By Rebecca Richards
Lehigh Acres, FL....I have attended hundreds of races, from the Indy 500, Daytona 500, to dirt and asphalt short tracks around the United States, yet never have I been to a lawn mower race and I was in for a big surprise. That all changed when I went to the 2nd Annual Lehigh Rotary Club Celebrity Race Sunday, April 18.
As I drove down to Lehigh Acres, I listened to the pre race show for the big Martinsville race, huge mistake. My excitement I had under control for the NASGRASS event got away from me, I found my foot getting heavier and heavier on the gas pedal, I looked down and I was doing 90!
"Get a grip" I told myself, after all this is "just" a bunch of lawn mowers going around a circle. How wrong I would be! As I pulled up to the location I was sure I was in the wrong place, as there were cars parked all the way out to the main road, along the sides and in the convenience store parking lot.
Ahhhh...wait, this had to be it as the roar of the engines filled the air.
After searching for a spot to park, which was a feat in itself, I started hoofing it past folks having tailgait parties, under canopies, on blankets and lounging in lawn chairs, hundreds of people of all ages were present for the 2nd Annual Lehigh Rotary Club sponsored NASGRASS Race. Okay, I was starting to get the feeling this was more than I thought.
The weather was perfect for the races, and the racers were ready for some sod slinging action. The question was for me, Was I ready? Nothing could have prepared me for these dare devil racers on what looked like your average lawn mower yet the engines didn't sound like your typical lawn mower engine.
I asked "Mowin Mayor" Tom Macklin of Avon Park, who races the #38 Outlaw and Twins, if he had a V-8 under his hood and laughing, he replied, "No, I've been asked that many times, it's a Brian Benton Motor."
Macklin is familiar with racing as he has raced dirt late models in the past.
Off I went to talk to "Motor Man" Brian Benton of Avon Park, racer of the #66 Outlaw, who has quite the reputation for winning lawn mower engines. Brian and his wife Susan, #99 Outlaw and Ladies, both race the NASGRASS series and the USLMR series.
Brian began racing with NASGRASS in 1998 and Susan joined him in 1999, claiming the Rookie of the Year, followed by Overall Champion a couple of years later.
Susan won the Women's Race at the event Sunday.
"It's cheap fun, if it breaks, you fix it and go back out there again," said Susan. Her future plans are to keep racing, and keep having fun.
Once the green flag flew, I soon realized these racing machines were definitely NOT going around the track at "mowing" speed, they were flying! NASGRASS racing is not for the weak spirited racer. There is no roll cage, no sheet metal around your body, just you on top of a mean mowing machine minus the mowing deck.
Two and three wide in the turns was thrilling! And a little scary, yet these racers knew what they were doing, they never touched one another yet it "looked" close to me! Some racers were lifting the front wheels off the ground, some were popping off their seats and the crowd went wild! So did I!
I couldn't believe how they could go into the turns three wide and not come close to touching each other! Incredible! Fans were on their feet screaming their approval! I was amazed, delighted and simply in awe of these four wheel machines that were anything but typical of the family lawn mower.
As the divisions raced I watched the fans root for their favorite racers, clapping, cheering their approval and going to the drivers to congratulate them along with the other racers. The display of good sportsmanship between the racers was something that came natural and genuine. That impressed me. They teased each other, helped each other and there was no arguing. Just plain racing fun.
That spirit infected the hundreds of fans who turned out for the event. There was no "booing", no "jeers", just smiles and appreciation. People of all ages had turned out for the event, making it a tailgate party, a picnic, or a family outing. Some even brought their pets along.
Bob, a spectator from Ohio, saw a little bit of TV coverage on the event, then saw the signs and decided to check out the NASGRASS event on his Sunday afternoon. He was glad he did. "It's a good way to spend a Sunday afternoon and I want to bring my grandson to see this," he said.
Christine and Randy Lossa from Lehigh, spent Randy's birthday at the NASGRASS race. It was their first time to watch and Randy was sold! He's going to join the NASGRASS organization as a racer.
"I could mow our yard (1 1/2 acres) in about 4 seconds with one of those!" Randy exclaimed.
And Christine quickly replied laughing,"You're NOT allowed to touch OUR mower! You have to find your own!" They both agreed the event was a lot of fun, even after John Gilbert went flying off his mower in turn two, looking a little like the caped crusader, Batman.
Nobody was hurt seriously, but John had a couple of goose eggs on his head. The fan who was involved was so concerned about John's feelings that he came over to assure Mr. Gilbert he was fine, hiking up a pant leg and showing John he only had a scrape. John was very grateful too. He was more concerned for this man than he was for himself.
After learning the gentleman was okay, John's good humor returned and he told me about the first time he had raced in a NASGRASS event.
"I had an '86 Monte Carlo and ramps, you might be a redneck if you have to load your lawn mower on the back of your car (laughing), so I went to the races, got home about 3 am and the next thing I know the cops were knocking on my door. You know you're living in a redneck neighborhood when somebody steals your mower off the back of your car. The funny part of it was, the mower didn't run!" John said.
Recalling his first race, John said,"I got a trophy with a mower upside down, that says First Race, First Lap, First Flip, I am real proud of that trophy!(laughing)"
Standing in the infield, watching the racers battle for position I noticed how each racer was safely passing. They are serious about a win, yet safety on the track is the top priority.
NASGRASS racers are serious about their victories and about having fun, yet they only earn points and trophies for their accomplishments. There is no cash purse. It's all for sheer competiton, fun, points and a trophy. To me, that's the way racing should be, fun, fast and dirty...as in wearing a little home with you.
