Lincoln Park bar continues quirky turtle races under new ownership

Turtle race attendees cheer for their favorite turtles.
New and returning spectators alike gather to cheer on their favorite turtles in the first race of the night.

By Selah Holland
Medill Reports

It’s a Friday night at the Tin Lizzie bar, where you can find DePaul and Northwestern University students, Lincoln Park residents, and Chicago visitors crowding through the front entrance, ready for a night of music and drinks.

From the outside, the scene is just like that of any other bar on the 2000 block of North Clark Street. Walk in and chuckles and conversation fill the air. The lighting is low enough to barely make out the bar menu.  But a rather strange, large, round wooden table painted with a black and white checkered strip stands solidly under a single spotlight in the center of the room. So it turns out, these partygoers are not here only for mere human socialization.

For more than 20 years, this Detroit-themed sports bar has made racing the real attraction – racing turtles. Today, this remains a cherished tradition in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago.

Michigan native Rob Dalton bought the Tin Lizzie just last month.  Already owning Four Shadows, an Iowa-themed sports bar less than two miles away, he acquired this treasured Lincoln Park bar with plenty of prior experience. One thing he’s learned, Dalton said, is to honor business tradition, especially if it works. This means the turtle races are here to stay.

“I love traditions in bars. It’s a unique tradition. Nobody else is doing it. People have tried, but this is the original, the one that keeps going. We get people from all around that come to Chicago and know about the turtle races, and it’s nice.”

Front entrance of the Tin Lizzie bar
The Tin Lizzie opened in 1998 and has become a popular spot locals and for Michigan State University and Detroit sports fans. (Selah Holland/MEDILL)

The Tin Lizzie attracts first-time visitors from all over. But Thomas O’Connell, who lives just across the street, has gone to the turtle races every week for two years.

It all started when O’Connell moved to Chicago from his home state of Florida. After a day of settling into his new apartment, he wanted to explore the neighborhood. Tin Lizzie was the first bar he walked into.

“I think it’s the best and most unique event that goes on in Lincoln Park. I’ve never heard of any other place that brings a turtle race. It definitely brings everyone from our neighborhood together,” said 23-year-old Office Depot manager.

Soon enough, he brought his girlfriend Hannalori Brown to see what all the excitement was about. The two developed friendships with the staff – so much so that the bartenders even open Brown’s favorite drink and play O’Connell’s favorite music –– country –– as soon as they walk through the door on Friday nights.

“The bar staff makes it what it is. Anytime we go in there it’s refreshing to see people that know us and it’s almost like a family there,” Brown said.

The turtles –– currently Raphael, Leonardo, Donatello, and Michaelangelo –– aptly named after the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles –– have been racing at Tin Lizzie for 16 years. Like Dalton, O’Connell values tradition. Leonardo has been his favorite since his first race.

Dalton said the only potential change he has in store is to add more turtle races. As far as he’s concerned, tradition should be left as is.

“I like things the way they are. The turtle races will always be here at Tin Lizzie. It’s the way it’s been, and the way it will always be.”

Photo at top: New and returning spectators alike gather to cheer on their favorite turtles in the first race of the night. (Selah Holland/MEDILL)