World’s fastest lawnmower racer hits Motor Speedway for top AutoFair prize

Friday, Apr. 05, 2013

Bobby Cleveland has racked up 75 first-place finishes, won nine national championships and holds a world speed record, so it’s tough to argue when he jokes that people call him “the Jeff Garden of lawn mower racing.”

In all, he owns 16 mowers – none of which can cut grass – and all of which he keeps inside his house in Locust, Ga., south of Atlanta. This includes a “monster mower” (“Like a monster truck, only it’s a lawn mower”) that stands about seven feet, has four-wheel drive and sports 31-inch tires.

He’ll bring two mowers to the Food Lion AutoFair this weekend, with intentions of proving that he’s the king of the U.S. Lawn Mower Racing Association.

Yes, there is such a thing.

Cleveland is among its superstars, though he’s still not a member of the National Lawn Mower Racing Hall of Fame and Museum.

Yeah, there’s one of those, too, in a lawn equipment store in Marion, “Mow-hio.” Its hallowed halls include salutes to guys with names like “The Turfinator” and “Sir Lawns-A-Lot.”

Not surprisingly, a reality series is in the works.

“This is the poor man’s NASCAR. We call it GRASCAR,” says Cleveland, 55, trying to explain what “mow-tivates” the racers. “We love to win but can’t afford big racing cars and stuff, so we do it the inexpensive way. We have just as much fun as they do, but nobody gets mad.”

That’s because there’s no prize money, just trophies.

Still, as many as 200 “Turf Titans” from around the country are expected to race in 11 classes at Charlotte Motor Speedway in the STA-BIL Lawn & Garden Mower Racing Series.

That’s double the number of a typical race, officials said, suggesting competition will be fierce. However, all cutting blades will be removed, keeping the threat of decapitations to a minimum. There’s also a “kill switch” attached to the drivers, so the mowers shut off if drivers bounce out of the seat.

Cleveland will be the guy to beat, given his world record. He has driven a lawnmower 96 mph and mowed grass with it all in the same day. The mowing part was one of the requirements, he says.

“It was really scary, once I started thinking about what I was doing,” he recalls. “So many things can happen. Imagine driving your car 90 miles an hour and jumping out the window.”

Lawnmower racing is not his full-time job. He got into the field working in the engine testing department for Snapper, a lawnmower manufacturer. Experiments were part of his job, he says, and it was only natural that he’d start putting scrap pieces together to see how fast they’d go.

Lawnmower racing historians say the sport originated in England and spread to the United States after being observed by an American tourist.

An American racing association was formed on April Fool’s Day in 1992, and the sport has since grown for 250 sanctioned races “coast to coast and lawn to lawn.”

Cleveland says the one question he is always asked about his mowers is whether they’ll cut grass.

His standard line: “We don’t cut grass, we just go fast. But when I’m through, the grass is gone.”

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