by NICHOLAS STACK
Camels, zebras, and ostriches created an unusual sight in Virginia City this weekend during the 54th annual Virginia City International Camel Races. The event has garnered a great deal of popularity over the past few years, but few actually know how the races originated.
Deny Dotson, director of tourism and community services in Virginia City, shares the local legend that explains how the unique event began.
“It all started with a spoof back in 1959 [when] a local paper wrote an article that there were racing camels,” Dotson said. “It was just a fabrication, but a team in San Francisco showed up and brought the camels and we’ve been racing them ever since.”
Dotson says that the man who started it all was Bob Richards. The legend goes: Back in 1959, Richards – then-editor of the Nevada-based newspaper the Territorial Enterprise – announced that a camel race would be held in Virginia City, challenging other local papers to race their camels in the event.
Because the Enterprise had a strong reputation for running fictitious articles and telling entertaining tales – dating back to when Mark Twain was a contributing writer – none took the challenge seriously. However, word of the faux competition reached the Bay Area and the San Francisco Chronicle decided to expose the Richards’ hoax. So the Chronicle came to Virginia City with camels in tow, and soon other contestants began arriving – and the rest is history.
Thanks to one large fib, Virginia City has itself one of the quirkiest events in the state during one of the last weekends of summer. Fifty-four years later the camels are still racing and bringing a beloved dynamic to all those in attendance. During intermissions, attendees are even allowed to ride the camels. Dotson says he most enjoys seeing children light up when they get to interact and mount the mammals.
“My favorite part is when the kids first get to see a camel that is 7-foot tall, and the expression on their face,” Dotson said. “It’s pretty neat to see.”