Mower racing is growing as fast as, well ... the grass

Wednesday, June 22, 2005
Nursing a broken left ankle, injured in a race, Phil Thompson sat on one of his racing riding lawn mowers at his home in Allenville, Mo. As has become custom, the town will hold the big race of the season Saturday at its annual picnic.

An average person might take a day or two to get his lawnmower in shape for the summer months.

Phil Thompson, on the other hand, would spend about a month on his.

Of course, he'd be priming it for something a little more exciting than mowing his lawn.

Thompson, a 54-year-old resident of Allenville, Mo., decided about five years ago that driving a lawnmower at snail-speed just wasn't cutting it. That's when he and a few buddies decided to add an event to the annual Allenville picnic -- lawnmower racing.

"We decided to bring mowers to the park and race them," Thompson said. "People just brought their mowers from home."

Since then, lawnmower racing in Southeast Missouri has exploded, and three different lawnmower racing organizations and tracks have sprouted in the area. Allenville is home to SEMOW Lawnracers, Inc., which was founded three years ago as the first of three organizations, and both Advance (Advance Lawnmower Racing Association) and Bell City (91 Race Club) started their own shortly thereafter.

"It just started growing from there," Thompson said. "Everybody bought another lawnmower so they wouldn't have to mess with the one they mow their grass with. It's a growing sport. We started off with just local guys, and now we've got them from about a 50-miles radius. We've got people up to 75 years old out there."

Those who race with SEMOW Lawnracers, Inc., earn points according to how they finish in each race, and trophies are awarded to the individuals with the highest point totals at the end of the season.

Thompson, the president of the club, said that 18 races are on the schedule this season, which lasts from May through October. Races generally take place on three Saturdays of each month.

SEMOW already has raced three times, but the biggest event of the year lies just ahead on Saturday at the Allenville picnic. Thompson anticipates about 20 racers, a few more than usual, to compete.

"That's our big race," Thompson said. "There should be anywhere from 500 to 1,000 people there."

Most of the events throughout the season take place at the three local tracks, but Thompson said he's competed in several races outside of the area. Usually there are two preliminary heats at each event to earn positions in the feature race. Contenders generally drive 15 laps for a heat race and 25 laps for a feature race around a 400-foot track. Occasionally, competitions will feature a 50-lap race. Those competing can race in either the modified class (12.5 horsepower and under), the supermodified class (13 to 17.5 horsepower) or both.

Thompson, who has more than his share of wins, owns a mower for each class, but he prefers the supermodified category because of the higher speeds.

He said that while the lawnmowers are capable of traveling higher speeds, most drivers don't race above 35 miles per hour.

"You can go a lot faster," Thompson said, "but the faster the speed the more likely you'll crash. There's no limit to how fast you can make them run, but keeping them on the track is a different story."

Thompson would know; in late May, he was racing slightly too fast and lost control of his mower, which caused another driver to crash into him. Thompson broke two bones in his ankle in the accident, which should sideline him for at least a few more weeks.

"We were both flying, and I turned completely sideways, and he couldn't stop," he said. "I've wrecked quite a few times -- I've had four turnovers -- but this one I'm going to have to take some time with it.

"It's just a racing thing. Accidents happen. We've run wheels off, broken axles, had quite a few cautions for rollovers. We've exploded engines and had a couple catch on fire. You can expect anything. Injuries are few and far between, but like in any other sport, there's always that danger."

Because of this, SEMOW Lawnracers, Inc., requires certain criteria for mowers. Front and rear bumpers, bars around the seats, kill switches and crash helmets are mandatory in races. In addition to safety precaution requirements, the mowers can't be wider than 40 inches or longer than 80 inches, and wheels can't exceed 10 inches. You must be 16 years old to participate.

"Anybody can race if they're over 16," Thompson said, "as long as their lawnmowers fit our criteria. You can build anything you want as long as its with lawnmower parts. You can't take automotive parts and put them on there, but you can mix up different parts from different mowers."

Thompson said drivers will spend months tinkering with the drive trains and the exhaust, pulley and braking systems on their mowers. The blade for cutting grass also is removed.

"We just take normal lawnmowers and speed them up a bunch," he said. "You can take hours upon hours to really be competitive. It's a whole lot of work but not a lot of money."

The hard work in the garage pays off on race day, though, when an average crowd of about 200 people come to enjoy a day of racing in a family-friendly environment.

"All three tracks have good crowds," he said. "It's a family-oriented thing. We don't allow alcohol. It's worked out really good, and that's the way we're going to keep it."

Thompson added that on the track, however, things get heated in a hurry.

"Everybody is friends until they drop that green flag," said Thompson, whose son-in-law and daughter-in-law are also active in SEMOW Lawnracers, Inc. "There's friends and relatives out there, but when the flag goes down, nobody knows anybody. It's strong competition; it's just a natural thing. If you have competition in you, you're motive is to get to the front. In the end, though, we're all just a whole big bunch of friends that are racing as a hobby.

"It's just a good sport."

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