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History of turtle races rooted in police department

Sam Benshoof/FOCUS Perham's turtle races, which recently set a single-day record with 557 racers, was started in the late 1970s as a way to bring police offers and local children together.

When former Perham Police Chief Brian Nelson looks back at his time on the job, one memory stands above the rest: the creation of turtle races.

In the late 1970s, the relationship between police officers and local children was shaky, Nelson said.

"We were looking for ways to cross that bridge, and the chamber was looking for ways to get people to town," he said.

Joining together with local merchants, the crew set up the races in the pavement area behind the post office.

The first race drew 22 kids. The announcer was broadcast over portable speakers hooked up to a car.

At the time, organizers drew two circles - one small circle inside a rather large circle. Racers sat in the center circle, where they let go of the turtles. They then ran to the outside of the circle to catch their turtles as they made their way to the outside. Nelson said the race set-up revealed a flaw in the system, as the turtles weren't too keen on running into a wall of cheering fans.

Before moving on to a different job in the Twin Cities, Nelson saw the summer event grow over the course of four years, reaching around 300 racers on top days.

During those first few years, Nelson said the police department's goal of connecting with area youth was reached.

"It was a great thing for us," he said. "It really enhanced the relationship with kids."

Considering police officers were the ones handing out prizes at the races, the children were able to see them as regular people - not just police officers.

As a reward for their efforts with the races, Nelson and a few others traveled to Canada for the International turtle racing championships, where they saw some racers who were pretty serious about the sport.

Decades after the start of turtles races, Nelson said it's quite the experience to attend now.

"It's really cool," he said. "They do a good job. It's a professional outfit compared to the fly-by-night operation we had."