Archive for Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Cutting edge of lawnmower races

August 11, 2004

Those who attended the McLouth Threshing Bee Saturday night viewed the ultimate in American grassroots recreation -- riding lawnmower races.

Spectators filled the bleachers and grassy hillside on the west side of the threshing bee grounds to get a view of the upcoming races

By the time the races started, the steam engines that powered saws and threshing equipment had puffed their last gasps for the day. The early evening breeze carried the strum of bluegrass music from the outdoor dining hall. And with a buzz, the threshing bee's plane took off from the grass runway to the west, likely carrying a passenger who plunked down his dollars for a bird's eye view.

Just behind the bleachers, threshing bee goers had their choice of concessions. With everything from smoked turkey legs to funnel cakes to frosty glasses of lemonade, there was no excuse to watch the races on an empty stomach.

The first heat began. Hotrod style riding lawnmowers, looking something like a combination of go cart and streetrod, took to the track in a cloud of dust. This group, known as the "Kansas Outlaws," hailed from Kinsley, where the club members are proud associates of the official United States Lawn Mower Racing Association.

No kidding. The USLMRA has a Web site with enough pages of rules that you're apt to freeze up your computer if you copy and paste them into a Word document.

And, be-cause the Outlaws are members of the association, for insurance purposes, they're only allowed to race against other USLMRA drivers. Thus, on Saturday night -- because this was the only USLMRA team -- the Outlaws competed against themselves.

And of course there were other groups racing as well. There were the more traditional-looking lawn mowers, in two classes -- with or without the mower decks attached.

These seemed more like my kind of mower -- a little more sedate, not so risky. But perhaps appearances are deceiving, because all the mowers, whether they looked like hotrods or not, seemed to be moving pretty fast. And the drivers all seemed to be intent on one thing -- winning.

Since Kansas Speedway opened I've been privileged to cover various car and truck races. The similarities to the lawn mower races were striking, I learned Saturday night.

For instance, there are the flags. When the yellow caution flag is up the lawnmowers slow. When the drivers start the final lap, the white flag is waved. And of course there's the black and white checkered flag for the winner.

And, as in car racing, there are strict rules regarding safety, fuels and vehicle construction.

But there are differences.

At the speedway, when the vehicles hit the track's barriers, it's called "kissing the wall." Well at McLouth, where bales of hay mark the track's boundaries, it's called "kissing the bales."

And, while the winning drivers at Kansas Speedway go for a wild victory burnout, the lawnmower racers take a more modest denouement, merely chugging their mowers off the track, carefully avoiding the bales of hay.

And, at the lawnmower races, different races require different starts. For instance, there's the "LeMans-style start."

In this race, the drivers parked their lawn mowers on the inside of the track, and stood at the outer edge of the track. Then at the start of the race, they ran across the track, threw their legs over their mowers (Roy Rogers and Trigger style), revved their engines and took off. Again -- as the crowd reveled in the entertainment between bites of funnel cakes and turkey legs -- the mowers stirred up a cloud of dust.

But nobody seemed to mind a bit.

Least of all the drivers.

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