Shell games worth a crack

People in silly positions screaming things they normally wouldn't -- this is not new to you. You're pretty worldly. But usually the position isn't in public, and no matter how low you've sunk, you don't involve live hermit crabs in your fun.

But then, you probably don't make it to Daytona that often, either. Most Orlandoans don't, except on a dare. The strip of priceless Roadside America motels on the beach faded into the background long ago. Now it's a town we associate with the smell of stale beer, vomit and sweaty leather, a place where you have to watch the skies for plummeting spring breakers.

That edginess, though, is also Daytona's cachet. Where else can you watch the sky for falling spring breakers? Or see a grandpa-type in a T-shirt that says, "50,000 Battered Woman and All This Time I've Been Eating Them Plain"? And now Daytona has got a most original bar sport: It's free, it delivers the thrill of a race, and it involves watching a group of adults screeching at shellfish. Hermit Crab Racing has arrived.

And they're off

"You wouldn't think a guy traveling around with crabs would be much fun," says Jim Morgan of Orlando, the 56-year-head of the National Crab Racing Association (which is pretty much just Jim and his crabs), "but my life is interesting."

His first gimmick in the bar business was adult tricycle races, a phenomenon that he says "will never happen again," because it happened in the days before someone would file a lawsuit just "for stubbing your toe." But his impresario credentials were established. So when he saw locals racing hermit crabs on the beach during a trip to Jamaica in 1970, he thought it would be a fun bar sport. It would become the only job he would ever want or need again. "I can go anywhere . . . and be working in a couple of days," he says, and he has, popularizing the sport in bars and more family-oriented settings from Ohio to New England and back to Florida. Animal-rights activists have complained, but "I just tell them, ‘My crabs probably live better than you do.'"

Like the horses, Morgan runs only champs. He buys his from the Florida Marine Research Institute in Sarasota, their "training camp." What makes them thoroughbreds?

"Nautilus training," he says.

He's got a million of 'em.

Come race time, the crustaceans clamoring over each other are bigger than the ocean roaches we used to keep as pets; their shells are more exotic and larger than ours could afford. Everyone gets to pick a crab. For once, I opt for style over mass, select a small one in a beautiful shade of opalescent blue and name it Itchy. It's then shoved under the bowl with the rest of the crabs on the circular table we're sitting around. At the start of the race that bowl is lifted, allowing them to crawl to the finish line, a yellow circle of tape near the table's rim.

"I've lied and you've lied about what an inch is," Morgan says, explaining to the haunted old drunks, handsome, rosy-cheeked boys from Emory-Riddle Aeronautical University and others at the Ruby Tuesday's across from the speedway that a crab has to get an inch outside the circle to win. It doesn't cost anything to play and you could win "up to" $100," he says. Remember this. If you aren't present for the final race, he says, "I'll scratch your crab."

To the Olympic anthem and their own reggae theme song, "they're off and hauling shell." Normal people start hollering at seafood to get its ass moving, one screaming, "GO STD!" Morgan spritzes the crabs with water to make them move, but also will spritz you if you point or commit other gaming infractions.

Finish lines

At the end of the fourth race, I'm wet and fairly sure Itchy is dead. By the eighth race, he's at least gotten up, but looks as though he's introducing himself to the others instead of sprinting like a purse snatcher. By the 10th race, he has come claw-n-claw for the finish. But Itchy peters out, as do many others, and people are bitching at their "stupid crabs," like they should have had a strategy. It's great.

The 15 presumably smartest, best-trained crabs run their final race, a winning backer is crowned -- and she thinks she's going to get a hundred smackers. But Morgan had said the winner would get to pick from among 10 envelopes, only one of which contained the $100, and between his barker banter and folks going just plain crazy over crab competition, that one-in-10 chance has been forgotten. And the winner is more than a little peeved that in this barroom "Let's Make a Deal" she ends up with the equivalent of a year's supply of Turtle Wax: a $10 envelope. Well, luck of the draw, Morgan essentially says, and besides, what do you want for nothing? It's 10 bucks more than she came in with. He's got her on a technicality, and all the crab-assin' in the world isn't going to help.

Because it requires zero skill and gives strangers something to talk about, hermit-crab racing makes a fine bar sport with a Florida feel, and you can call Morgan at (407) 251-2772 to find where he's running his next race. But next time I'll take a Woody Allen suggestion and put a lemon and some butter behind my crab. Maybe it will run faster.

Scroll to read more Arts Stories + Interviews articles
Join the Orlando Weekly Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.


Join Orlando Weekly Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.