schlong.”

Matus has been helping to put on turtle races at Brennan’s Pub for 16 years, starting off as a humble “turtle wrangler,” as he put it.

The origins of it all are a bit hazy, but Matus relates the story as he’s been told.

“From what I was told — urban legend — a couple of guys got together one night and said, ‘Hey, there’s this big, outdoor patio area, why not take advantage of it?” Matus said. “People started showing up with turtles. Back in the mid-1970s you had people with [teams of turtles] they called ‘stables.’”

The tradition of bringing pet turtles remains strong. A visiting turtle owner who identified himself only as Rocko brought five turtles he named after notorious 1930s gangsters.

“One of them is named Bumpy Johnson because he has bumps on his shell,” Rocko said.

Sponsors of winning turtles receive a blue ribbon and a surprise gift pulled from a duffle bag. There’s no cash prize or giant trophy involved. The allure is the chance to be a part of the local turtle racing folklore.

“I wanted to be part of it,” said turtle sponsor Nathaniel Emond. “I don’t want to watch. I want my turtle to win. I chose the one who was pushing everyone else around.”

First-time Brennan’s patron Luis Reyes also decided to sponsor a turtle, a dark-shelled racer named Delaware. When the turtles were set loose for the first race of the evening, Delaware came quick off the start and made to the edge of the mat in well under a minute — the first winner of the night.

“It feels good,” said Reyes. “I didn’t even expect to race. I have a greater respect for turtles now.”

Turtle race organizers are ordering special ribbons and offering bigger prizes for the 40th anniversary races next Thursday.

“It’s a huge turnout every week,” Matus said. “We’re hoping it’ll be another Thursday night where the crowds are having fun.”

Turtle Races begin after 9 p.m. — probably closer to 10 p.m., but arrive on time if you want to sponsor a turtle. The 40th anniversary races on July 23 may start on the early side. Brennan’s Pub is at 4089 Lincoln Blvd. in Marina del Rey. Call (310) 821-6622 or visit brennanspub-la.com.

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