Normally, when an individual buys a lawn mower the motivation is strictly utilitarian. But for the small and growing group of motor sports enthusiasts that make up the U.S. Lawn Mower Racing Association (USLMRA), how well a lawn mower cuts grass is irrelevant. Using aliases such as Sodzilla, Lawn Ranger, Yankee Clipper and Mr. Mow It All, these men and women are gathering at festivals, fairs and tracks around the country to race their mowers, sometimes achieving speeds that would warrant a ticket on the Interstate. Giving new meaning to the term “grassroots sport,” the following is an inside look at the weed-like growth of lawn mower racing.
On a picture-perfect Saturday in July upwards of 50 racers descended on the Greene County Fair in Catskill, New York, to participate in the STA-BIL Hudson Valley Regional—one of 15 officially sanctioned USLMRA events being held this year. Most of the competitors arrived in pickup trucks, towing shiny mowers on flatbeds or in trailers. As race time approached, drivers and mechanics tinkered with their machines, making final adjustments before venturing out on the grass track.
According to Kendall Stanley, local race director of the Catskill event, the participants typically gravitate towards lawn mower racing because it's a lot less expensive than team motor sports. “Everybody would love to be driving the #24 in NASCAR [Jeff Gordon] but this is something that literally everybody can do. You can take the machine that you mowed with yesterday and go race it,” he says.
In order to make the sport accessible the USLMRA conducts races in six different classes, allowing everything from garden-variety mowers to experimental hot-rods that cover ground like a speeding car. The association's overriding requirement is that the mower must originally have been designed and sold commercially to mow residential lawns. “No matter what you do to the machine you should be able to look at it and recognize it as a lawn mower,” says Stanley.
All Blades Are Off
Not surprisingly, safety is of paramount concern and both man and machine must meet stringent USLMRA safety requirements. For starters, all cutting blades must be removed and each tractor must be equipped with a kill switch that turns off the ignition if the driver leaves his mount. Meanwhile, each competitor must wear an automobile racing or motorcyle helmet, goggles, neck support, long sleeve shirt and pants, full-fingered gloves and over-the-ankle footwear.
Although lawn mower racing might sound tame to the uninitiated the protective gear is a necessity. “People have left to go to the hospital,” says Charles Powell (a.k.a. Mr. Mowjangles), chief steward of the Hudson Valley race and proud owner of three dedicated racing mowers. “The most serious injury I've seen is a broken collarbone,” he says, before admitting to once having suffered that particular injury himself.
Ladies And Gentlemen, Start Your Mowers!
Just prior to the first scheduled heat all racers were called to the track by the emcee: “Ladies and gentlemen, start your mowers!” he announced, the roar of forty-some odd lawn mower engines drowning out the arena rock anthem playing over the P.A. system. Spectators sized up the field during the parade lap as machines of all sizes and colors—most emblazoned with sponsors' names and motto's like “Drive it like you stole it”—circled the track.
The first trials of the day featured the stock and IMOW (International Mower of Weeds) classes, entry-level races where top speeds reach 10 and 20 mph, respectively. For newcomers the attraction of stock and IMOW is the chance to race without investing time and money into your ride. “We have people here who got up this morning, took the blade off, loaded up the mower, came out to race and will be home in time to mow the lawn,” says Mr. Mowjangles.
The slower-paced races also help newcomers get accustomed to the LeMans style starts in which competitors line up their mowers along the left side of the track, but stand opposite their mower on the right side at the start. “When the green flag is waved racers have to physically run across the track, jump on their tractor, engage the disconnect, start the machine and then race. It can be a big factor in the outcome,” says Stanley.
However, most veterans race in the “prepared” classes, where engines and mowers can be modified within pre-set boundaries. In the A/P, S/P, B/P and F/X (Factory Experimental) classes drivers routinely run at 30 - 60 mph and have been known to go much faster. In order to achieve these speeds, machines require considerable modification and a significant financial investment. “There's probably $1,500 in the mower I had out here today,” says Tom Lavalette, who hails from Columbia, Pennsylvania.
According to Cheryl Powell (wife of Mr. Mowjangles) her husband's hobby led them to purchase a new pickup truck, a trailer, and six acres of land with a barn. “The barn—he calls it the Taj Mowhal—has been converted into his shop, and he built a practice track in back of the barn. We've got one son almost through college and could probably put another one through college with the money he's spent,” she says.
