Life sucks. Let's go lawn mower racing!
This is precisely the epiphany that struck about 11:30 last Sunday when I happened to flip past TNN (The Nashville Network) and witness the purely American spectacle that was Race 6 of the Sta-Bil National Lawn Mower Racing Series. You think I'm kidding of course. Not even TNN could be so desperately short of programming that they would place television cameras around a small dirt and grass track to record dozens of Southern guys, all of whom with some combination of Billy, Joe and/or Bob in their names, ride their lawn mowers in circles.
But apparently TNN really is that desperate. Considering I actually watched the entire show, perhaps desperation is a term also useful for describing those of us with nothing better to do late Sunday nights.
The thing about lawn mower racing, though, is that it's a real hootenanny to watch. The show's opening title sequence is far and away the best on the air. With Ennio Morricone rip-off music in the background and accompanied by the repetitive crack of either bullets flying or mowers backfiring, the segment introduces us to two bad-ass cowboys. One of the cowboys carries an electric edge trimmer, the other one sports a backpack-style leaf blower. These are the "Defenders of the Lawn" according to the accompanying text. The rivals square off in a corral, quick-drawing their respective gardening implements while the graphic "Mowdown Showdown" fills the screen in big, black letters. Monday Night Football, eat your heart out.
If, like myself, you are a lawn mower racing newbie, it's reassuring to know that TNN has professional lawn mower broadcasters like Steve Moss and David Stanfield on the case. Yes, that Dave Stanfield, the one that's dominated the Lawn Mower Racing Commentary category at the Emmys the past few years.
According to Dave, the track for Race 6 was going to be a tricky oval. "The key is turn four where it gets very slick going from grass to clay." Clay? What the hell is clay doing on the track? Where's the eight-inch Bermuda grass and monster dandelions? Who mows clay?
As it turns out, that's the real tragedy of lawn mower racing -- the grass is already mowed. The drivers don't even have to overrun their racing lines by a couple inches every lap to make sure they cover every last square foot of ground.
Lawn mower racing is divided into five classes, two amateur levels for people with unmodified lawn mowers and three professional classes: AP, BP and the most powerful FX machines. Powerful modified lawn mowers? Where's Tim Taylor when you need him? The point of lawn mower racing seems to be that Hank Hill, were he not a cartoon, could easily join the ranks of lawn mower champions. The drivers of these machines are never going to be confused with big-name athletes since most of them look like they took the afternoon off from the body shop.
The first race of the night was the BP class championship, with mowers featuring eight to 18.5 horsepower and top speeds up to 35 mph. Those are some kick-ass mowers. Maybe if my lawn mower did 35 mph, small children wouldn't have to be warned about getting lost in my front yard. Apparently the BP class machines are modified, but don't expect spoilers or ground effects since modifying a lawn mower appears to involve the random placing of sponsor stickers.
Giving your mower a name is also an important step in the modification process. On this Sunday alone, we viewers were introduced to "The Iron Maiden," "Mowtivator," "Sodzilla," "The Turfinator" and, I swear I'm not making this up, the "McDonald's McMower."
Races begin with a "Le Mans" start, which means the drivers stand about 15 feet from the mowers while waiting for the green flag to drop, then sprint to their machines and take off. Needless to say, the drivers find the sprint the most physically challenging part of a race -- some of these fellows were calling for water halfway to the mowers.
With the sweaty work behind them, the competitors were free to do what they were born to do -- drive like bats out of, well, maybe a slightly seedy neighborhood. As it turns out, lawn mower racing is equal parts razor-sharp tactical instincts and Schwarzkopf-like strategic planning. Or, as Dave put it, "There are two types of lawn mowers out here today: fast ones and slow ones. You don't want to be on a slow one."
As they sped off toward the first turn, Steve was heard to remark "There's a whole herd of 'em coming down the straightaway." Now, I used to work for an IndyCar racing team and have watched quite a few other motorsport competitions in my lifetime. Never once in either my professional or personal experience do I remember groups of cars being referred to as a "herd." It's just not a description that conveys the feeling of screaming down the back straight at 240 mph. Yet for some reason, "herd" fit right in with lawn mower racing.
You know those highlights of Indy cars crashing into walls and spinning through the air as a cloud of debris envelopes the vehicle? That's not exactly what happens in lawn mower racing. A mower crash is more like when you're six and your wagon slowly tips over after making too sharp a turn.
The crash did bring a horrible fact of lawn mower racing to light, however. They take the blades off the mower! What a rip-off! Haven't these guys seen "Ben-Hur?" Mower blades would be even better for destroying your opponents wheels than spiked axles. For crying out loud, you're only doing 20 mph -- a sharpened hunk of steel turning at a 500 RPM is the least you can do to bump up the excitement level.
Crashes in mower racing bring out a yellow flag, just like they do in NASCAR. That's pretty much where the similarities end. The problem with the mowers is that it's hard to tell the difference between yellow and green flag racing.
Stormer may have won the race, but it wasn't enough to keep rival Bob Cleveland from taking home his fourth national championship. The startling fact about Cleveland's triumph is that it is indeed the fourth one. This means lawn mower racing has been around since at least 1995. Major League Soccer is close to folding, the ABL is gone and NFL Europe in on shaky ground. Yet the USLMRA continues to thrive. There is probably some profound social statement to be found there, but I'm not sure I want to find it.
For those of you keeping track at home, Evan "The Garden Gangster" Billingsley won the AP class while Chuck Miller took home the trophy in FX class. Watching these races taught me an important fact. Namely that, although Huffy makes really crappy bicycles, their mowers kick some serious butt. One of the FX class Huffys can reach speeds of 70 mph. Yeah, but does it have a cup holder?
OK, so lawn mower racing isn't the Daytona 500 or 24 Hours at Le Mans. In fact, I bet I could enter my push mower and win the AP class, but that's the appeal. A couple of guys sitting around the garage one day, talking lawn care, get into a drunken boasting session about John Deere versus Honda. They decide to settle it like men, pushing their mowers to the limits -- a duel fought at almost 4 miles an hour.
All of a sudden, the USLMRA is born, TNN showers television dollars all over it and these guys can suddenly afford to choose Keystone over Pabst. It's the American Dream.
There's one more thing lawn mower racing has taught me: Any sport with a guy nicknamed "The Garden Gangster" can't be all bad.
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