Kicking Up the Dust at the International Camel Races

camels and ostrichesThe camels rested on their haunches. In the pen behind them, half a dozen ostriches poked their heads up and down, up and down as they peeked over the fence. Dust hovered inches above the ground as participants gathered around, eager to hear the instructions on how the day was going to run: First a set of camels, then ostriches, then more camels, some chickens for the kids, zebras, a few more ostriches … and so on for several hours under the warm sun in Virginia City, Nevada.

It may seem like an unlikely place to hold camel races of all things, but Virginia City has played host to the event for 51 years. Camels were originally banned in Nevada because they scared horses. In 1959, Bob Richards, editor of The Territorial Enterprise, wrote a spoof article about the camel races, a completely made-up event that painted a goofy picture of these creatures running toward a finish line. He published the results of the fictional camel race, and though locals knew it was all in fun, it was picked up and run on a nationwide scale. The following year, the non-existent races became a reality when camels leased from the San Francisco Zoo were raced down C Street.

Camels racingThe International Camel Races is now an annual event. It is held every September in Virgina City, with additional races being held in Alice Springs, Australia. Every year, thousands of spectators crowd into the stands, eager to watch camels and ostriches zip around an arena track with riders on their backs. These animals aren’t used to being ridden, and the riders do not know the animals. Hilarity and injuries ensue.

The races fill the better part of a couple days. Camel and ostrich races are interspersed with emu races, off-color jokes and entertainment for the kids. Cowboy boots and jeans are the typical attire, and it’s worth noting that this is a fairly conservative crowd. I had to walk away just to escape some of the comments floating around the bleachers.

I love the fact that quirky places have quirky traditions, and the International Camel Races in Virginia City are no exception. They’re fun, cheeky and just a bit bizarre, but doesn’t it just make for a good story when you can say you saw a collarbone broken by an ostrich?

20 Responses to “Kicking Up the Dust at the International Camel Races”

  1. Sophie

    Camel races in Nevada!!! Do the riders wear cowboy hats?

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      Some of them, though the rides are really erratic, so wearing a cowboy hat while riding actually isn’t a good idea. Many of the people in the stands wear cowboy hats, though, and many of the riders put them back on when they get off their camels and ostriches!

      Reply
  2. Alex

    So Nevada has Camel races, skiing, and gambling. Is there any other state (or even country) that can say the same thing?

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      I don’t think so. It’s a pretty cool state once you get past the stereotypes.

      Reply
  3. Abby

    REALLY? Where in Nevada is that?

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      Virginia City, near Reno. It’s actually a pretty funky little town in general, and this just adds to the quirkiness factor.

      Reply
    • JoAnna

      I’ve never seen anything like this before. It was so bizarre. A bit surreal to believe I actually saw it in person.

      Reply
  4. Nancy D. Brown

    Well, it looks like I need to add Virginia City, Nevada and the camel races to my “to do” list. Is 2012 in Nevada or Australia next year?

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      I believe they’re in Australia in 2012. If I understand correctly, they alternate year to year.

      Reply
  5. Ayngelina

    This looks like so much fun, sometimes the quirky things are great because you have no expectations.

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      I definitely didn’t know what to expect, which was exactly why I enjoyed it!

      Reply
  6. Jenna Vandenberg

    I love that this tradition got started by a fictional story. Life imitating art…

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      I know … why?? It’s so weird ~ camels in the desert.

      Reply
  7. Nomadic Samuel

    I love quirky stuff like this 🙂 I spent a lot of time riding camels in India. It’s not the most comfortable ride!

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      Rumor was we were going to have to race them, but luckily we didn’t. It looked pretty brutal.

      Reply
    • JoAnna

      Nevada is such a goofy state. 🙂

      Reply
  8. Turtle

    Wow – so cool! Very appropriate it’s in Nevada, though, seeing as you’re taking a gamble with your life every time you get on one!! 🙂
    How did you hear about this?

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      I learned about the International Camel Races because I was on a press trip with the Nevada Commission on Tourism, but it’s a big deal and people arrive for all over the place (especially the West Coast) to watch and participate in the races.

      Reply

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