After the ongoing pandemic washed out the first events of the season, lawn mower racing in Texas got going again this past Saturday. The racers were excited to get back on the track, and we were pretty excited, too. Excited enough to make the one hour drive down to Wortham to check out the scene.
You might think that the idea of racing lawn mowers started with two overly competitive rednecks drinking too much beer and trading idiotic boasts over a barbed wire fence. You would only be half right. Outside of a few novelty events, the sport is generally considered to have been first proposed by an Irish rally car racer named Jim Gavin. While there was beer involved at its conception, the conversation was in a pub in West Sussex and not somewhere down south of the Mason-Dixon Line. The idea was to find a cheap, non-commercialized way to get involved with motor sports. About three pints in, one of the lads mentioned, “Well, we all have lawnmowers, don’t we?” Now you know the rest of the story.
Lawn mower racing has become an international sport, with clubs and associations found in every country that has lawns to mow. While the rules vary, generally there have to be some core components of a lawn mower involved in building a racer, combined with a prevailing DIY, non-commercial ethos. Maybe those two factors are what brought the Lone Star Mower Racing Association (LSMRA) to a rolling piece of property an hour south of Dallas.
Situated just outside of Wortham, Camp Shayla was started by Jim and Donna Bennett after their daughter died. Their mission is to give children in the community something fun to do, and since this is Wortham, “fun” includes activities like steer riding, goat roping and every kid’s favorite, “mutton bustin'.” Mutton busting is not the normal gateway drug for racing lawn mowers, but Jim, a former heavy equipment operator, has friends in the racing scene and decided to call the LSMRA to ask what they looked for in a race track.
Back in the U.K., lawn mower race tracks look more like a mash-up of moto-cross and Formula One. Laid out in a giant field, courses are longer, bumpier and include (gasp) right turns. In the U.S., most racing has evolved into the oval track favored by NASCAR and dirt-track racers.
Dirt-track racing has been part of the American racing scene since the first and second cars found themselves sharing the same road. While early races were held on horse racing courses, modern tracks are hard packed and banked to allow more speed. Back in his days operating big machines, Jim used to give the service roads he maintained a little bit of bank just for the fun of it. While the truck drivers loved it, management wasn’t always amused. But when the LSMRA told him what they were looking for in a track, Jim was smiling.
Jim’s retirement years are dedicated to providing a spot for communities to enjoy outdoor activities and, for lawn mower racers, this is a home run. The track is a jewel, a small oval of hard packed dirt with lightly banked turns. A highway-grade guard rail protects the official’s area, and alternating black and white covered hay bales are in place to keep the mowers from accidentally interfacing with spectators. Sawblade.com has stepped up to sponsor the summer race series, and their signage lends the event an extra layer of legitimacy. As the racers pull their trailers around the rodeo barn and park on the freshly mowed pasture, you can feel their excitement.
The racing mowers are unloaded and final checks begin. It’s an odd collection of machines. Some are slick and professionally detailed while others look like something Mad Max might have come up with in his 12-year-old dreams. While there are plenty of regulations about the use of lawn mower parts, mufflers don’t seem to have been included on the list. Officials inspect each machine and make sure they’re governed to less than 4,000 rpm.
Before hot laps begin, all the racers are gathered for a safety and rule briefing. New racers are grilled to make sure they know what each of the flag colors mean. Former president and track steward Eddy Akin gives a final reminder about race courtesy and safety. With high rates of speed and a high center of gravity, lawn mower racing can get a little dicey. Eddy points out Debbie Hobbs. You could be forgiven for thinking she was here to cheer on some grandkids, but she is actually a veteran racer who broke her collarbone a couple of months ago after getting loose and wide in the corners. After some reminders about the association’s awards banquet and upcoming elections, there is group prayer asking for a fun and safe evening.
The races themselves are loud, fun and dusty. And fast. Really fast. This is an entertainment bargain. There is no admission. Parking is free. There are free sandwiches and ice tea, and actual toilets. A contribution jar stands on the counter to help defray expenses, but the whole idea is to come hang out and have some fun. The original ethic that started the sport is on full display. Have some fun, get people involved and make the sport affordable and accessible. Mission accomplished.
For the full LSMRA schedule of races, visit lsmra.com/schedule
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