ABERDEEN -- There is, in sports, a nobility that comes from effort, a beauty and grace that emanate from the intricate movement of the body, a serenity that comes from having withstood the competition. Then there's . . . this stuff.
On the other hand, if your thing is watching heavyset men in windbreakers and flannel shirts atop riding mowers, their guts jiggling violently as they race around a grassy, tire-laden course, the place to be yesterday was at Harford County Airpark, site of the STA-BIL East Coast Regionals of the U.S. Lawn Mower Racing Association.
A crowd estimated at 1,500 turned out to watch 20 mowers compete in two race classes: stock, for regular lawn mowers such as you may have in your tool shed, and factory experimental, in which drivers can make modifications to the mower's gear ratios, drive trains and pulleys.
"This is kind of a poor man's motor sport,' explained Dave Silbar, a flackfor the U.S. Lawn Mower Racing Association. "A guy can spend between 100 and 200 bucks and buy a junky lawn mower, take the time and money to fix it up, and then race it.'
As you might imagine, lawn-mower racing is not a sport that is overly concerned with rules. But one rule that is sacrosanct is this: blades must be removed from the mowers.
This, of course, tempers a good deal of the excitement, eliminating, for example, the prospect of an out-of-control Toro tipping over on the far turn and disemboweling a half-dozen race officials.
For the record, at least five mowers went out of control and off the course yesterday, maiming no one, bringing out the yellow caution flags and causing only momentary embarrassment to the drivers.
Entertaining the crowd before the races was the modified Dixie Chopper lawn mower, which was ridden by actor Tim Allen two years ago in an episode of "Home Improvement.'
As the story goes, the Dixie Chopper came about when someone with way too much time on his hands decided to put a 150-horsepower, jet-helicopter engine on the back of a riding mower.
The result is a monster mower that pops wheelies, lays rubber in first and second gears, and attains a top speed of 65 mph. All of these are things the average Joe has thought about doing in the back yard with his mower -- at least after a few gin and tonics.
Only the Dixie Chopper does all this and cuts grass too! That means it can mow a football field in 14.2 minutes, according to the racing association people.
By contrast, the best lap speed attained on the track yesterday was 28 mph by Ray Brittain of Fallston, the eventual winner in the factory experimental class.
Mr. Brittain, 40, was an auto mechanic for 25 years and now works in the asphalt business. He won on a modified 1978 Murray Lawn Chief, which looks like the original model only if you think a Formula I race car resembles a Buick Regal.
Mr. Brittain's mower was painted a deep plum -- " 'cause I'm plumb crazy." It was nicely complemented by his plum helmet and plum racing jersey, and was the talk of the other racers, whose fashion sense tended more toward the Junior Varsity Football Coach look.
For his part, Mr. Brittain was eager to talk about his mower.
"Yeah, made a few changes,' Mr. Brittain said. "I drilled the carburetor out, changed the pulleys, drilled the jets out, put in an electronic ignition, new rear fender, new . . .'
Yes, well . . . although Mr. Brittain admitted to having sunk about $500 into modifying his mower, he and many of the other racers said what appeals to them about the sport is that it's relatively inexpensive, including the $15 entry fee.
J. D. Dorn, 34, of Churchville, the second-place finisher in the factory exceptional class, said he souped up his lawn mower as a kid and dreamed of finding other sick mower aficionados to race.
"People think you're nuts when you do this -- there's no doubt about it,' said Mr. Dorn, who fixes lawn mowers as a foreman for a farm and garden equipment dealership.
Of his 1978 A-30 Ford lawn tractor, a low-slung blue number that can do close to 30 mph and puts one in mind of a bastardized Big Wheels, he says:
"I can't get anyone else at work to drive this damn thing. They think I'm crazy.'
Hard as it is to believe (or maybe not), the, ahem, sport of lawn-mower racing has been around only since 1992, the year Parade magazine listed it as "Worst New Sport" in its annual Best and Worst edition.
Actually, lawn-mower racing originated in England, where the first races were held, appropriately enough, on the grounds of a mental institution.
In 1992, there was only one race in this country, that one featuring 15 racers. This year, the U.S. Lawn Mower Racing Association put on 12 regional races as well as the STA-BIL Nationals, with a total of 300 racers entered. (STA-BIL is a fuel stabilizer for use in combustion engines that must be stored for long periods.)
In addition to emerging as the top lawn-mower racer yesterday, Ray Brittain, the Fallston man, won the drawing to go the STA-BIL Nationals next year in Illinois.
"I'm going to Chicago! I'm going to Chicago!' Mr. Brittain exclaimed over and over, pumping his fist to the sky.
A number of spectators, mostly beefy men who looked like they knew their way around a riding mower and three acres of virgin lawn, applauded wildly for the day's champion.
These men, unfortunately, were not going to Chicago.
Although many of them were going home to cut the grass.