Rosie Stevens of Lehigh, #88 in the Outlaws for five years, started out her first year in the Stock division, won the Men's Flathead Heat race and was the only woman in that race. Grinning she said,"I was a little afraid at first so I started as a Rookie in the Stock division but once I got used to it, I moved right up to the Outlaws. It was awesome! Just run it like you stole it. (chuckling) Put it to the floor!"
When asked what was to her the highlight of her racing so far, Rosie said,"Taking the checkered flag from the boys. It was awesome! A great feeling, love it. They don't cut you any slack, but we race clean, none of us try to run each other over, we're not racing for a million dollars so we don't want to hurt each other or our mowers We're going to get bigger (NASGRASS)."
The celebrity racers didn't do too bad either. Some had been in the event before and those that hadn't seemed to adapt quite well.
The Celebrity Race participants were:
John Albion, Lee County Commissioner District 5 and last year's Celebrity Champ, Rod Shoap, Sheriff of Lee County, Mike Scott, Candidate for Lee County Sheriff, Jim Wyatt, Business Manager for Lehigh Acres News-Star, Dick Spence, Alva Honorary Mayor 2003 and Owner of Alva Village Market, Steve Sexton, Owner of Alva Country Diner, Courtney George, Sports Director of ABC 7 News, Dr. David Anthony, Local Chiropractor, Mike Culver, Owner of Culver Carpet and Interior Design, Jim Syoen, Weatherman for NBC-2, Jeff Miles, Marketing Director of Cape Cement & Supply and Brian Simon, Sports Director of WINK-TV.
After the races were completed I was asked by many what I thought about the day, and I sure had a lot to say! First and foremost, I was impressed with the display of team work and good sportsmanship between racers. Second, the racing action was simply thrilling yet FUN. I couldn't help but notice the differences between the NASGRASS racers and stock racers. Nobody was worried about anyone else looking at their mowers, taking anyone out on the track, or cheating. I had found the racing sport of sports.
I had fallen in love and jokingly stated, "I want to do it!" Needless to say it was taken seriously! The next thing I know I was informed that NASGRASS was heading to East Bay Raceway Park for an exhibition race during intermission. AND I was offered a ride! Oh boy!
I thought to myself, I can DO IT!
On April 24th, I met up with the NASGRASS gang and headed up to Tampa. Jerry Gilbert, my mower provider, was going to let me race on his wife Donna's mower! Donna has a nickname "Sparky" and I think I know why...you have to have a whole lot of courage to race these four wheel mowin monsters!
Arriving at East Bay Raceway Park, heads started turning immediately...you could almost hear the chins hitting the ground, and reading the lips was easy...."What in the world is this?"
Soon they would know! And soon I would find out if I had what it takes to be a full fledged NASGRASS racer. Here's how it all went down at East Bay
Pat Sullivan, Tom Macklin, Sidney Whiteside, Doc and Becky Kuhfeldt, Mike and Shane Remy, Charles Mayne, and Jerry Gilbert, all official NASGRASS racers, hit the kart track at East Bay Raceway Park during intermission and gave fans a preview of how sod, grass or in this case clay, can be slung by what appears to be a regular lawn mower.
Jerry Gilbert, the mower owner, explained carefully what I needed to do to race, and it seemed easy enough. It was time for practice. I followed Jerry around the pits, to the track entrance and across the track, unfortunately, the rod broke that controls the steering and it was an end to practice for me.
I learned something though, unless you are a lot bigger than I am you cannot make a mower move the way you want it to by leaning.
Jerry Gilbert then brought out Piggy Mow. Piggy Mow is an awesome fast mower. I know. I tried it out in the back of the pits to make sure I could race her. I had to do, I let Piggy Mow go wide open! My hair was blown back and I know I had a huge grin on my face. I couldn't help but notice a few heads looking my way, I mean after all, what a spectacle it must have been!
It was time for the race! I was nervous. Ok I was scared! Yet all I could think of was how fun it felt blasting through the back of the pits.
The green flag fell, we were off! What a rush! Hey! I got a good bite in three! Hmmm, feeling good, I gave Piggy Mow the gas and flying into turn 4 I felt real good. What fear. Time to go wide open. I did. Then suddenly, nothing...I wasn't going forward and everybody else was!
I couldn't believe it! Doc (Becky's husband) ran over and helped me get it off the front stretch. Was I bummed...yeah, for a minute, until I saw the rest of them race on by and then I got excited all over again. I could see fans in the stands watching and smiling.
Spectators and race teams soon learned that these innocent looking mowers weren't cutting any thing but tracks as they ripped around the track, sending rooster tails of dirt in the air.
At one point there were three battling for position, Pat Sullivan and Jerry Gilbert the closest and it was so dusty it was anyone's guess who would come out in front.
When the dust cleared, it was Pat Sullivan, of Venice, would take the checkers with his 006 followed by Jerry Gilbert on the 45s in second.
When announcer Bill Green asked the fans if they wanted to see the NASGRASS racers return to the famous clay by the bay oval, according to one spectator,"The cheers were real loud, the crowd went wild when he asked if we wanted to see more NASGRASS racing. It was great."
The NASGRASS (North American Society of Grass Racers and Sod Slingers) organization is Florida's original lawnmower racing club, and was established in 1985. The appeal for the sport grew and today there are 73 members.
For more information on NASGRASS visit their website at: www.nasgrass.com