Mowing down the competition
AVON PARK It may not quite be the cutting edge of the motorsports racing scene, but that’s just fine with the people who gather at the Mower-Plex in Avon Park on the first Saturday of each month. It’s fun, it’s affordable and it’s one big family-like atmosphere, which is the big attraction of lawnmower racing for many. “People in lawnmower racing are just cream of the crop,” said Wes Pyburn, vice president of the Florida Lawnracing Association. “Everybody has a ball. We don’t race for money, we race for plastic trophies. “How can you argue with somebody over something when you’re racing a lawnmower? You just have to laugh.” Lawnmower racing is a worldwide sport, with events taking place in England, Australia and racing on ice has become immensely popular in Norway, as well as certain northern states.In the United States, lawnmower racing and Avon Park will always be linked together, as the Mower-Plex opened in 2002. “This is the original facility,” said Pyburn. “It’s the oldest dedicated lawnmower racing facility in the country, so that’s kind of a big deal for Avon Park.” The Florida Lawnracing Association has been hard at work making the Mower-Plex more fan-friendly, as well as making improvements for the drivers. “We’ve put in a sandbox for the kids and everybody donated a bunch of toys for the kids to play with,” Pyburn said. “We added a picnic table, painted the bleachers. We’ve painted the bleachers and done some things to the track.” Pat Sullivan has been racing for roughly a decade, making him one of the veterans of the mower scene, and he is a pretty much a legend in the sport. Nicknamed “The Rocket Man,” Sullivan is a four-time United States Lawn Mower Racing national champion. “I went to a thing a thing at the Sarasota Fairgrounds, they had a speed demonstration,” Sullivan said. “Some of the guys from NASGRASS were there. That was late 2001 or 2002. I got a schedule from them because I thought it was pretty fascinating and went and watched a race and thought ‘these guys are having way too much fun.’ I got hooked up with Brian Benton and started racing then.” Sullivan’s racing has taken him to roughly 10 different states, and he’s competed in Michigan, Tennessee and Ohio, among others. He started competing in national races several years after getting started in the sport. Racing is definitely a family affair for Sullivan. “I have son, daughter, son-in-law, nephew and two grandsons all racing,” he said. “I know my daughter races only for the camaraderie and getting together.” Sullivan’s son, Pete, and son-in-law, Mike Paccione, have also claimed multiple national titles. There are four different classes of lawnmowers at the Mower-Plex, with IMOW being essentially a stock lawnmower, where speeds in the 20 mile-per-hour range can be reached, while the modified machines can reach speeds of 50 to 60 miles-per-hour. The group takes safety seriously, so each mower is checked before the races to make sure if not only meets the requirements of its particular class, but that it will be safe to race. The current season will end on June 1 and there will be a two-month break, with the 2013-14 season beginning on Sept. 7. Pyburn said a number of racers are already gearing up for next season, which makes this an ideal time to get started in the sport. “People have built new mowers and there are a lot of mowers for sale,” he said. “There are a lot of machines available and it’s really inexpensive. That range is probably $500 to $5,000 and everything in between, but you can get started for $500.” Sullivan said all of the racers are extremely helpful and will do whatever it takes to help a newcomer to the sport. “People should give it a try,” he said. “We’ll help them get started.” There will be special exhibition racing at the Highlands Shrine Club on Saturday at 1 p.m., with spectator gates opening at noon. “We’ll have an exhibition where people can come up and talk to us and ask questions,” Pyburn said. The June 1 races at the Mower-Plex will begin at 6 p.m. and gates open at 5 p.m.