During the summer months college sports are practically non-existent, and since new Longhorns content is hard to come by I've been given the green light to do a series of articles on sports that may not be familiar to regular BC readers. This piece is on lawn mower racing, and I've included an interview with mouse-farming lawn mower racer(trust me, we'll hit both topics) Sammie Neel.
First of all: yes, it's a real thing. A dozen years ago, I was off work on a Thursday and I was home doing laundry/napping/possibly drinking heavily with ESPN2 on in the background. Around noon, I started to hear the sounds of lawn mowers rolling around my apartment. I looked up from my fully-reclined state - OK, no, I wasn't really doing laundry, but 2 out of 3 isn't bad - to see several men in NASCAR-ish gear racing across my screen, perched on what appeared to be lawn mowers on steroids. They were hitting speeds of nearly 50mph on a grass field, flying through a course made out of hay bales & Budweiser banners. I immediately had 2 thoughts: 1) this is the redneck-iest bit of 'hold my beer' inspired sporting I've seen since I went to a tractor pull at the age of 6, and 2) I MUST CALL EVERYONE I KNOW TO TURN ON ESPN2 BECAUSE THIS IS AMAZING. I loved the stock class - where guys would don motorcycle helmets to ride their home mowers around a track at a breathtaking 8 mph - especially when there was a wreck. Yes, there was a wreck. A guy lost control of his lawn mower. At eight miles per hour. I'm not kidding. I loved that the 'cleanup' consisted of rolling the mower behind a hay bale & waving a green flag to let the racing continue. This amused me more than anything else I'd seen that week...until they rolled out the modified lawn mowers. When I say modified, I don't mean they added spoilers to your average riding mower(though that's happened); no, these are the lawn mowers that can hit 60+ mph.
Ever since that day, if somebody happens to be showing lawn mower racing - and it's only been on a handful of times since then because ESPN stopped showing odd sports in favor of broadcasting Skip Bayless eating his own feces thrice daily - I'll stop down & watch the whole thing. Longhorn Network has actually put together a piece on lawn mower racing, which might be the last time ESPN has shown any interest in the sport.
(Sammie & her husband are both in that video)
The Definitive Partial History of Lawn Mower Racing in <200 Words (with video!)
Lawn mower racing has been around in the US since the 1960s and has been operating in various parts of the country for the better part of 50 years, but the sport seems to have taken hold deepest in the south and midwest parts of the country. Texas has a fair amount of racers, though the largest races seems to be mostly in Illinois & North Carolina. While the sport's popularity has probably waxed & waned since the 1960s, there was a point when the sport was popular enough that Vivendi Games decided to make a video game out of lawn mower racing in 2007. I'm guessing they were going for 'Lawn Mower Mario Kart' but ended up with what I can only describe as the Microsoft Flight Simulator of lawn mower racing. Vivendi was swallowed up by Activision less than a year later, and judging by the video below I can't help but think these two events are related.
(Side note: if you've never heard of 'Prince of Macedon', it might be because after narrating this video, he changed his name to Kige Ramsey.)
The Lawn Mowers
I had a series of definitions here that I cobbled together from my own research(aka drunken Google & Wikipedia searches; I'm basically a plagiarizing high school senior when it comes to these articles), but Sammie put together such a good summary in her interview that I'm scalping the interview and putting her response in this section. The lesson here: I'm terrible at research but amazing at being lazy.
BWG: Could you give the readers a quick rundown of the differences between the classes of racers?
SN: There are six classes raced by the Lone Star Mower Racing Association (LSMRA). We may be adding a seventh class this next season. The six that we currently race are:
The IMOW Class (Int’l Mowers of Weeds). All mowers are nearly identical and competition is based on driver ability. The engine horsepower is 17 (31ci) maximum and RPM’s are 3,650 maximum. This class is highly regulated. This is the class that most resembles the mowers that were first raced in the US.
The A/P Class is a prepared or modified class. They have a valve in block, 4 stroke engines that are 10.5 hp and under.
The C/P Class is also a prepared or modified class. All cylinder over-head valve and two cylinder valve in block, 4 stroke engines that are 20 hp and under.
The S/P Class (also prepared or modified). They have a valve in block, 4 stroke engines, and are over 8.5 hp.
