BOW, Skagit County - Kelly Schols straddles what looks like a souped-up tricycle, hunched and helmeted, waiting for the green flag to drop. The tension is so thick you could cut it with a knife, although you could do it faster with, say, a 1998 John Deere GX85.
Suddenly, they're off - five racers in all, tires spitting clouds of dirt on a practice track cut from Skagit County farmland. Nearby, an abandoned, rust-brown truck sits disintegrating in the sun. This is rural Washington, after all, a region rich with inviting stretches of road and stony, hard-working folks schooled in motors and contraptions and things that go.
Schols, from Mount Vernon, leads the pack, a squat fireball of power barreling down a straightaway and around a half-dozen hairpin turns, kicking up misting cauliflowers of dust that engulf the ones left behind.
The machines cut corners so well, you'd hardly know they used to cut grass. Welcome to the world of the Northwest Lawn Mower Racing Association, whose timely re-emergence is putting people from working-class burgs like Morton, Castle Rock and Bow on the sport's cutting edge.
Around the country, trophy hopefuls are turning former grass guzzlers into chariots of the proletariat - removing the blades and outfitting them with kill switches to stop them in case the driver can't. The U.S. Lawn Mower Racing Association claims more than 400 members, 15 percent of them women, whose revved-up riding mowers have names like Lawnborghini, Sodzilla and Ace of Blades. More than 2,000 fans watched the 1997 national competition in Rockford, Ill., last year.
"This sport really knows no geographic boundaries," says USLMRA president Bruce Kaufman. "Anybody can do it. And do it inexpensively. That's so refreshing in these days of big-time money sports."
According to the National Hot Rod Association of Glendora, Calif., it takes at least $15,000 to $20,000 to get into drag racing. Care to dance with the thunder cars of the Indy Racing League? That will run you into the hundreds of thousands - up to a hefty $3 million if you plan to do the whole circuit.
On the other hand, construction worker Rob Miller dug his 1963 Home Lite out of a jungle of blackberries and found it had a mesh lawn chair bolted on for a seat. A mere $1,000 later, it's red and resurrected and ready to mow.
"It's a poor man's sport, really," says Sam Williams, who has been racing for 18 years down in Morton, a Lewis County hamlet 30 miles east of Interstate 5 in the shadow of Mount Rainier. "The poorest guy in town could go out and compete against the richest guy in town, and they'd have an equal chance."
Weed racers have been motoring around these parts since 1972, when, according to legend, a couple of shop owners at a tavern in Morton got to arguing over who was the better driver. One of them owned a hardware store, and when the tiff stormed past closing time, they grabbed a couple of riding mowers and hit the road, eventually drawing a crowd. When the cops arrived, they simply closed off the street and let the boys rumble themselves sober.
It became a regular event, but crowds got so big it was made part of Morton's annual Loggers Jubilee in the late 1970s. Last year 49 lawn rangers competed in front of 3,000 spectators. This year's mowdown is scheduled for Aug. 7.
But it's the 6-year-old USLMRA that has the big sponsorship - namely that of STA-BIL, a fuel stabilizer - and the visibility, including coverage on TNN's "Friday Night Motor Madness" and in Esquire and Newsweek magazines. There is a Web site and a newsletter dubbed "Cutting Edge." The USLMRA also has a 12-page rule book, compared to the Northwest's one-page, 18-item memo, and features competition in four classes depending on modifications made to the mower.
The fastest can go more than 50 mph, but that pales next to the USLMRA's official pace mower, the Dixie Chopper, which is powered by a 150-horsepower Chinook military jet helicopter engine and thus ineligible for competition. At 65 mph, it can clip a football field end to end in 14 minutes.
America's heartland and dairyland provide the bulk of USLMRA's membership, but regional mowdowns for the glory of trophies and gas money have been held from Decatur, Ala., and Havre de Grace, Md., to Lake City, S.C., and Watsonville, Calif. This year, the national and Northwest groups will co-sponsor the first regional races in Washington state, Aug. 15 at the Skagit County Fair in Mount Vernon.