The Fast Track
As you might guess, accidents are much more common in the faster races. At Hudson Valley, racers went airborne on several occasions and in one B/P class heat a rider even rode up on the back of another tractor. For safety's sake, the kidney shaped track was encircled with hay bales and flexible orange fencing—the kind you might recognize from the boundaries of ski trails—protection for rider and spectator alike. “We've done this enough that we know the likely spots for someone to come off the track. That's called a hay bath. In lawn mower racing a roll in the hay is not a good thing,” advises Mr. Mowjangles.
As a rule, the factory experimental mowers achieve the highest speeds. “Except for the general look there is very little on an F/X machine that is a lawn mower. The engines can be greatly enhanced and changed as well as the transmission and the connection between the two,” notes Stanley. But it turns out the competitors don't necessarily crave speed. “It's fun to say, 'I went 60 mph on a lawn mower,’ but it's more fun to ride on a small track where the speeds are down and the racing is closer,” claims Lavalette.
Nevertheless, no one doubts Lavalette when he says, “On the open road my mower could probably go 80 mph.” Earlier this year, a competitor took his pride and joy out for a spin at Bristol Motor Speedway in Bristol, Tennessee, and was clocked at 82 mph. However, some believe that driving 80-plus mph on a banked oval is downright crazy. “You do not want to go into a concrete wall at 80 mph,” emphasizes Lavalette. Meanwhile, Mr. Mowjangles can't understand why racers would want to go so fast, especially since there is no prize money at stake in USLMRA races. “I've made that trip to the hospital myself and it ain't worth it,” he says.
Mow Money, Mow Problems?
Meanwhile, the USLMRA is hoping to attract national sponsors, the kind who might make cash prizes a reality. “Historically, it [lawn mower racing] has been almost laughable, but now there's some serious competition. We're in a phase right now where we're still feeling things out, but I think it's just a matter of time—probably three to five years—where teams can start to get enough national sponsors where they can start doing this full time,” says Stanley.
To date, the only racer with significant national sponsorship is Bobby Cleveland, a lawn mower design engineer from Georgia who is arguably the most dominant driver on tour. “Bobby Cleveland is everybody's poster child for lawn mower racing,” says Stanley. “He's one of the first that got national sponsors and the first one to say, 'This is how the sport needs to go.’”
Although Stanley is optimistic about the sport's long-term growth prospects, a significant hurdle remains before the sponsorship floodgates are likely to open. While companies that make fuel additives and lubricants haven't hesitated to provide support, no racer has secured the endorsement of a lawn mower manufacturer. This condition may be attributed to the stance taken by the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute (OPEI), an organization that represents the interests of a wide range of manufacturers and has repeatedly come out against the practice of lawn mower racing. A statement on opei.com reads: “The OPEI Board of Directors, on behalf of its membership, does not support the concept of lawnmower racing and opposes the sponsorship of all types of such events.”
But Stanley believes manufacturers would love to become part of the circuit. “Some of the executives and even down into the rank and file at places like Toro, Snapper and John Deere are chomping at the bit. They would love to build a name for their tractor on a racing series. The problem is that all the lawyers are telling them, 'The first time somebody gets killed, you're in a boatload of trouble,'” he says.
Although the USLMRA is relatively new (it was founded on April Fools Day in 1992) the sport is already three decades old, conceived in the early 1970s by a group of enthusiastic beer drinkers at a pub in England. While the English racing circuit has a rich history—and even features a 12-hour endurance race—the American tour can boast national television coverage, as the USLMRA Nationals (held at the end of August in Mansfield, Ohio) are now broadcast on ESPN2. If interest and media exposure continues to increase the USLMRA will face the challenge of growing the sport while remaining true to its grassroots nature.
“It would be great if some really big sponsors got involved because it would increase the number of fans, spectators and drivers and just elevate the whole thing as a sport,” notes Stanley. “But if it gets to the point where someone in a local town can't go and spend $50 to get their machine and entry fee then we've made a mistake. I think there's a way we can develop it into a real sport and have several classes where there's lots of different sections you can race in but still offer something for the high end.”
However, no one can understand why so many lawn mower racers eschew cutting their own lawns, leaving the chore to a landscaping service or even a spouse. According to Lavalette he only tends to his yard when his wife presses the issue, saying, “Do you think we can get the lawn cut?” It's also a source of friction in the Powell household: “I don't even like to cut grass with a riding mower. I think of these as racers,” reports Mr. Mowjangles. Despite being allergic to grass, Cheryl admits she often takes matters into her own hands. “I cut the grass on the riding mower,” she says. “It goes too slow for him.”