It’s no joke – camel races are here
September 4, 2007
It all started – allegedly – as a newspaper hoax.
In 1959, Bob Richards, late editor of Western Nevada’s favorite rag, the Territorial Enterprise, issued a challenge for all newspapers in the region to participate in his paper’s camel races – slated for the weekend after Labor Day on Virginia City’s main street.
The Enterprise, erstwhile home of the most famous of all tall-telling newspapermen, Mark Twain, was called on its bluff by The San Francisco Chronicle when a small team of staff, supporters – and a camel – ambled into town.
The races were a go, with The Chronicle taking top honors that year.
Acclaimed auteur John Huston, perhaps the race’s most renowned jockey then and since, won the inaugural camel race.
Now, 48 years later, though The Enterprise is defunct and The Chronicle has long-since relinquished the title – or even the notion to defend it – the camel races live on thanks to a small but dedicated faction of locals.
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“1976, that was the first year I lived here. I stuck my nose probably where I shouldn’t have stuck it,” laughed Virginia City resident Linda Del Carlo, organizer of this year’s event. “I’m telling you, I’m crazy to do this.”
Del Carlo, preparing for the weekend festivities, was busy Tuesday helping Stagecoach resident Diane Jackson and her husband, Greg, owners of the Nevada Camel Company, organize and “get those camels ready.”
Staying true to Del Carlo’s self-effacing mode, Diane Jackson, who described the camel business as “part-time, except for this time of year,” said the most common question she gets from curious on-lookers to the seasoned local is “Why?”
“Every year they ask,” she said.
Gary Jackson’s biography on http://www.nevadacamelco.com answers the “why” of it all with an unassuming quip, “A momentary lapse of intelligent thinking!”
Gary, who discovered his love for camel racing in Virginia City in 1984, said he thought the idea “sounded like fun.” Fast-forward three years and he was a member of the delegation representing Nevada at the Alice Springs Lion’s Club Camel Races in Australia; soon after his camel business was born, along with its motto: “Friendliest camels in the world, no spit!”
But it’s not all self-deprecation and double-entendre for the organizers of the camel races, “it’s a lot of work, we love it but it’s a lot of work,” Del Carlo said.
“It makes people happy,” she continued. “We’re headed toward our 50th year. For a little town like Virginia City to keep an event going, that’s something. In tough times and good times, the community comes together to put this event on; it’s a lot of people working together to get it done.”
The idea that started out just one camel shy of living only as one of the historic town’s loopy sidebars, now features VIP tents, contestants and spectators from around the globe, and, of course – continued wonderment over how Virginia City makes the camel races tick, or is it the other way around?
“During the races your bars do good, your restaurants do good and your gift shops do good here,” Del Carlo said. “It’s people from far away – it’s a lot of local people too.
“We take our camels seriously – well, kinda.”