By Chris Landers
JESSUP – “One . . . two . . . three . . . Let’s mow!”
That’s Art Elsner on the microphone, up there on the hill with the spectators. On his command the drivers run to their mowers, start them with a racket that sounds like exactly what it is – a field full of souped-up riding lawn mowers tearing around a dirt track outside Max Blob’s Bavarian Biergarten.
It’s another day at the lawn mower races at Blob’s Park, where driveway mechanics, gear heads and speed freaks of all description dedicate themselves to the proposition that anything with an engine can and should be made to go faster than it was intended to go.
Depending on who you talk to, Art Elsner is either the father or grandfather of lawn mower racing in Maryland. He mulls that one over a bit, then settles on “King, as in King Arthur.”
The King has been racing mowers since 1986. It started as a promotional stunt for his lawn mower shop. He’s a friendly, twinkling-eyed man who gives his age as 72. The shop is long gone, but he kept the garage underneath, “where the fun goes on.”
The fun often has as much to do with turning a wrench as sliding around a corner.
All 32 mowers that showed up for this last race of the season were inspected for safety by Bill Startt, who also checks the safety equipment for the drivers– helmets, neck braces, gloves, boots, long sleeves and pants to prevent “grass rash”.
Startt is a self-described “64-year-old rookie”– this is his first year at the races. He looks over the brakes, makes sure the blades are removed and kill switches will shut off the engine if the driver falls off. Startt makes sure the entrants obey the class regulations, from the slowest 8 horsepower single cylinders to the two-cylinder twins that can go faster than 70 mph.
“The drivers test them on the road sometimes,” Startt said. “What’s funny is when you pass a car on one.”
Elsner holds court in the pit between races, where the scent of gasoline hangs heavy and the atmosphere is more family reunion than cut-throat competition. Someone calls out to him from across the field: “Hey Art! You got gas in that mower?” and the King shakes his head. Seems in an earlier race he forgot that detail, and blew a big lead when the mower ran out of gas on the track.
The lawn mower races offer the same spills and thrills as a NASCAR race, though with somewhat lower impact.
One race has to be restarted after the No. 44 mower pulls a wheelie off the line that ends with the driver on his back and front wheels pointed to the sky. The drivers don’t seem to mind, though, as they help to right it. The crashes and spills are just part of the sport’s rebellious fun.
Not everyone sees it that way. The Outdoor Power Equipment Institute, an industry group representing the companies who manufacture mowers, has consistently taken a position against the races.
“We don’t think it is in the spirit of our association, which is to promote safety,” said Bill Harley, president and CEO of OPEI. “They’re made to cut lawns.”
So far, at least, that’s kept some major potential sponsors away from the races. U.S. Lawn Mower Racing Association president Bruce Kaufman would love to have the money, he says it wouldn’t change the sport.
“We don’t race for money,” he said. “We race for trophies, we race for glory and we race for bragging rights. For 15 years it’s been rock and mow.”
Here comes Mary Lou Boris. She and Elsner have what he describes as a “long-running feud.” He retired from the faster races after a bad accident in the nationals, and now he only keeps his hand in to beat Boris in the slower, stock class of mower.
Mary Lou and her husband Mike make up the Mow-Fast Racing team out of Clarksville.
Mike Boris first heard of the sport in a Farmer’s Almanac article that boasted of mowers making 40 mph. Boris bet he could make one do 50. He did– straight into a tree. It seems lawn mower brakes weren’t designed to stop something that fast. Where a lesser man might have given up, Boris just turned his attention to the braking system.
“Lawn mower racing is the poor man’s NASCAR,” Mike Boris said, although with the time and money he and his wife have invested in the sport, he admits they’ve “gone a little overboard.”
It’s time for the next race– the “factory/experimental” class, one of the fastest, and the only entrants are Mike Boris and Manuel “Manny” Tores, the president of the newly formed Delmarva chapter of the USLMRA.
The racing association was started on April Fool’s Day,15 years ago by an advertising agency working for Stabil, a fuel additive company that remains the sport’s primary sponsor.
Tores is relatively new to the sport, with only five years of racing under his belt, but last year he placed fourth in the country at the USLMRA nationals. He goes to 20 or 30 races a season. He brought two mowers today– a slower, heavier John Deere, and the one he’ll use to race Boris– a 1953 Wizard Custom Cruiser Art Elsner gave him. Actually, Elsner gave it to someone else, but when it sat in their driveway, the King took it back and gave it to Tores in exchange for a promise to race it.
The Custom Cruiser is a thing of beauty, all metal-flake black paint and shiny aluminum diamond plate, lavished with the kind of attention a teenager gives a hot rod. It’s low to the ground, with front wheels chopped and raked in for cornering.
“You’ve got to be creative,” he said. “You can’t just throw it together.”
Tores and Boris pull up to the line, and at Elsner’s countdown and the sound of the horn, they’re off. It soon becomes clear that even though Boris’ taller Ford catches up in the straightaways, Tores and the Custom Cruiser lose him in the turns, pulling through with those raked wheels and lower center of gravity. Boris gives him a run, but at the end it’s Manny Tores taking his victory lap with the checkered flag.
It’s not about the race, though, socializing afterward is the real purpose for many of the racers. “It’s something to keep me going,” Tores said. “Just to get involved with a lot of people.”