The B/P Class (also prepared or modified). These are the Big Boys. All overhead valve, V-twin, 4 stroke engines, 20 hp and under. A rookie is not allowed to race this class their first year of racing.
The F/X Class, described as Factory Experimental. It is a major modified class. Maximum engine displacement is 465 cc. Again, a rookie is not allow to race this class their first year of racing.
The new class is FXT. It is also a highly modified class.
My favorite class to race is F/X. Most F/X’s are built on small frame mowers. The best frames are the OLD Huffy mowers. Like the other mowers they are close to the ground and they have a centrifugal clutch, which to me translates to "I don’t have to shift!!!" Just get on it and GO!
Another thing worth mentioning is this community's love of wordplay when it comes to naming their lawn mowers. I've seen names like 'Mr. Mowjangles', 'Mowchete', 'Sir Lawns-a-Lot', and my personal favorite, 'Mowsemiti Sam'. It doesn't end there; the head of the United States Lawn Mower Racing Association emailed me Sammie's contact info with the phrase 'Here ya mow!' in the body of the email. Their pun ability is a cut above the rest.
(I couldn't help myself, they're rubbing off on me.)
Sammie Neel Interview
Sammie & her husband(Marion aka Capt'n Khaos) run the Lone Star Mower Racing Association, a subsidiary of the USLMRA. They're both avid racers and are keen to spread the gospel of lawn mower racing to anyone that will listen. They also run a mouse farm outside of College Station, which is a subject that almost derailed this entire article because I'm easily fascinated by unusual occupations. I can't tell you how much I enjoyed seeing the confused looks I received when I'd tell people I was about to interview a mouse-farming lawn mower racer. It's like I tried to explain 'Dark Knight Rises' while drunk. Or while sober, really; that movie doesn't make any sense. I mean, why do they show him still in the Bat while he's obviously ejected? How does Bane lace that much concrete with explosives without the city finding out? (Have you ever tried to slip an improvement past a city inspector? GOOD LUCK.) How is that scientist the only guy that can disarm the bomb when he's got a 3-year-old paper on how to weaponize a reactor floating around the Internet? AND HAS NOBODY HEARD OF A BOAT ON THAT ISLAND?
Right, sorry. Onto the interview.
BWG: Both you and your husband race lawn mowers. How did the two of you get involved in racing in the first place?
Sammie Neel: Well .... Marion and I both had been working some really long hours, it was Friday night and we were just getting ready to retire for the night and the 10:00 p.m. news was on TV. There was a guy, Lewis Driggers, on the news promoting a lawn mower race that was to be held in Bryan, Texas the next day (Saturday). Much to my chagrin, I could see the shear excitement on Marion’s face when he listened to the promo. I timidly asked if he wanted to go, already knowing the answer. Of course, he did.
Saturday morning, we took off for the Brazos Expo Center in Bryan, Texas to enter into the fascinating world of lawn mower racing. I knew Friday night that we were about to embark on a new venture. AND, I WAS RIGHT. When we were seated in the bleachers awaiting the race to begin, OMG ... the racers CRANKED UP their mowers. Yep, Marion was ... well, let’s just say he his HEART was in it and he couldn’t wait to find out how to become a Lawn Mower Racer.
Between every class, Marion couldn’t wait to hear the mowers crank again. He was already looking at all of the classes, engines, etc., etc., etc. After the race was over, the spectators were welcomed onto the field to talk with the racers and look at the mowers. The racers were all very helpful and answered question, after question. Their encouragement was narcotic. I knew MARION would be a racer by the next time the Lone Star Mower Racing Association had a race. And, HE was!
It was a LONG summer before the racing season began. We went to our first race in Bulverde, Texas. Met a BUNCH of GREAT people and just really felt welcomed into the LSMRA racing family. The second race was in Heavner, Oklahoma. It was a LONG drive there and a LONG drive home, after the race. So, Marion and I had a lot of time to talk .... about the race and lawn mower racing.
During our conversation, I heard myself saying "If I had a mower ..." Were those words REALLY coming out of my mouth? Well, I thought, I might as well finish the sentence. "If I had a mower, I would call it Love Mowtion No. 9." We were having a conversation about all of the really cool names that the racers had for themselves and their mowers. I didn’t really MEAN that I wanted a racing mower. I was just having fun with the names. I had never raced anything. Not a foot race, not a golf cart race ... nothing. I just wasn’t into competition. I didn’t even like to drive a car fast.
