Some were dressed like princesses. Others donned painted designs or additional stickers and accessories. But the turtles of Alexander City were always ready to race.
And the people of Alexander City and surrounding areas were always ready to show up for the annual racing event.
When Kenny Dean spotted a turtle in his yard a few days ago, it stirred up nostalgia for his favorite past community event.
This month would have marked the 40th anniversary of the Turtleneck Turtle Races, started by Kenny Dean and his family when they lived on Turtleneck Road.
“It started as a joke thing but as time went on, we used the event to raise some money,” Kenny Dean said. “A lot of it went to the American Cancer Society but we ended up raising some $20,000 at one point. That’s when Russell (Corp.) was rockin’ and rollin’; they’d donate T-shirts and do the printing and we would sell them for $10 and make the whole profit to donate.”
While the quirky tradition has come to an end, it’s not one that went swiftly or without conjuring up old memories.
“It started when Kenny Jr. was about 3 or 4 years old,” Dean said. “It was always a kid thing and then adults started getting into it. We’d give out trophies for the best-dressed turtle and held the Miss Turtleneck Turtle Race. I think it was bigger than Miss America.”
All jokes aside, Dean said the family-oriented event snowballed over time to bring in thousands of participants and attendees to watch turtles race — or more realistically, hide in their shells and not move from all the hollering from the crowd.
“A lot of times they’d just sit there and not move but once the race started you couldn’t touch them,” Dean said with a chuckle.
The name of the game was to find a turtle and personalize its shell before the big day.
“The imaginations these adults and kids had — it was such a big community event,” Dean said. “(People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) got on our case one year but we found out it doesn’t do any harm to put paint on the turtles’ shells.”
While the organizers toyed around with other times of the year, June seemed to be the best and only month that worked.
“June was always a good month because in the South when it starts raining if you get out in the late afternoon, you see (the turtles) crossing the road,” Dean said. “July was too hot and May was just too early.”
The event launched at the Dean’s house on Turtleneck Road and was announced on the morning show of a big news network and just took off.
“It got crazy,” Dean said. “We really started promoting it and it went from hundreds to maybe at times a thousand people.”
The competition outgrew the Deans’ yard, was eventually moved to Wind Creek State Park and ended up at the Alex City Airport Pavilion the last few years it was held.
“It had grown so much we had to run races in divisions,” Dean said. “Maybe race 10 or 15 at a time and the top three out of that moved on.”
The Turtle Races expanded to include a human 5K and attracted local bluegrass bands for added entertainment.
While the event was a huge success for many years, eventually it lost momentum.
“We quit doing it a few years ago because it became hard to raise the money,” Dean said. “You’d do all this work to organize and really couldn’t make money on it the last few years it was held.”
Dean always hoped the annual weeklong SunFest celebration might add it to its schedule or someone would carry it on but the memories still linger.
“It was simple,” Dean said. “But it sure was fun while it lasted.”