Lawn mower racing is NASCAR for suburbanites

Staff writerJune 1, 2009 

— Pete Sullivan tends his one-acre lawn in North Raleigh with a riding mower. Back in his garage, there are four more machines, but none could cut a blade of grass.

Instead, they might make it up to speeds of 50 mph with engine revolutions so high they'd make most car engines blow up. Sullivan races his custom-made mowers on the lawn mower racing circuit, traveling as far as Florida and Ohio for races eight or nine times a year.

But on Sunday, for the first time, he was able to travel just 15 minutes from his home to the N.C. State Fairgrounds, where the American Racing Mower Association held a national points series event. Winners earned trophies and points toward the national championship.

"When my dad told me he was doing this, I laughed and said 'that's ridiculous,' " said Sullivan, 40, an engineer.

Then he got hooked.

Fifty mowers competed in a variety of classes at the event, part of the second annual Got to Be NC Festival, which promotes North Carolina agriculture and its homegrown products. The three-day festival, which ended Sunday, drew as many as 40,000 people on Saturday. That was 10,000 more than the total number of visitors last year when temperatures soared above 100 degrees.

"We couldn't be any more tickled," said Steve Troxler, state agriculture commissioner.

Two associations run the world of lawn mower racing. The 17-year-old U.S. Lawn Mower Racing Association, which Sullivan typically races in, is the nation's oldest mower racing group with more than 600 members, according to its Web site. The American Racing Mower Association, which organized Sunday's event, formed in 2005 and boasts 700 members, said Aaron Crowl, the association's national race director and president.

One major difference between the two is the way the races start. Competitors in a U.S. Lawn Mower Racing Association race run to their mowers at the start. It's a rolling start at American Racing Mower Association events, one NASCAR fans readily recognize.

"This is more of a stock car racing format," Crowl said.

Sunday's event brought racers from along the East Coast, including several from North Carolina. There's no money to win, just a $10 trophy and bragging rights. Competitors say they build a second family on the road, helping each other out with spare parts and advice.

"Everybody knows everybody," said Patrick Husske of Franklinton, whose wife, Julie, also races, but uses a push mower to trim her acre lawn. "Everybody helps everybody out."

The sport doesn't really draw lawn enthusiasts. Instead, it's fans of other kinds of racing and tinkerers, who enjoy fixing engines and coming up with ways to get a mower to move faster. Crowl said it could take as little as $300 to soup up an old mower enough to qualify for a race. More serious racers can spend $6,000 or more on a single machine. The first rule might be the most important: No racing mower can have blades.

"It has mass appeal and it's something very attainable," said Crowl, whose wife and twin daughters, 15, also race. "You don't have to be a mechanical genius to be good at the sport."

Sullivan started four years ago after watching his father, who builds most of Sullivan's racers. Sullivan's brother-in-law also is involved and has a sponsorship from STAB-BIL, a fuel stabilizer. Now, instead of seeing each other once a year, the far-flung family sees each other eight or nine times a year at races.

At Sunday's event, the mowers kicked up dust as they spun around the short track bounded by hay bales. Their engines roared, building a noise that echoed the thunder of a NASCAR race.

AnnMarie Sullivan watched with the couple's two children as Pete Sullivan lined up.

"I'd prefer something with a roll cage, but this is much cheaper," said AnneMarie, a long-time NASCAR fan. Racers wear helmets and other protective gear.

As the race started, Pete Sullivan sped around the track at the front of the pack when his lawn mower almost tipped over at a curve. AnnMarie jumped. It happened again. Pete pulled over and headed off the track.

"No! Don't go off the track," AnnMarie said from the stands as if Pete could hear her above the din of the mowers.

"I don't want to see him wreck, but I get a little competitive," she added. "Darn it."

Back in the pits, Pete Sullivan fixed what slowed him down: a shredded belt. It's happened before, he said, an easy fix.

He'd be back to race again.

sarah.lindenfeld@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8983

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