At that point, it was too late. The conversation went on and we made the long trip home without realizing the time that had passed because Marion was so excited about his newfound hobby.
By the next weekend, Marion and his buddy, LEWIS DRIGGERS (yeah, the guy we saw on TV that fateful night) had purchased an IMOW Class racing mower from a retired lawn mower racer for me. I was ... well, I didn’t know exactly what I was. I asked them to fix it where I could go around the track with everyone in that class (it is the slowest class of all of the mowers), but don’t expect too much from me. They worked on the mower and made it where it would run. Marion had it powder coated white and the stickers reading "Love Mowtion No. 9" on the side. On the front of the mower it read "Pucker up, Here I Come". The back read "Kiss This". It was really a pretty machine. I was proud.
My first race, I was putting around the track, just as I requested. By the 4th or 5th lap, I found myself wanting to catch up and COMPETE! OMG. I was turning into one of them! I told Marion and Lewis that if they were going to stick me out there, I better be able to WIN!!!!
And so, our lives together as lawn mower racers began.
BWG: How often have the two of you raced each other, and who holds the better head-to-head record? (Please tell me there’s some good natured spouse trash talk involved back home.)
SN: The first year of our racing careers, Marion raced in the IMOW and B/P Class (mild to wild). I only raced in the IMOW Class. For the first year, we were competitors in the same class. I soon realized I had to kick Marion out of the IMOW Class. It is one of the most fun classes to race because all of the mowers are the same and the engines can not turn more than 3,650 RPM’s. So, the competition is truly driver ability. Being able to negotiate the turns and hug the inside at full speed and stay on the track. Otherwise, someone will cut under and get the inside.
Marion and I never had a problem with "who is the better racer". I know he can beat me ANY DAY! Racing him gave me a goal to reach. But, he was always concerned about whether my mower was dirty side up. He was too concerned about how I was doing in the race to concentrate on his own racing. So, it was abundantly obvious HE had to get out. Besides that, I needed him as my mechanic when my mower broke.
Most of our "good natured spouse talk" has to do with, "You have to make it (the racing mower) go faster. It hesitates .... It wobbles ... It is making a funny noise ... What is wrong with it ... What am I doing wrong? ... Don’t tell me what I am doing wrong! ... Whatever!!! What is wrong with my mower (not me)? ... FIX IT SO I CAN GO FASTER AND WIN!!!! (PLEASE)".
BWG: From what I can tell, lawn mower racing seems to be a relatively small, tight-knit group of people that are at the races as much for the company as the competition. Could you elaborate on the social dynamics of the racing "scene" and why people tend to gravitate towards lawn mower racing?
SN: I can’t speak for other types of competition or even other racing competitions, but for lawn mower racers, we like each other. The sport is highly competitive. The racers are passionate about racing as well as winning. We race for trophies, not money, so we believe that eliminates cut-throat racing. The element of racing for money does funny things to most people.
The Lone Star Mower Racing Association has adopted a habit of working together with our venues to prepare the track for racing. Then we have the sheer joy of racing hard for our spectators, fans and the trophy for first place. After the race is over, and we have met with our fans, signed autographs, and our adrenaline has been drained, we work together to dismantle the track. Once all of this has taken place, there is an air of relaxation and accomplishment among the racers. Dirty faced, sweaty and exhausted, the racers start talking about the race.
"Did you see the look on the his face through his helmet when I passed?"
"What in the world happened to your tire?"
"How did you get around me? What have you done different with your mower?"
"OMG! Patti (our Flagger) is covered in dirt. That track was dusty!"
"There was a little boy in a wheelchair in the crowd and I gave him an LSMRA T-Shirt. Just made his day."
And the more we talk, the more we want to talk. We drag out our lawn chairs and sit in the shade. Then one by one, we all gather around to talk about our day and how much fun it was and what we can do to make the races better. THEN we get HUNGRY! We either shower and find a restaurant that will accommodate all of us, or we start dragging out sandwiches and chips. This goes on well into the night. Those of us who have to try to get our "beauty sleep" peel off and hit the hay. The others who are still too excited to go to sleep, stay up and visit. We know we won’t see each other until the next race, so, we have a lot to talk about. Quite frankly, we are just a bunch of kids and don’t want the fun to end.
