NASCAR met the 4-H Fair in Jessup yesterday as fast and furious racers duked it out for bragging rights and trophies. The vehicles of choice weren't stock cars, though, but something more likely to be found in the back yard: mowers.
Kicking up a whirlwind of dust at Blob's Park, souped-up riding mowers and hot-off-the-yard standards went round and round in the Great American 250, a new event for a sport that has slowly been gathering a following in the past decade.
Safe behind an orange mesh barricade and gigantic bales of hay, about 300 people - mostly families - sat on a grassy knoll overlooking the winding course, heads turning in sync from right to left as they followed racers tearing up the vast, bumpy course. For many, it was the first time they had seen lawn mowers - minus blades - transformed into powerful racers.
The series of races began with a major upset when Art Elsner of Havre de Grace mowed down the competition in the stock-car category. After five laps, Elsner, 67, flew under the checkered flag seconds before Mary Lou Boris of Clarksville, a four-time national champion.
The victor - the founder of lawn-mower racing in Maryland, according to race organizers - was in good spirits.
"I think I won my race, but what's more important is that I beat Mary Lou," joked Elsner, who had never defeated her before.
"It couldn't happen to a better guy," said Boris, 56, a middle-school art teacher renowned on the circuit for skills she has been honing for more than a decade.
Like the rest of the nine mowers on the Mow-Fast Racing team, her Taz Two mower was easily identified by its red, white and blue colors, but hers was set off by its Tasmanian Devil stickers and pink fuzzy dice hanging from its side. Although she came in second, her trophy added to the more than 150 she and her husband, Mike, have accumulated in competitions.
Besides, their main job yesterday was organizing the event, a first for them.
The Great American 250 was the first race of the U.S. Lawn Mower Racing Association's 2003 season. The association claims more than 700 members nationwide and chapters in every state.
Drivers compete in one of five classes, depending on which modifications have been made to their machines. Stock mowers are the slowest and can come right off the yard, while the souped-up FX class can reach speeds greater than 60 mph and might look nothing like a regular riding mower.
Mike Boris says the sport's popularity is rising, and more parts are being made specifically for their speedy mowers - which means more convenience for these scrappy mechanics.
"When I started, I took an old, beat-up machine and fixed it up and it was fine," he said. "Now it's all high-tech," although a basic racing mower still can cost less than $100, he said.
"This is the poor man's NASCAR," he said.
"It's a cheap form of racing, but if you want to win, you've got to put the time into it," said Mike Burdette, one of two brothers from Aberdeen whose orange speedsters were pegged as early favorites. "We do a lot of research and development on our mowers. They're the most complex ones out there. If they're running right, nothing can beat them."
At 1,700 feet, the Blob's Park course was the longest set up on the national circuit, and one of the most challenging for many riders. Blocks of hay defined the winding course, with two long straightaways and several tight turns that led some riders to spin in practice laps.
Fine-tuning was necessary for the mower ridden by Thomas Bartys Sr. from Culpeper, Va. - his John Deere conked out after a particularly winding turn.
"It's a tough track, but hopefully this problem isn't anything major," he said. His buddy Scott Smith of Sperryville, Va., chimed in, "It can run like a charm at home, but out here, anything can happen."
Drivers endured the heat in mandatory long sleeves, helmets and neck braces, while spectators in T-shirts, shorts and hats flipped open portable lawn chairs and enjoyed the action.
"I've never seen a lawn mower go that fast before," said Bruce Williams, who drove from College Park to support fellow members of the Odenton Moose Lodge, which helped coordinate the event. He watched as several drivers perfected their leaning moves on turns. "Some of these guys have gone up sideways. I'd rather ride in NASCAR - you don't get thrown off there. These guys are crazy."
Retired truck driver Dottie Bryant was warmed by the familiar sound of engines. "That orange one has the best sound," the Odenton resident said. "It's running well."
Bryant, who attended with her family after reading about the event in newspaper, said, "You never get rid of the love of power and testing yourself. The music, the sound and the action - it just gives me goose bumps. It's so exciting."