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Lawn mower racing hits Letterman and Broadway

Thursday, April 17, 2003

By Bob Batz Jr., Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Organized American lawn mower racing started out as a publicity stunt, but it's a joke no mow.

That's the kind of pun-ishment meted out by Bruce Kaufman, the PR guy-turned-president of the U.S. Lawn Mower Racing Association.

He calls himself "Mr. Mow It All."

As he tells the history, folks at the Glenfield, Ill., company where he works, Merton G. Silbar Public Relations, were asked by the company that makes STA-BIL fuel stabilizer to check out an endurance mower race in England. Kaufman was one of the people who brought this weed-wacky idea back and launched it here with an announcement on April Fool's Day 1992.

They got mulch more media coverage than they imagined, appearing in everything from The New York Times to the sitcom "Home Improvement," and the sport took off.

Now the STA-BIL National Lawn Mower Racing Series tours the country with 15 races, and the USLMRA sanctions at least 50 more that are run by its 400-plus members in 18 (soon to be 21) local chapters. There also are non-affiliated outfits such as Shadetree Speedway near Pittsburgh.

Kaufman says the first documented mower racing dates to the 1970s in 12 Mile, Ind. Another cradle of the sport was Slippery Rock Raceway in Butler County, which started doing it in the 1980s.

The USLMRA doesn't have a Pennsylvania chapter yet and no race here, though in 1999 the Keystone State Mow Down was held in Monroe County. There are some Pennsylvanians on the USLMRA circuit, such as Tom Lavalette of Columbia, Lancaster County, who says, "I feel that lawn mower racing is coming into its own."

Indeed, an hourlong Discovery Channel documentary -- "Turf Rockets: The Cutting Edge!" -- premiered in February and will air several more times in May. This year's USLMRA finals and "Challenge of Champions" -- traditionally held on Labor Day weekend in Mansfield, Ohio -- will be taped for ESPN2.

"It's spreading like untreated crabgrass," cracks Kaufman, who is to appear on "The Late Show with David Letterman" on April 28 (racing mowers on Broadway!)

The sport, where marquee machines get monikers such as "Sodzilla" and "Turfinator," stays tongue-in-cheek. The USLMRA never awards "grassthletes" prize money, only trophies and "glory," and much of the proceeds go to charitable and community groups.

Not to say that there isn't serious competition. There even have been international battles between American racers and their brethren in the venerable (1973) British Lawn Mower Racing Association. In the inaugural match-up, in 2000, "They kicked our grass," says Kaufman. So the U.S. team must go to Britain to reclaim the "Rider Cup."

The Yanks' ranks are continuing to grow, as new chapters keep sprouting. You can imagine what Kaufman thinks of that.

"The mow, the merrier."

For more information, visit the Web site www.letsmow.com.

And don't miss the news about the debut of the world's first "Monster Mower," a behemoth styled after monster trucks. According to a news release from Kaufman, "Plans are in the works for the Monster Mower to set a world record for lawn mower jumping in 2003."

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