We race as a hobby. Most of us have to work really hard to earn the money to support our racing drug. Our races are like mini-breaks from the reality of earning a living.
BWG: Have you seen any increase in the sport during your involvement over the last few years?
SN: Even during the recession of the past few years, there IS increased interest in the sport of lawnmower racing. We have been on several Television programs and there are many articles that have been printed about lawnmower racing. This exposure has certainly opened doors for the Lone Star Mower Racing Association, and we appreciate it.
Of course we have racers that come and go. Most people who become lawnmower racers stay in the sport as long as their health and funds allow it. It is one of the most inexpensive racing sports. It isn’t expense free, but for $2,500.00 or less, you may be a full-blown, bonafide lawnmower racer. Then, there is the expense of getting to and from the races. Oh! And a little gas and oil money for your racer. After that, you may have tune up or breakage repair costs.
We usually peak the interest of an average of two new members per year. We welcome ALL competition. The more, the merrier.
BWG: Your mower is named "Love Mowtion No. 9", and I’ve seen other racers give their mowers names like "Mow Patrol", "Alfa Mowreo", and (my personal favorite) "Mowsemiti Sam". You guys love your puns, don’t you?
SN: Can’t have lawnmower racing without the puns. The "Pun King" is Bruce Kaufman, the President of the USLMRA. He can insert two to three lawnmower racing puns in every paragraph.
When a new member comes on board, if they don’t already have a racing name, we watch their racing and mannerisms and before you know it, someone has a name for them. Most of them are appreciated ....
BWG: How often do you get to race? What’s the best way for someone interested in learning to find out about upcoming races?
SN: Most of our races are a result of being invited by venues who are looking for "different" entertainment for events they are organizing for their counties or cities. That makes our race dates contingent on when we are asked to race. We may be contacted through our website www.lsmra.com. That is also a great way to become familiar with the racers for those who have never been to an LSMRA lawnmower race. There is information about the racer’s standings and their personal profiles. Not only is there a list of our upcoming races, but there is information about how to become a member or host a race.
BWG: OK, I can’t help myself. Please tell me about the mouse farming. I didn’t even know that was a thing until I read about you and your husband and I’m fascinated. How does somebody end up in a business supplying mice to labs?
SN: Let me tell you about Mouse Farming. First of all, we don’t sell to labs. Wish we did. They get the BIG BUCKS for mice and rats because they have to be raised in a very sterile environment. We raise mice and rats for the pet trade and as a food source for wildlife rehabilitators, zoos and herpetologists. Somebody has to do it. We decided it had to be us.
In 1990, Marion and I owned a pet store in Bryan, Texas called Critter Crossing. We had a devil of a time getting mice for sale. There was a wholesaler in Houston (about an hour and a half from us) that sold mice to pet stores. We would call in an order for 50 mice, drive to Houston and upon arrival, we were told "We just sold out". Out of desperation, Marion started raising mice in the back of our store. We had a rat supplier. They were two Texas A&M students who raised and sold rats to the pet trade (the funds put them through college). I soon told Marion that he was going to have to move his "mouse operation" somewhere else. I had my hands full with the store and didn’t want the odor of the mice leaking into my clean smelling pet store. Marion moved the operation to his shop behind our car port at home. Finally, we had a constant source of mice for the store.
I realized after a couple of years, that retail was VERY .... demanding. We exited retail. That’s a whole other story. When we got out of retail, one of the other local pet stores called and said that they heard we were raising mice for sale and asked if we would sell to them. Of course we would! One of the vendors who had previously sold reptiles to us also called and asked if we would raise mice for him. Of course we would! "How many do you want?" He said he would take up to 3,000 per WEEK! Okie dokie. We are in the mouse business.
From that point, we moved outside of town. We don’t think our in-town neighbors ever knew we were raising mice in the back yard, but we planned on growing our business. Since that time, we added rats to our breeding facility. Today have one of the largest mouse and rat breeding facilities in Texas. We are very proud of our product and of our employees who work hard to produce them.
Oh! And, by the way, the two Texas A&M students who raised the rats moved to Austin, Texas and opened a pet store in 1994, which is called Austin Exotic Pets. They are now very loyal customers of OURS!
Many thanks to Sammie for her answers. If you're ever in need of some frozen mice - and who hasn't been - or want to donate some to a wildlife rehab facility, you can find more information on their operation at The Mouse Farm.