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Tractor Racing: Start your mowers

Lawn tractor racers cut it up on 1/8 mile track in Butler County

Thursday, April 17, 2003

By Bob Batz Jr., Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Way out here in eastern Butler County near Fenelton, the soundtrack to Sunday afternoons is similar to that in a lot of rural places:

It's loud, it's smelly and it's dirty. Those are just three of many reasons lawn mower racing is loved by participants as well as spectators. On opening day last Sunday, at Shadetree Speedway in Butler County, Kittanning's Mike Gulish slides into a turn just ahead of his son, Tony. The patriarch of this racing family says, "For $3, there's not a better Sunday afternoon than right here." (Pam Panchak/Post-Gazette

If you go ...

Lawn tractor races at Shadtree Speedway start at 2 p.m. on Sundays (but not on Easter), and the gate opens at noon. Tickets are $3 for adults, $2 for children 6 to 12. Pit passes, for those over age 16, are $8. Passes for the season -- which runs through Sept. 28 -- are $50 ($150 for pits). For directions, rules and more information, call 724-287-1111 or visit www.shadetreespeedway.com.

Highlights of the spring schedule include:

    April 27 -- Sponsors' Day

    May 4 -- Kids' bike races (helmets required)

    May 11 -- Mechanics' races

    May 18 -- Push mower races

    May 25 -- Relay races

    June 8 -- Kids' bike races (helmets required)

    June 15 -- Mechanics' races

    June 22 -- Second Annual Josh Connor Memorial

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The roar of lawn mowers.

Only here, the roar is more ear-splitting and relentless, as packs of tricked-out, Turbo Blue-fueled tractors zoom 'round and 'round at speeds of 40 miles an hour or more while paying fans cheer.

You've heard of NASCAR. This is sorta like GRASSCAR.

Welcome to lawn mower racing at Shadetree Speedway.

This homely little eighth-of-a-mile-long oval dirt track is the only place in this region to regularly run this growing, grass-roots motor sport. Now that its second season opened Sunday, it's one of a few tracks in the country dedicated solely to racing lawn tractors -- just like the ones used for mowing yards, only without the cutting blades and with racy additions such as painted flames.

"We run this a lot like stock car races," says Jerry Garing, who built this operation with his wife, Shirley. He's a retired hospital cook, she's housekeeping supervisor at Butler Hospital, but their passion is racing -- a stock car, even school buses. Several family members help them at the track: Her brother-in-law is the flagman; her sister runs the Snack Shack; their daughter helps with tickets, which are $3.

Lawn mower races used to be held in nearby Slippery Rock, but nobody was doing them when they started at Shadetree. They had 25 tractors competing by the end of last season. Their business director, Ron Ehrman, expects "the best little secret in Butler County" to see a 50 percent increase in racers and spectators this summer.

Once you find the sign for the track on a narrow road just north of Route 422 about an hour's drive from Pittsburgh, you follow the bumpy, dirt drive past the junk yard and up the hill to the parking lot, with its sign assuming "NO liability for personal damage, injury or death to anyone at any event at this track."

From there you get a fine view of the track, which is outlined by old tires and hay bales. Spectators can stand and sit around the outside, where there's a pair of porta-potties and a small deck for the public-address announcer. In the center of the infield flies an American flag, and yes, they do play the national anthem before the races start.

Below the track is the pit area, which on any given Sunday is packed with pickup trucks and trailers and mostly men but also a few women with racing in their blood.

Not to mention a lot of caffeine and nicotine.

"I just live for this," says Kittanning's Mike Gulish, a Marlboro-smoking, 52-year-old retired coal mine mechanic whose nickname is Bolts.

Some mowers are more serious than others, and the same goes for the drivers. Here, Chicora's Mike Miller crosses the finish line at the wheel of one of the most extreme "super-modified" tractors, which is owned by someone else. Miller, an auto body technician who was last season's super-mod champion at Shadetree, also races sprint cars. He says the challenges specific to lawn mower racing include "hangin' on!" (Pam Panchak/Post-Gazette)

He almost died for racing, too: Back in 1985, when he still was racing stock cars, he crashed and broke his neck. He didn't think he'd ever race again until he heard about mower racing. He started here with his three grown sons last year, and was back on a recent practice day with a 1967 Montgomery Ward he'd rebuilt over the winter, complete with an orange paint job and flaming skulls on the fenders.

"This racing is just as intense as if you're racing a sprint car," says the man whose number is 36, for the year he had a heart attack.

