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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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They do more than cut grass; they can mow the competition


Tim Klimpke, right, and Art Neaville, center, lean into a turn during their IMOW class race held during the U.S. Lawn Mower Racing Association's STA-BIL Central Illinois Regional competition last Saturday in Mendota, Ill. 
 (Associated Press photos / The Spokesman-Review)
Tim Klimpke, right, and Art Neaville, center, lean into a turn during their IMOW class race held during the U.S. Lawn Mower Racing Association's STA-BIL Central Illinois Regional competition last Saturday in Mendota, Ill. (Associated Press photos / The Spokesman-Review)
Nancy Armour Associated Press

OREGON, Ill. – That riding lawn mower may not look like much sitting in the back of the garage, crammed between bikes and shovels and rakes. Even when it’s out in the yard, puttering along, it seems more Forrest Gump than Mark Martin.

Strip off the cutting blades and give it room to run, though, and the tame gardening tool is transformed into a rumbling racer that can burn some serious sod. Capable of reaching speeds up to 90 mph, even NASCAR enthusiasts have to appreciate these “mowchines.”

“People think it’s just a lawn mower,” said Greg Honchell, whose mower of choice is a 1958 Springfield. “But it’s a true racing machine.”

Go ahead, snicker all you want. What started as a whim 13 years ago has grown so popular there are now more than 100 races a year all over the United States. The U.S. Lawn Mower Racing Association will have 14 points races this year, and local chapters run dozens more, including divisions for children 8-15.

The national championships are televised, and a video game is in the works. There’s no prize money, but some drivers have sponsors.

And that’s just in the United States. In England, where the sport began, they’ve been chewing up grass for more than 30 years.

“When I say I race lawn mowers, they look at you like, ‘You race lawn mowers? They only go 3 or 4 miles per hour,’ ” said Ken Jones, the USLMRA’s race commissioner.

“When you start telling them about them, it’s like, `I’ve got to come watch that,”’ Jones said. “To see the technology guys are taking from other racing forums and putting into mowers, it’s fascinating for people to see what they actually look like, how they sound and how fast they go.”

And they can go fast. Really fast.

Two of the USLMRA’s classes – IMOW and stock – are designed for the grassroots racer, with only slight modifications allowed to machines found in backyards across the country. The other divisions – BP, AP, SP and FX – are for drivers who crave speed.

Mowers in the BP category, for example, have engines with up to 20 horsepower, and their speeds typically reach 40-50 mph. FX (factory experimental) mowers would leave grass stains on those slowpokes in the right lane if they ever got on the open road.

“I’ve run 91 on a lawn mower,” said George Herrin, the USLMRA’s driver of the year last year. “(Another race) I averaged 70 miles per hour. That put me running about 89 on the straightaways.”

And that mower? Had to be some souped-up special that doesn’t resemble anything sold at the local hardware store, right? Nope. All mowers have to be originally designed to cut residential lawns and sold first through a dealer.

“I cut grass with that mower before I raced it. Six acres,” Herrin said. “It was a really good grass cutter. But I needed the chassis.”

That’s the kind of practicality that got this sport mowing in the first place.

Back in 1973, some racing fans were sitting in a British pub, complaining about the high cost of motor sports. Whether it was cars, go-karts or motorcycles, the average fan was being priced out of participating in the sport.

According to the British Lawn Mower Racing Association’s Web site, somebody in the group said, “Everybody has a lawn mower. Let’s race those.” And cutting the grass was never quite the same.

In 1992, Chicago-based Gold Eagle Co. was looking for a new way to market one of its products, STA-BIL Fuel Stabilizer, and heard about the English lawn mower racers. Thinking it might be a fun promotion, it announced the formation of the USLMRA on April Fool’s Day.

“It started off as a promotional gimmick,” said Jones, the USLMRA’s race commissioner, “and each year it’s kept growing.”

But, giggle factor aside, why?

For racing enthusiasts, it’s an affordable way to get their fix. While some will spend $5,000 to $10,000 a year on their mowers, others get by with as little as $500. Most people already own a mower, and getting it ready for the stock division can be as simple as removing the cutting blades and having an automatic turnoff switch.

Don’t have a mower? Take a leisurely drive in the country or more rural suburbs and scout out those roadside junk piles. There’s bound to be a mower or two buried in there.

The only other requirement is safety gear: helmet; goggles or a face mask; long-sleeve shirt or jacket; long pants; full-finger gloves; and leather footwear that covers the ankle. While some drivers at last Sunday’s Ogle County Fair Mowdown were decked out in racing suits and shoes, motocross chest protectors and color-coordinated helmets, others looked like they’d taken a wrong turn out of their yards in jeans, T-shirts and work boots.

“You really don’t have to spend any more than you want,” said Chris Macri, president of the Ohio Lawn Mower Racing Association. “It really depends on how fast and how good looking you want to be.”

As anyone who’s had to take a spin around the yard knows, lawn mower racing is for just about anybody who is interested. As long as you can step on the gas and steer, you can race.

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