tampabay.com

The shell game

Claws scuttle, competitors cheer and the Crab Man tending these bar brigades considers this a job well played.

By CATHERINE E. SHOICHET
Published September 12, 2006


INVERNESS - In a smoky Citrus County bar, dozens of cocktail-carrying customers crowd around a corner table. They stare intently at an upside-down salad bowl.Crawling beneath it are the hermit crabs they picked out — and named — a few minutes ago. Fanfare starts the frenzy. Then come the jock jams and the slightly slurred cheers. “Come on, Meat!” one spectator shouts, pumping his fists in the air.

And they’re off.

With the bowl-turned-starting-gate lifted, dozens of 10-legged critters scatter toward the finish line that circles the tabletop. The crabs sport bright, hand-painted shells imported from Venezuela. Some resemble cartoon characters, like Tweety Bird and Dora the Explorer.

As the crabs skitter and scurry, the crowd’s roar nearly drowns out the William Tell Overture booming in the background. And the Crab Man looms over it all, admiring his creation.

• • •

This is Jim Morgan’s world — a one-ring circus with one man running the show.

The appeal of crab racing is simple. It’s “not rocket science, it beats the hell out of bingo and it’s free,” he says.
Morgan was just about broke 27 years ago after trying to make a living organizing adult tricycle races.

When three wheels failed, he decided to try 10 legs.

That’s when Morgan created the National Crab Racing Association, named himself commissioner for life and started a new career.

Now the 65-year-old former bartender lives in Orlando and crisscrosses the state, from biker bars to nursing homes to corporate conventions, with about 100 hermit crabs in tow.

Crab racing started as a gimmick, Morgan says, but it’s much more than a cheap trick now.

Each 25-second race is the culmination of decades of tweaking and tinkering. Some of it is art. Some of it is science. Some of it is nonsense.

All of it is Morgan.

Some men need fancy cars or flashy clothes or foxy ladies to show off their success. Morgan’s satisfaction comes from a deeper source. The world he created, however quirky, is uniquely his. Marketing it makes him proud.

Defending it defines him.

Setting up on a recent race day in Inverness, Morgan eagerly fields questions from onlookers.

“Those are my little moneymakers over there,” he explains to one curious couple examining his tank full of crabs.

One man, pointing to the racetrack, says he remembers watching one of Morgan’s shows seven years ago.

“I recognized the junk,” he says.

Morgan fires back: “It’s a 27-year career sitting around this table. That’s a whole lot more than junk.”

• • •

It’s 2:20 on a Sunday afternoon and Jim Morgan is planting his plastic palm trees.

He screws them into sockets only inches away from the spot where he has perched a few ceramic parrots. Between them he hangs a 300-watt lamp.

And there is light. A bright, artificial light, beaming into the dim corner of this smoky bar on the outskirts of civilization.

Today’s venue is Sarge & Skip’s Place, an Inverness bar where Morgan has only recently started performing monthly. But the bar scene is familiar territory for Morgan. At 17, he poured his first shot. After that he bartended and owned bars in California, Ohio and Florida.

Morgan’s first foray into crab racing began as a way to drum up business for a bar he ran. He was inspired by a crab race had seen on a beach in Jamaica.

In the beginning, there were five parts to Morgan’s one-ring crustacean circus: a plain plywood table painted with a black finish line, 100 hermit crabs, a bullhorn, a tape deck to play racing tunes — and Morgan as the tuxedo-clad ringmaster.

Since then, Morgan has dressed down. He grew tired of wearing a bow tie. Now he’s decked out like a typical Florida retiree, wearing khaki shorts and a polo shirt, white socks and tennis shoes.

Everything else on the circuit is souped-up, Morgan-style.

Red letters burst from a yellow backdrop at the center of the bright green table:

N.C.R.A.

Est. 1979

Then there are the parrots, the palm trees, the handmade stained glass lamp.

But they aren’t always enough to grab people’s attention.

In the bar on this Sunday afternoon, potential racers are glued to television screens and chatting with friends. That’s why, in Morgan’s act, the soundtrack is just as important as the scenery. He plays oldies and beach tunes most of the time, to keep things fun and laid-back.

To start off today, he cranks up his minidisc player.