The two groups are approaching each other cautiously, with the laid-back, down-home NWLMRA skeptical of rules imposed by its slick national counterpart - not so much a turf war as a Not-In-My-Front-Yard sort of thing.
No problem, says USLMRA president Kaufman. "Washington's a hotbed of lawn-mower racing," he says. "We thought, `Heck, let's make it part of the national circuit. The mow the merrier.' "
The Skagit County practice track sits next to the home of timber cutter Richard Schimke, who like many of his lawn-mower racing peers is returning to the sport after watching it go out to pasture for nearly a decade. "A guy down the road told me, `Hey, if George Foreman can make a comeback, so can you,' " Schimke says.
The Northwest group's mower engines top out at 8 horsepower; they chug along at about 30 miles per hour. Unlike USLMRA mowers, they have no brakes and are often Frankenstein machines, melded from scratch with the parts of multiple mowers and whatever else their creators decide to throw in. Schols' gear shift knob, for instance, is a faucet handle.
For a time, the Northwest mowers had no kill switches, either. "But there's a couple of times we seen a mower goin' across a track with no riders on 'em," Schimke says. "That's when the kill switches came in."
Racers feel out their mowers, testing the limits of the tires, learning the geometry of the machine, pushing curves without flipping.
"Gravity takes over sometimes and knocks a guy over," Schimke says. Gals, too: Coco Taylor, Schimke's girlfriend, rolled a mower over on Mother's Day and broke her ankle. She came back strong with a win in the powder puff race in Castle Rock in late July. Another racer, though, fared much worse that night, breaking his collarbone after hitting one of the hay bales lining the sides of the course.
That's the sort of thing that yanks the chain of the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute, which strongly opposes lawn-mower racing, saying it runs counter to OPEI's mission to promote safe use of power equipment. "Since 1992," OPEI's statement reads, "accidents involving careless use of outdoor power equipment have continued to occur - and many have involved young people."
According to a Loyola University Medical Center study, more than 2,000 children are permanently disabled each year by power lawn-mowers.
The national mower racing association says not to worry, that no injury has ever occurred during a USLMRA-sanctioned event. "When that flag goes down, it's professional," Kaufman says. "We're promulgating rules, giving consistency to something that's been grass-roots."
None of this worries the turf busters of Skagit County, who are busily crafting lawn fare for the common man.
"Did you see my new exhaust pipe?" says Clark Casey, a haggard 42-year-old from Ferndale, pointing to his revamped 1967 Murray before the practice session begins. "My old one vibrated off in Sedro-Woolley."
Some guys change everything; some don't change anything, ever, not even the oil. That's apparent in the sputtering dud of a Briggs & Stratton engine coughing in 16-year-old Chris Miller's custom-built jalopy. More than once, Miller is left shipwrecked in the dirt in brown overalls, wrenching the power cord with the ferocity of a whip-happy jockey down the homestretch.
Meanwhile, his fellow racers growl around the track as loud as Harleys, popping wheelies, exhaling trails of dust. They'll return with grimy faces covered as with soot. "I don't know how they can see where they're goin'," says Dan Miller, Chris' father.
When the rider in front of him snags a curve, Ferndale's Casey makes up the difference. For a few exciting moments, the two run neck and neck, until Casey's foe regains the lead.
It's for those cheap adrenalin rushes that they ride. From the looks of things, there's mow to come.
Marc Ramirez's phone message number is 206-464-8102. His e-mail address is: email@example.com
------------------------------------- If you're in for the lawn haul . . . -------------------------------------
The Morton Loggers Jubilee lawn-mower races take place 6 p.m. tomorrow at Jubilee Arena, Morton. Admission: adults $6, seniors $5, children $3. Info: 360-498-5250.
The Northwest Lawn Mower Racing Association races take place at the Skagit County Fair, Mount Vernon at 7 p.m. Aug. 14. The USLMRA/STA-BIL Northwest Regional lawn-mower races are at 5 p.m. Aug. 15 at Fairgrounds Arena. Events are free with fair admission: adults $6, seniors and youths $4. Info: 360-336-9453.