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Annual Berlin Bathtub Races return Friday

(July 16, 2015) Eighty-four-year-old Jesse Turner knows a thing or two about racing bathtubs.
The owner of The Shoebox on Main Street in downtown Berlin first realized he possessed this unusual skill more than two decades ago, when he first took part in the sport.
Turner had just become chairman of the Berlin Chamber of Commerce, having taken over for Jim Barrett.
“Jim started the races and our first year was 1994,” he said. “It was a big deal back then and there were other areas that wanted to jump in. One place was racing hospital beds.”
While many of today’s racing vehicles hardly resemble actual bathtubs – case in point, last year Burley Oak Brewing Co. simply put wheels on a beer barrel – Turner’s original vehicle was just as advertised.
“Mine started off with a go-kart frame and I had an original bathtub,” he said. “As the years passed, we go into bigger wheels, using a four-wheel bicycle, but it was always the same tub. The only improvement we ever made was bigger wheels.”
The rules of the 26-year-old races call for at least two participants during each heat: one driving the vehicle, and another pushing it.
For Turner that usually meant family friends Turon Davis and Tony Purdue. One year, however, Purdue couldn’t make it because of work.
“We had guy from Pennsylvania just standing on the [starting] line. He said, ‘Do you need somebody to sit in that thing?’ I said, ‘Yeah’ and he hopped in and steered and we won the race,” Turner said.
While the races have changed every year, Turner said, with new participants emerging and old ones cycling in and out, he marveled at how some of the “bathtubs” have evolved.   
“Mine was the only one like this,” he said. “People would say, ‘How come you don’t go to three wheels?’ I said, ‘No, I’m going to stay original.’ “The year before last we had a new guy – he had a canoe. All they say is it has to be able to carry water.”
Turner retired from the races three years ago after winning a record five times, including four in a row during one particularly auspicious stretch.
The secret to winning, he said, is having a fast pusher. Long legs are not necessarily an asset.
“If you got a tall guy pushing on it, you need to be standing back,” he said. “Otherwise, his knees are going to be bumping the wheels.”
Turner also advised finding a driver who weighs less than 100 pounds and isn’t easily distracted.
“All you’ve got to do is steer it,” Turner said. “Don’t be looking around, just keep doing it. If you look around you might move this way or that. You’ve got to keep rolling.
“It helped that my racer was awful light,” Turner continued. “You just push it a little bit and she’ll get running down the road. The only thing about that is you’ve got to have good brakes and make sure the guy who’s pushing it, when you get to the finish line, hangs onto you. Otherwise your tub will keep right on going.”
Turner said he still watches the races “most years.” And although he’s in retirement, he didn’t rule out racing.  
“It was a fun time,” he said. “Someone from the town or the chamber approached me about displaying [the racer], and I told them right now I’ve got it in my garage up on a shelf, flat tires and everything.
“Next year though, I might bring it out, and there’s a chance I might find a good pusher and a good runner. I might try again,” Turner said.
The 26th annual Berlin Bathtub Races, sponsored by the Berlin Chamber of Commerce, run from 6-8 p.m. Friday, July 17, in downtown Berlin.