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Perham's "International Turtle Races" deliver laid-back thrills

Finding Minnesota: Perham Turtle Races
Finding Minnesota: Perham Turtle Races 03:21

PERHAM, Minn. -- Summer is race time across the state. Cars and horses compete on their respective tracks, hoping to cross the finish line first.

But in Ottertail County, there's a type of race where speed records will never be broken. In this week's Finding Minnesota, John Lauritsen shows us why slow and steady wins the race.

"We're known for a laid-back type of life. A laid-back lifestyle," said Nick Murdock.

Laid-back is a great way to describe Perham, at least six days out of the week. Because on Wednesdays, the entire town tends to come out of its shell.

"Forty-five-years ago we started racing turtles in the alleyway behind the post office. And it's evolved over the years," said Murdock.

Part of that evolution meant moving from the alleyway to the courtyard behind the chamber of commerce. That's where you'll find an arena where the inner circle serves as the starting line, and the outer circle serves as the finish line.

"Whose ever turtle gets to the outside circle first is the winner," said Murdock. "We call it the International Turtle Races because we do have international racers every year. Just last week we had a family from Germany here, racing turtles. And they absolutely love it. Smiles ear to ear."

They get anywhere from 200 to 500 racers in the middle of the week. Only painted turtles are allowed to race.


"We're waiting for someone to show up with a snapping turtle but it hasn't happened yet," said Murdock.

Competitors can pick a turtle when they arrive, and the strategy is pretty simple.

"We just look at which ones are trying like to get out of the buckets and stuff," said turtle racer Nora Murdock.

But some kids, like 12-year-old Bryce Olson, raise their own turtles. He's been racing since he was 2. He's like the Richard Petty of turtle races. If his turtle, Lightning, wins his heat, he gets a dollar and advances to the championship round. If Lightning wins the championship, he gets $5 and a gift basket.

Reaching speeds of up to a quarter-mile-an hour, race announcer Trevor Semann said the races last anywhere from 30 seconds to two minutes -- depending on how motivated the turtles are.

Once that whistle blows, there's truly a need for speed, or at least a medium-paced meandering of some sort.

Forty-five-straight years of photo finishes. For Perham, it's been a good run, or crawl. Whatever you want to call it.

"The best part about the turtle races is seeing the amount of people that come to town, from all over the place," said Semann. "It's a lot of fun to see the kids racing the turtles. The smiles that they have. And when everyone's done, you never see an unhappy person after a turtle race."

The turtle races go from June through August. They begin at 10:30 a.m. every Wednesday in Perham and anyone is welcome to race. 

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