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Keeping off the grass to get down and dirty

Sunday, August 22, 2004

TONY REHAGEN trehagen@semissourian.com

By Tony Rehagen ~ Southeast Missourian

BELL CITY, Mo. -- Siblings fight over everything. Be it clothes, video games, TV control or who gets to sit shotgun on car trips to the store. Sarah and Jake Spears of Bell City are no different, except that they handle their rivalry in a more sporting fashion. They settle up by racing at top speed on the dirt tracks of Southeast Missouri, atop their custom lawn mowers.

In pit row of 91 Raceway in Bell City, Jake leans confidently against his souped-up John Deere mower in a wood-camouflage Jeff Gordon cap, taking in the shade and shooting the breeze with fellow junior class racer and friend Josiah Stovall. At age 10, Jake's in the second year of a racing career already decorated with an equal amount of trophies and bruises. Josiah, also 10, in a Dale Earnhardt Jr. cap, is just a rookie. But he thinks he knows the secrets of being a successful driver.

"All you got to do is hold tight and stay away from the hay bales," Josiah says in a thick southern drawl.

These two got into racing because it's fun. Fun to open the throttle at over 20 miles per hour, fun to get dirty.

"It's fun to win," say the two in unison.

"How would you know?" snaps Jake to his counterpart.

"I'll show you how I know today," retorts Josiah.

There's a chance that the two young racers will be pitted against Jake's older sister, Sarah, if she chooses to race junior class instead of the girls-only powder-puff class. Both deny any fear of the 13-year-old female racer. But anyone in the club will tell you that losing to Sarah -- who is reputed to have a lead right foot -- eats at them, especially her little brother.

On 91 Raceway

Jake and Sarah's grandfather, Harold Hart, got them and their father into lawn-mower racing. When Hart and Dwight Metcalf founded 91 Raceway two years ago, they gradually made it a community passion.

Metcalf owns Dwight's Lawn Mower Shop in Bell City. Hart had an old green mower he calls "Grandpa's Toy" that he had fixed up to run in parades. The two men were looking at building mowers for pulling competitions. That is, until Hart saw a feature on the 10 o'clock news about lawn-mower racing that had been going on in Allenville for a few years. The idea stuck, and before long, the duo had constructed 91 Raceway, a 200-foot oval dirt track lined with hay bales on city-owned land just below the bend of Highway 91 on the east edge of Bell City.

"It started as a community project," says president of the Bell City Improvement Corporation, Curtis Finney, who's just arrived at pit row to survey the growing line of mowers. "It's a poor man's NASCAR. But it generates a lot of interest and it's beginning to be a big deal."

The track has evolved to include full concession stand, bleachers and running-water rest rooms. The race itself has grown to attract over 20 participants from as far away as Portageville, Mo., and around 100 spectators from places like Sikeston, Mo., who tailgate and sit on the bleachers or in lawn chairs to watch the Saturday races.

"It just lets us get out and gives us something to do," says spectator Janeen Britt of Bell City. She and friend Lee Rendleman have backed a pickup to the edge of the track to watch from the shade of the nearby trees. The two follow the races almost every Saturday, as the tour rotates to other tracks in Advance, Mo., and Allenville.

"There's not much to do in Bell City," explains Britt.

The emerging breed of hard-core mower racers spend their free time turning throw-away lawn mowers into high-powered racers. This involves sizing them to the required length and width, lightening the weight and re-gearing the mower, as well as adding two important features: front and rear bumpers and a kill switch that will shut off a mower should the rider get thrown.

"And that does happen," says Harold Hart's brother, Dick Hart, back on pit row.

Dick Hart is an original member of 91 Raceway, and he mounts a black No. 77 mower that he chopped together with parts from different machines. He said the makeup of the machine is all up to the driver's preference, but he also said racing is 50 percent machine and 50 percent driver.

"If you can't drive, it doesn't matter what you're riding," Dick Hart says.

Today Dick Hart will be driving in two of the five classes of the race: senior and open. The other classes are modified, junior and powder-puff.

Meanwhile, back at the registration tent, Sarah Spears has just arrived and is ready to choose her class for the day.

"And which class will you be entering today, Sarah," asks Daronda Stovall.

"Junior," replies Sarah, turning to the nearby Jake to make sure he hears her.

Green flag

Less than an hour after the invocation and the national anthem, three checkered flags have fallen. Now it's time for the three juniors.

As the green flag falls, Sarah pulls ahead of the pack on "Grandpa's Toy" by cutting Josiah off on the inside of the first turn. Jake hits the gas and comes up on the outside, slightly behind his sister and leaving Josiah in the rear.

The two Spears lean into the next eight turns, holding their positions until Jake makes his move on the first turn of lap nine. But when he accelerates on the outside, he loses control and runs through a hay bale and off the track. The red flag comes out, followed by a yellow caution flag as the racers get back into position. It's Sarah leading, followed by Josiah and Jake.

When the green flag waves the drivers on, dust flies as Jake repeats his earlier move on Josiah and pulls alongside his sister. The two battle for a couple of laps until the last turn of lap 14, the next-to-last lap, when Jake decides to make his push.

Jake slams on the gas, again moving to the outside. Sarah corresponds with a burst, tipping her mower on two wheels as she skirts the inside. Jake pushes a little more, sending his mower out of control, up onto the outside bales, flipping him off the tractor and pulling the kill switch. He's not seriously hurt, but he's out of the race.

Sarah crosses the finish line, well in front of Josiah who finishes second. Jake walks off the track to sympathetic applause, smarting as much from the loss as the wreck.

trehagen@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 137


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