Mowers race the wind on green ocean of grass Harford event to feature lawn travel at 50 mph


They come not to cut grass, but to race on it.

With names like "The Turfinator," "The Lawn Ranger" and "Shake, Rattle and Mow," they will be rumbling around a Harford County airport tomorrow, competing for bragging rights, not money. The winner gets a trophy and the chance to compete next year in the national lawn mower race in Chicago.

Tomorrow's race is the last of 12 regional lawn mower races this year sanctioned by the U.S. Lawn Mower Racing Association and sponsored by STA-BIL, a gas treatment for small engines.

"It's weird," said Dave Silbar, a spokesman with the national racing association. "It's getting bigger and bigger."

The association has 300 members.

There's the guy from Texas who wears a helmet-cam during races -- what better way to improve your performance than to relive it on videotape? There's the guy from Chicago who has printed his own trading cards -- though it's not clear he has anyone to trade them with.

And then there's Art Elsner, 61, and Steve Jones, 34, both of Havre de Grace.

Mr. Elsner owns a lawn mower service in Webster near Havre de Grace. Mr. Jones is his chief mechanic. Together, they took a scrap-heap 1972 Snapper riding mower and rebuilt it.

The motor's governor, which limits power, was removed, and the gears were changed to allow for faster speeds. A motorcycle brake was added for safer stops.

The five-speed, 18-horsepower mower, with gleaming red paint, exceeds 50 mph, they said.

"We really haven't opened it up," Mr. Elsner said. "I know it'll do 50, but beyond that, we don't know."

Not bad for a racer built with spare parts. The only thing they

paid for is the paint job.

They'd have to spend big bucks to compete with the best. That would be Kevin Penne, 31, of Lake Vista, Ill., the national lawn mower champion. He's spent $2,000 building his racing machine, which he has named "Mow Betta."

"It's like any kind of racing," Mr. Penne said. "It takes cubic dollars if you want to go fast."

Mr. Penne, who earned his championship last month, said he won't be in Harford for tomorrow's race.

But the "Dixie Chopper" will. It's the big daddy of all lawn mowers, a grass-exterminating monster powered by a jet helicopter engine.

Organizers of the race aren't sure how many racers will show. A good turnout would be 50.

Racers compete in two classes -- stock and modified on a grass FTC oval often lined with bales of hay. In stock, the mower is raced with its original parts. In modified, racers may -- within certain rules -- add or subtract parts to increase speed. Blades are removed in both classes for safety.

A crowd of about 1,000 spectators is expected, to watch a form of racing that began about 25 years ago in England.

Gerry Smith, who works for Gold Eagle, the maker of STA-BIL, brought the sport to America three years ago after he was dispatched to England to watch English lawn mowers race.

When he returned, Mr. Smith proposed that STA-BIL sponsor lawn mower races, as a way to advertise and sell the product.

Since then, the sport has spread across America and expanded from a handful of races each year to a regular circuit and a national race.

"We have guys who are just nuts, and really have a good time," said Mr. Silbar. "They'll get their lawn mower from a junk pile, and spend nothing on them. And then there [are] guys who will spend a thousand dollars on their lawn mower, and they come out for only one reason, to win."

Admission is free. To get to Harford County Airpark, take Interstate 95 north to Exit 89, then head west on Route 155 and turn left at Route 156. The airpark is on the right.

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