When Kevin Keating, the public relations man for Le Trianon restaurant in San Francisco, decided to hold the first International Snail Derby in 1958, he had no idea of the perilous trail he had so naively set out to blaze. Putting together a football bowl game is simple compared to setting up a snail race. For a bowl game you get two teams, print some tickets and hire a stadium. Keating had to round up competitors for his snail derby, decide how they should compete and then persuade them to participate.
The owners of Le Trianon: Paul Dufour, the chef; James Coulot, the master of the cellar and bar; and Jean Lapuyade, the master of the restaurant—all more or less fresh from France—were delighted with the idea of a snail race. Keating sent out many press releases announcing the event. Then he was struck by a succession of sobering thoughts: He had not seen a live snail for 20 years; he did not know where to get snails; he had no idea what motivates a snail.
As race day approached, Keating engaged himself in research. All the while he kept assuring the boys at Le Trianon that everything was proceeding smoothly. The library had remarkably little information on snails. The encyclopedia said that snails are gastropods of the phylum Mollusca, which includes limpets, periwinkles, the common whelk and slugs. Keating spoke to scholars at the California Academy of Sciences. He learned that many snails are nocturnal and most are right-handed—that is, their shells spiral to the right. Keating found it impossible to purchase snails and was reduced to pursuing them at night in Golden Gate Park.
The snails turned out to be bashful beasts. For several days Keating could not entice them from their shells. He first shook them gently and then harder. He tickled them with a small paint brush. He offered them lettuce, grass, ranunculus leaves and mint. It was a week before he discovered that a bit of water dropped in the orifice of the shell impelled the creatures to emerge. Once out, they refused to move more than a few inches. Then they showed withdrawal symptoms and slurped back into their shells.
It was a frustrating time for Keating. His business is communication and he could not get through to the snails. "You can't say, 'Go!' to a snail," he complained. "Or, 'Whoa!' " But he gradually made progress. He found the snails would "run" on a wet track; if he dribbled water in front of them, they would follow the moist path fairly well.
Keating commissioned Andr� Laherrere, an artist, to create a suitable track. It was two feet long with racing lanes of balsa wood on a green ground. The snails, however, refused to stay in their lanes. They poked their antennae in and out gingerly and glided in slow circles. Some of them oozed on the bias, crossing from lane to lane.
This problem was solved when Laherrere saw some tiny plastic sulkies in a 5� and 10� store. He redesigned the race course: with the wheels of the sulkies running in grooves, the snails, attached to the carts by adhesive tape, were kept on a straight course.
That first snail race was a resounding success. Rival press agents cursed Keating and wished they had thought of snail racing. Le Trianon was mentioned favorably in newspapers, on the radio and TV.
The next year's race was equally successful, and Keating thought his labors were over. But, a few days before the 1960 race, Paul Dufour, the chef, threw a bomb. "I will not stand for another race in which the common California garden snail is entered," he said. "We must have the genuine escargot de Bourgogne"
"It is a small matter," said Keating.