Ready, Set, Mow: Hill Country Lawn Mower Racers Take Commitment To A New Level
The Circuit of the Americas racetrack has raised Austin's profile as an international destination for top-tier racing.
This story is not about that kind of racing.
Every April for the last few years, the Lone Star Mower Racing Association has come to Sweet Berry Farm in Marble Falls for a competition of souped-up John Deeres. The Texas Hill Country event is the brainchild of retired mower racer Dennis Drake.
He organized it to raise money to help fight cancer locally and to honor Mike Cupps, a fellow racer who died in 2009. Last Saturday, racers from all over the state – and even Arkansas – went full throttle to see who's the best.
But, this year, it wasn't all about winning for Mike "Mickee" Scholl, who runs a small engine repair shop called Fixed by Mike in Round Rock. This year is different for two reasons. For starters, he had an accident last year, which he shrugs off with an infectious laugh that makes it almost seem funny.
“Last year, in April at this track, I fractured my neck rolling my mower out of turn four," he said.
"It’s on YouTube!" interjected Alexis Marsh.
"It's on YouTube. It looks like somebody stuck a spatula underneath me and the mower and we just went pfft!” Scholl continued.
While this year marked his first race since that accident, it also marked another life-changing event for Scholl: He was getting married to Marsh.
“The first marriage was hideous. So, it took a long while," Scholl said. "I promised myself that it would never happen again, and every so often you get one or two people in your life that changes your mind and your feeling about something and that’s Lex."
"He’s stubborn in his own ways,” Marsh said.
In addition to their nuptials, there's the other reason all these folks gathered in Marble Falls: lawn mower racing.
The sport is almost exactly what it sounds like – people racing on riding lawn mowers – but there is neither a lawn nor mowing. As Mike Howell, president of the Lone Star Mower Racing Association, describes it, it's relatively easy to get into.
“You can take your mower at home, take the blades off, take the mower board off, and it has to look like a lawn mower," he said. "You can use pieces of metal that looks like a mower deck on the mower. And change the pulleys in the front and rear and they’ll go 25, 30 miles an hour just by changing the pulleys.”
Store-bought engines can’t cut it in the top-tier classes, however.
“Started doing some head work, some valve work," Scholl said of his mower. "The entire engine is billet aluminum. The only stock about is the case, the crank case.”
Subtract the lawns, the mowing, the blades, and just about everything else from the original mower. Racers then add as much as $5,000 in parts for the motor alone.
And, after all that work, you've got a riding mower that can go between 60 and 80 miles an hour. Though, on a quarter-mile dirt track, it’s difficult to get above 40 – even on straightaways.
“For a hobby it is very serious. It can get expensive, but you can get into it cheap," said Eddy Akin from Prescott, Arkansas, who's won the Texas championship a few times.
But racer Dot Walenta of Liberty Hill says, even after all that work, racers aren't looking for a payout.
“We don’t make money," Walenta said. "We donate to charity, and that’s the main thing that we’re here for. That’s the best part of it, is that we’re giving back.”
All proceeds from the Mike Cupps Memorial Lawn Mower Race at Sweet Berry Farm are set to benefit a girl suffering from cancer in the Marble Falls area. Though, there's always a non-cash prize of banana pudding prize at LSMRA races.
But, Akin says that newcomers are always welcome and that lower classes offer an easy entry point.
"The lower classes are pretty cheap to get into," Akin said. "That makes it very family-friendly, and that’s the only reason we’re still in there – because we are like a big family.”
And, after Saturday, that family has officially gotten bigger.
Just before any of the races began on Saturday, Mickee and Alexis were married right there on the track.
While nothing else really matters on your wedding day, it's worth noting that Scholl didn't wreck in his first race back. He even managed a third-place finish.