"What if, instead of being really slow, there was a snail that was really fast?"
That's the eye-roll of a premise behind Turbo, a middlingly reviewed animated Dreamworks movie that aims to steal some thunder from Monsters University and Despicable Me 2 as it hits theaters this week. But Turbo does have one thing that its fantastical box-office competitors lack: A real-world grounding in an actual — and surprisingly elaborate — event.
Welcome to the world of competitive snail racing.
The rules for a snail race are simple. Races take place on a target-like circular track covered with a damp cotton cloth. Fifteen snails race at a time, beginning in the innermost circle, and the race isn't over until one of the snails has crossed the outer circle, which is 13 inches away from the starting point.
The self-proclaimed snail racing capital of the world is Congham, a village with a population of 227 in Norfolk County, England. Congham's claim to this title is a matter of some dispute; Lagardere, a village in France, has also hosted its own "World Snail Racing Championship" for 50 years — a ruthlessly gladiatorial event in which every competing snail, with the exception of the winner, is subsequently cooked with ham, garlic, and tomatoes and served to the hungry spectators.
Congham's annual World Snail Racing Championship — which will be held on July 20 this year — avoids such casual barbarism. In an interview with writer Hannah Dennison, the village's expert snail trainer and race organizer Neil Riseborough, who personally breeds somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 snails each year, says he would "never" eat his prized competitors, who he carefully grooms for the racetrack throughout their three- to four-year life cycles. (Unfortunately, that hasn't stopped escargot-loving poachers from stealing snails from Riseborough, which forced him to move his prized racers from their normal breeding grounds to undisclosed "secret locations.")
How does a person train a world-class racing snail, anyway? Though Riseborough's expertise in the world of snail racing is indisputable — in addition to breeding snails, he maintains the course during races and personally begins each World Snail Racing Championship race by shouting "Ready, steady, slow" — his carefully groomed mollusks aren't always successful. Despite a late-stage gambit that saw him feeding his snails high-protein British-grown loll rosso lettuce before a race overseen by Guinness in London, his fastest snail came in at an abysmal six minutes and 26 seconds in the 13-inch sprint.
There are plenty of other theories for how to increase your snail's performance — Riseborough suggests training your snails on French windows — but things are pretty much out of your hands when the race actually begins. More than anything, snails require dampness, which makes Congham — a village that's both low-lying and surrounded by ponds — the ideal home for the tournament. (Unfortunately, dampness can also cause problems; 2007's race was called off altogether due to poor conditions, and 2012's race was delayed by nearly a month after the field was deemed too waterlogged.)
It's a "clean sport," Riseborough says, free from the doping that has dogged other world-class competitions; when problems arise, it's typically because the snails have no idea that they're in a race.
Each year, out of a pool of roughly 200 snails, the competition is whittled down, tournament-style, until only one snail remains. Last year, a snail named Racer — trained by a 5-year-old named Sue — won the competition with a so-so time of three minutes and 20 seconds. The all-time record was set in 1995, when a snail named Archie completed the 13-inch racing course in two minutes and 20 seconds — and was promptly put out to stud. It's the happiest ending one can expect for an unusually speedy garden snail — and one you probably won't be seeing at the end of Turbo.