A catchy calypso tune booms through the speakers. It’s an original song a friend recorded for him 27 years ago, The Crab Race Anthem.

I got home pretty late last night
Well it was just my luck, there stood my wife
She said, where in this world have you been?
You’re not gonna believe it,
I was crab racin’ . . .

As he bops to the music, Morgan places a fish tank full of hermit crabs on the table. With one hand, he sprays them with water from a squirt bottle. With the other, he takes a swig of beer.

Post time.

• • •

One by one, customers line up — drinks in hand — trying to find a champion among the legions of the 10-legged critters.

Morgan calls them “thoroughbreds.” What makes them thoroughbreds? The fact that Morgan says they are.
Some people wince as they timidly pick up the crabs. Morgan warns them to hurry up. This isn’t like shopping at Wal-Mart, he says.

After they select their crabs and give them gender-neutral names (that’s Morgan’s advice, just in case), Morgan makes a list of contestants.

Then he turns on his microphone and lays down the law.

No pointing. No banging or leaning on the table. And no blowing on the crabs.

“I make the rules, and I enforce the rules,” he says. He brandishes his squirt bottle again — this time as a warning to the race’s human spectators.

With a sports announcer’s flare, Morgan reads off the names contestants have chosen for their crabs: Meat, Bubbles, Martini, Jeter (for New York Yankee  Derek).

He declares the race’s start (“They’re off and hauling shell,” he says) and names the winner, the first crab to cross the circular finish line at the 6-foot-wide table’s edge.

In this race, it’s a small crab named 99 — NASCAR driver Carl Edwards’ number.

Morgan runs 12 short races, with winners getting two-for-one drink tickets.

Crowds clap and clamor for a chance to win $100 — the possible grand prize if your crab wins the final race.

“It’s just a fascinating concept . . . and it has a real following,” says Jim Renyo, owner of Crickets  Spirits, Sports and Food in Melbourne, where Morgan hosts a race every Tuesday. “A bunch of people, once they’ve seen it, they keep coming back.”

But the race isn’t really about the money. Morgan’s mission is to make folks “hoot and holler and raise hell.”
That, he says, takes serious skill. You think all you need is a squirt gun and some crustaceans to show people a good time?

He spends hours every day putting together promotional packets. Recently he shelled out money to pay for a new Web site  (www.crabrace.com). And he’s devoting more and more time to cracking into the corporate and community college markets.

Morgan logged 100,000 miles on his Dodge Caravan last year driving between bars and corporate events around the state (The crabs sat in the back seat).

“I try to create fun,” he says. “People think it’s easy, but it’s not.”

• • •

There are worse ways to make a living.

Bars and other venues pay Morgan to perform. He says the pay — at least several hundred dollars per gig — is enough to cover the rent for his Orlando apartment and overhead expenses like gas and copying costs.

He’s single, so he has only the crabs’ needs to meet. And he doesn’t plan to get hitched any time soon.

“I’ve come close a couple of times,” he says. “But being in the bar business, it would have never worked. Too many temptations. Maybe when I’m 85.”

That’s about the time when Morgan figures he’ll be heading for the old folks home, where he hopes to host crab races to pay his room and board.

Until then, he’ll keep taking his show on the road. Traveling around the state on his own terms, doing something he dreamed up, answering to nobody and squirting anybody who breaks his rules. How many working people can say all that?

Of course, “It’s not all glory,” Morgan says.

Crabs can pinch. There is a downside to being associated with them. (“The early stages of my life I was known for my crabs,” Morgan says. “That’s not good for your social life.”) Bar owners don’t always listen to his race marketing advice.

And once an unhappy customer tried to have him charged with assault for a squirt bottle spritz.

Then again, he says, “Anything at all in life that’s fun is stupid to somebody. I just work on percentages.”

St. Petersburg Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan  contributed to this report. Catherine E. Shoichet can be reached at cshoichet@sptimes.com or (352) 860-7309.

The next National Crab Racing Association race in the Tampa Bay area is at 3:30 p.m. Sept. 24 at Sarge & Skip’s Place, 904 S U.S. 41, Inverness.

To see video of Jim Morgan and his racing hermit crabs, and to view more photos, go to links.tampabay.com.