He had a bit of a start -- actually, a stop -- on this day when his 24-year-old son, Tony, cut in front of him with his blue '84 Sears and he slammed into a dirt pile, breaking a tie rod.

"I wreck 'em every race," the elder Gulish said with a grin, as an all-terrain-vehicle-driving worker loaded his mud-encrusted machine onto a trailer to be ambulanced away.

Last year, Gulish notes, he clipped a hay bale, flew 20 feet in the air and landed head-first with his neck making a sound like a broomstick snapping. Since then, "I've had no neck pain at all."

This isn't a pursuit for lawn boys: Racers must be at least 16. They wear neck supports and helmets with face shields (or just goggles, if you chew and need to spit). The mowers have some safety equipment such as "rub bars" to protect racer's legs from other mowers, and kill switches to stop the engine if the driver falls off. Staying on isn't much easier on the body.

"It shakes your insides," says Gulish. He and his boys race in the stock division, for which the mowers are only modestly modified -- engine governors removed, drive-trains re-configured -- as per the track's nine printed pages of rules. Some fill their tanks with $4-plus-a-gallon, 110-plus octane Turbo Blue racing gas.

The tinkering escalates in the modified and super modified divisions, as does the amount of money a racer can spend and how fast he or she can go.

"It's amazing what you can get out of these engines," says Fred Hill, who drives a super-mod numbered 311 nicknamed "Taz" that once was clocked on a straight-away at 64 mph. It can't get quite that fast on such a short, rough track, but that was a good thing when he rolled it. He had a little blood in addition to a lot of dirt on his face, but Taz was in much worse shape. Hill and his buddies pulled off the broken parts, yanked the frame more or less straight and he was out there again for another race.

Taz is one of three tractors to be raced this season by "Team 111," which Hill organized with two of his Ford City neighbors. They started with a John Deere model 111 that they still run in the stock division, and which averages 32 mph on the track. So far they've invested about $1,200 souping up their new modified tractor, No. 211.

They're too young to race but not too young to be interested in lawn tractors. Ryley Sthal, Devon Thompson and Branden Hill play with a decommissioned one on the grassy hillside around Shadetree Speedway. The boys all have fathers who race there. Ford City's Missy Milliken, who roots for Gary Sthal, says if you know the racers, it's "terrifying" to watch, though the injuries are only "broken toes. Minor things." (Pam Panchak/Post-Gazette)

"We have a big crowd that comes to watch us," says Team 111 pit chief Erik Poorman. Some neighbors even chipped in for repairs after the green machine crashed.

Their team comes to the track with tool boxes and extra parts, including wheels and engines. They're building a new trailer for all three tractors that they'll decorate as "Team 111 Racing."

Racing runs in many of these folks' families. Poorman's dad raced sports cars at Watkins Glen, N.Y. One competitor -- Chicora's Mike Miller, last year's super-mod point champion (with 786) -- still races sprint cars. Here he drives a tractor that's owned by someone else.

It can sound like big-time racing (man, is it loud), only without the big sponsors, endorsements and prizes. The most you can win in a race is a twenty-dollar bill.

But, as several point out, racing mowers is much more affordable than racing cars. "It's all fun and games," Poorman said.

Shadetree welcomes tailgaters, and holds promotions such a push mower races and bike races for kids, aiming for an afternoon of good, if not clean, family fun.

But even spectators need to be careful. Just ask Linda Knapp of Hermitage, Mercer County.

"I don't know what it was. It was dusty, it was hot, but the minute you heard those racers start up, you just wanted to get up there." And so, after long watching her husband and son race, she got a tractor of her own, put in a new engine, and painted it hot pink with the professionally lettered name, "Tickled Pink."

She was "scared to death. I've never even mowed the grass with a riding mower." She was the first of a handful of women to race here last season, though there were only two races in which she didn't come in last, she says with big laugh. "I never really competed. I just kinda got out there and got in their way."

But especially after one bruising crash, she didn't want to go that fast. At 58, "I don't bounce as well as I used to."

At the track banquet last fall, she still got a trophy, honoring her as "Most Courageous."

She describes the sport as "a riot."

Many in the one-big-lawn-mower-racing family say it's exciting, keeps them out of trouble and gives them something to do. What they really mean is that it keeps them from just doing mundane Sunday chores like, well, cutting grass.

This hobby could have practical applications for making actual mowing much more fun.

Gulish did some figuring, and says that with a 36-inch-wide cutting deck, at 40 mph, "You could cut a football field in about 11 minutes."

Bob Batz Jr. can be reached at bbatz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1930.

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