19 August 2013

On The Cutting Edge

I always thought lawn mowers were tools for cutting the grass then I drove one in anger


As temperatures rise and home owners around the country prepare their lawn mowers for another summer of tedious clipping and mulching, I’ve found new perspective. Until recently, I considered my yard simply a patch of grass perpetually in need of a trim. Now I imagine it as a track to be conquered, a race to be won, a course filled with tight turns and full-throttle straights better suited for Jimmie Johnson than John Deere. Unless, of course, my wife is watching.

Like most of the rank-and-file inhabitants of Mowtown, cutting the grass has always been high on my “to-do” list. It just never earned a place on my “want to-do” list. Everything changed when I met a group of motorsports enthusiasts more in tune with their need for speed than their need to seed.

Offered an opportunity to try the quirky sport of lawn mower racing, I shook off my preconceptions, strapped on a helmet, said my prayers and enjoyed an exhilarating ride aboard a contradiction on wheels. It seems these modified “lawn mowers” cut quite a path on the track but can’t be counted on to cut a single blade of grass. That’s because — to answer a frequently asked question — the blades and mowing decks are removed before they ever hit the track.

The Roots of the Sport
Negatively tainted by years of boring lawn mowing, I couldn’t help but wonder what could possibly motivate someone over the age of 10 to jump on an old grass cutter just for fun. But every journey begins with the first step, so I turned to the Internet. As is often the case, credit (blame?) for this racing phenomenon is up for debate. It appears that the sport’s oldest governing body, the British Lawn Mower Racing Association (BLMRA), has been hosting sanctioned events since 1973. On the other hand, the good folks of Twelve Mile, Indiana, held their first lawn mower race 10 years earlier, and they’ve been hosting the Twelve Mile 500 every Independence Day since.

No matter who came up with the idea to turn mowers into racing machines, the lure of the sport is rarely debated among enthusiasts. For most, it’s the perfect combination of speed and affordability.

“Folks love to race, but they also have a limited budget,” says Aaron Crowl, president of the American Racing Mower Association (ARMA), one of two prominent national sanctioning bodies. “This is the most economical form of motorsports. Heck, for $300, you could be the class of your field.”

Bruce Kaufman, president of the U.S. Lawn Mower Racing Association, wholeheartedly agrees. “It’s the most affordable thing going. Half the fun is finding an old mower out behind the barn and building one of these machines yourself. It’s awesome. From juniors to stock to major modified, there’s a place for every person and every budget.”

Most racers start at the local level, and for me it was the Northwestern Michigan Fair, held each August near Traverse City, Michigan. After church one Sunday, I overheard a couple of teenagers talking about an upcoming race, so I asked how I could get involved. As it turned out, it only took a phone call, and I quickly learned that no one participates in this sport for fame or fortune, just fun and friendly competition — and an occasional lawn gnome or equally desirable prize.

“We never race for money, and I don’t think it’ll ever be more than that,” says local race organizer Wayne Strang. “Money changes things. You commercialize it and you lose a lot of the people — the kind of people who started it in the first place. This sport is like a family; everybody helps each other out. Winning is a bonus.”

Chris Town can vouch for the family atmosphere. In addition to Strang, who is his brother-in-law, Town also has two brothers and a nephew involved in the sport. But the camaraderie on pit lane crosses blood lines. “That’s what’s great about this,” Town says. “We were scrambling for a part and somebody helped us out, and we’d do the same for somebody else. That’s the way it is out here.”

Seat Time
I arrived at the fairgrounds, as suggested, wearing boots, long pants and sleeves, and I also brought along a borrowed helmet, eye protection and gloves. What I couldn’t pack was experience. I had never raced anything with a motor, so I took advantage of some helpful tips from 17-year-old Daniel Amrhein, who’s been racing for three years, and listened intently as Town offered the basic information I’d need to operate the machine. After he pointed out the automatic shut-off switch and I pondered its necessity, I asked, “Are there a lot of crashes?” Town answered, “Sometimes, but you’ll be fine. It’s just a safety thing.” I swear he also said, “This guy is toast” under his breath, but I couldn’t be certain.

Town’s final piece of advice was specific to the orange and green Craftsman he let me borrow. “This thing can be a little touchy. Don’t push the clutch in all the way or you’ll pop the belt.” No problem, I thought, and with a confident thumbs-up I put the mower in gear and drove a hair-raising 10 feet before popping the belt. I guess it wouldn’t have been so bad if A) Every person there hadn’t already stopped to watch how the rookie would do, and B) Town and his crew didn’t have to make me climb off so they could turn the mower on its side to fix it. Once I’d finally figured out what I was doing, it was time to get comfortable. I’d been told that factory stock mowers normally top out at 7–8 mph, but by simply changing pulleys, tightening belts and experimenting with tire sizes, these racing machines reach speeds of 30–40 mph. The increase in speed was obvious. As Amrhein had suggested, out on the oval track I leaned hard into the corners, but after starting with both hands on the steering wheel, I realized it was more effective — and a lot more fun — to drive with my right hand, grab the back fender with my left, slide my rear end half off the seat and hang as far to the inside of the track as possible, kind of like a monkey dangling from a tree branch. But since the track is watered down prior to each race, and water plus dirt equals mud, the farther I leaned, the more mud flew into my face. Problem? Hardly. For a wannabe who had only dreamed of getting dirty on a race track, it felt like manna from heaven.

Though I stuck to pre-race practices, my confidence rose and I decided to kick it up a notch. Of course, at that very moment reality slapped me across the face and I popped the belt again.

My embarrassment and disappointment were quickly erased by the kind gesture of Town’s brother Greg, who pulled up and gave me his mower to ride. And just like that, my grass-kicking introduction to lawn mower racing continued, almost to my detriment. After an over-confident, heart-pounding near-miss in turn four, I called it a night. But not before Chris Town offered a two-word attaboy: “Nice save.”

“We usually see some pretty good crashes out there,” Town said with a laugh. “So to jump on one of these without a clue of what you’re doing, hats off to you. That was pretty good.” I wasn’t sure if he was complimenting my ability or my ignorance, but I’ll take it.

As sod is my witness, I’ll never look at cutting the grass the same way again. Now where did I put that helmet?

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