A veteran lawnmower racer on what it takes to zip at 60 miles per hour
"We're like the grass car of NASCAR."
Kerry Evans' ascent to the presidency of the United States Lawnmower Racing Association was set into motion in 1995 when a patron pulled up outside his engine dealership in Alabama and asked him to pimp out his lawnmower.
The patron wasn't concerned about mowing a particularly stubborn bit of lawn. He had his sights set on something bigger — a weekend lawnmower race
Evans loved to tinker with motors but had never thought of applying those skills to a power tool. Intrigued followed the patron out to his truck parked out front and found a pile of junk. He knew he could help, he tells Inverse.
"Lawnmower racing? Come back in two weeks and I'll have your motor built," Evans recalls.
That moment was more than 20 years ago. Evans jokes that accepting that project was "a mistake" because he has been building racing-quality lawnmowers ever since. Now he's entering his second year as the president of the United States Lawn Mower Racing Association (USLMRA) – the governing body for the sport in the United States.
Lawnmower racing is a perfect mix of creativity, ambition, and humility. The fastest lawnmower can go over 96 miles per hour, but it's still a humble lawnmower
"We're like the grass car of NASCAR," Evans says. "The limits are what you can dream."
What makes lawnmower racing a sport – The ULSMRA held its first official race in 1992 outside of Chicago, Illinois on April Fool's day. The very first American lawnmower race is thought to have happened about 29 years earlier, in 12 Mile, Indiana.
That 1992 USLMRA race was sponsored by STA-BIL, a fuel additive company, which was "looking for some kind of gimmick," Evans says. STA-BIL is still their sponsor, but the sport isn't a gimmick anymore.
Every year, about 500 ULSMRA competitors come together in a series of races at the local, state, and national level. The national-level circuit is called the STA-BIL US National Points Series — drivers can accumulate points over the course of a season in pursuit of a national title.
Winning that title requires mechanical expertise, creativity, and plain old "hours in the seat," Evans says.
Competitors can race in any of 10 different classes, which are somewhat determined by age of riders (you must be 18 to race unless you have parental permission), the speed of the mower, and how much a mower has been gussied up.
"You're riding a little bucking bull."
For example: The "stock class" is made up of lawnmowers that are still essentially, lawnmowers. These can reach speeds between 6 and 8 miles per hour. Meanwhile, the "experimental class" consists of mowers that can go as fast as 60 miles per hour. Crucially, in all classes, blades are removed for safety.
Doctoring the machine is a huge part of being a lawnmower racer. The biggest mistake that most beginners make, Evans explains, is treating their mower like other machines. To stay on the track, the best drivers learn to shift their weight to control the speed of seriously fast mowers.
"These machines do not handle like a go kart...or anything that you've ever ridden," says Evans. "You're riding a little bucking bull."
The Michael Jordan of lawnmower racing – Because lawnmower racing fuses both engineering and driving skill, Evans points to two people worthy of Michael Jordan-status.
The first is Chuck Miller, a racer from Marion, Ohio who began his career in 1992. He's competed in every national championship since.
On the engineering side, there's Bobby Cleveland. He's credited with building the world's fastest lawnmower. In a 2010 test run at the Bonneville Salt flats, Cleveland built a mower that clocked in a 96.529 miles per hour.
"He's been a big innovator," Evans says. "Everybody wants to race against Bob."
The spirit of lawnmower racing – Evans is perhaps biased by his position as an owner-builder, but for him, the sport's spirit begins in the machine.
Making a fast mower begins with messing with the belts and pulleys within the mower itself. The best mowers are ultimately a result of personal engineering styles and speed. (And by the way, the organization does not recommend tinkering with a mower that's not for racing.)
That's especially the case in the "factory experimental twin class" of lawnmower racing. In that class, the only requirement is that the mower's frame (called a chassis) and the engines are present. Evans calls his style "clean."
"It takes a little ingenuity," he says. "I've blown a few motors in my days trying to push my limits, but I've found that if you've got the right combination of parts in there, that in the end, puts you on top."
"I've blown a few motors in my days trying to push my limits."
Some top racers will spend around $10,000 improving their machines and then put in weekend hours to get enough seat time on the track. This level of professionalism runs somewhat counter to the Seattle Times 1998 characterization of the sport as "the chariots of the proletariat."
That said, money breeding success isn't a concept new to sports — just look at cycling, where the world's "winningest" bike goes for over $13,000. The same is true for lawnmower racing: The quest for lightning speed does require cash. Still, Evans says that you can get pretty far simply tinkering with the pulleys on a mower and messing with the transmission.
Lawnmower racing was never about money, even if one could take it to such financial extremes. The website's rules clearly dictate that racers are there for points, trophies, and bragging rights only — "we keep the money out of it," Evans says. Those compelled to build expensive racing vehicles often also build extra mowers to make sure that everyone gets a chance to go fast.
It's about coaxing truly professional levels of speed out of something that was never intended for anything more than a mow. Evans would like to see things stay that way.
"It just makes for the sport to be a lot more fun to be around," he says. " I feel like every weekend, I'm attending a new family reunion because all these people are like family to me."