OAKRIDGE – Ladies and gentlemen, start your – lawn mowers?
No, it wasn’t the Indianapolis 500, and no one chugged a celebratory jug of milk after the waving of the checkered flag, but some think lawn mower racing has a future here.
“These people have done something that is going to last a long time,” Merle Hlavka said on Saturday after the first full-scale lawn mower racing competition in Oakridge. “This is fantastic.”
Hlavka, of Wamic, an unincorporated community in Wasco County halfway between Warm Springs and The Dalles, brought his lawn mower race-calling skills to Oakridge to help start a first-ever season of the sport in front of about 100 spectators.
After a year’s effort, a volunteer posse, organized through the town’s fireworks committee, built the Oakridge Old Mill Raceway. Now, Oakridge has one of only two outdoor tracks in the state, said Sandy Edds, who organized the effort along with Jana Howery.
“It’s going to be a good thing for this town,” said Edds, owner of Uptown Barber in Oakridge. “We needed a shot in the arm with something fun.”
Lawn mower racing has been around for decades and is popular in Great Britain (and a few other places in Europe), Canada and Australia, in addition to the United States, according to the U.S. Lawn Mower Association’s website.
Racers ride modified mowers, with the blades, of course, removed.
And some of the suped-up machines can go as fast as 60 mph down the straightaway, racers here said.
“Speed,” said 17-year-old Sara Elder of Roseburg, when asked why she’s doing it again after her first season last year.
“I think the lawn mower was riding me, and I was just trying to hang on,” said Dusty Edmunds, 33, of Eugene, about riding his modified Craftsman mower at the first races held here on May 30, a sort of training run for the raceway.
Edds, 64, who wore a long-sleeve purple sweatshirt with “Old Mill Raceway” and “Eat my dust” printed on the back, said she’ll leave the racing to the younger folks.
“I told them if they would put up a left-turn signal and give me a Big Gulp holder, I’d race,” joked Edds, sitting in the shade of the beer garden tent on a warm and windy day.
But some of the 25 or so racers that came on Saturday were older than Edds.
“I’ve always been competitive, all my life,” said Randy Marshall, of Wamic, a 6-foot, 5-inch former football player for the Atlanta Falcons. “But I’m 68 years old. I can’t play basketball anymore, but I can still drive.”
Aug. 22-23 are part of the Western Mower World Series, sponsored by the U.S. Lawn Mower Racing Association. The event will be staged here, in Wamic and in Happy Camp and Rio Dell, Calif.
“In a few years, this is going to evolve into a real hot deal here,” Marshall said of the Old Mill Raceway, built on land that housed the former Pope and Talbot mill back in the 1980s.
The town’s fireworks committee agreed to take on the task of building the raceway last year after James Affa, a member of the city’s Planning Commission, said he was looking for someone to bring lawn mower racing to Oakridge, Edds said.
“We’d never heard of it, didn’t know anything about it. Had to go online to see it.”
They discovered that the U.S. Lawn Mower Racing Association has more than 66 chapters in 40 states. And there was need for a new racetrack in Oregon after the only other outdoor track outside of the one in Wamic, the Mow Bang Raceway in Estacada, closed in 2013.
“So, we had a whole group of racers who didn’t have any place to race,” Edds said.
Edds and Howery, part owner of McGillicuddy’s coffee shop, see it as not only a way to help the local economy by bringing out-of-town folks in on several weekends a year, but also a way to raise money for the fireworks committee.
“We were really tired of begging for money,” Edds said. “And we decided, let’s earn this.
“And this is a good fit for Oakridge. You can get started inexpensively (modifying a lawn mower), and the community needed something, some sort of different entertainment.”
At just $10 a month to rent the lot the racetrack is built on at the Oakridge Industrial Park, it’s a bargain.
Negotiations with the city started at $3,000 a month, Edds said, but there was no way the committee was going to come up with that kind of money. It has signed a lease that’s renewable every two years for a decade. And a $10,000 tourism grant from Lane County was awarded in December.
The committee projects annual expenses of $44,000 and revenues of $86,000 ($24,000 of it from concessions).
A big cost is liability insurance, Edds said. She wouldn’t give the exact amount but said it’s about a fifth of total expenses.
Racers and pit crew members had to sign a liability waiver. An Oakridge Fire Department ambulance stands by in case of injury.
And injuries do happen. A racer was hurt seriously enough in Estacada in 2012 to require hospitalization after he flew head-first over a bale of straw, according to a story in The (Portland) Oregonian newspaper.
The youngest racer here on Saturday was 11-year-old Dakota Wonderly of Milwaukie, who described how she “flew and was rolling and landed” at the Wamic track last July.
“Just my knee and my shoulder hurt,” said Wonderly, who was wearing her straw cowboy hat and cowboy boots before Saturday’s races.
To build the racetrack, Edds and Howery went looking for the necessary clay and dirt. They were able to get it donated from three different sources, Edds said.
The Oregon Department of Transportation brought truckloads of clay and dirt from a landslide on Highway 58, and Lane County contributed more from road jobs in the Oakridge area. Another contribution came from Casey Jones Well Drilling in Pleasant Hill.
A host of volunteers spent last summer sifting it into a racetrack with 160-foot straightaways and what racer Josh Woelke, winner of the 12-lap main event on Saturday, called “really tight” turns.
That just makes for more exciting action, as the lawn mowers slide sideways and the dirt and dust fly.
“Oh, man, that looked like fun,” said Bob Dutton, 64, of Springfield, who came with his wife, Shelley, after they saw a notice about the races in the newspaper.
“I’m excited,” Dutton said. “I’m going to go buy one!” he said of a racing lawn mower.
Most racers build their own.
“It’s got a little bit of every kind of lawn mower in it,” said Marshall, leader of the team from Wamic called Sportsman’s Grass Car Racing, after the bar and grill Woelke owns with his wife, Kris, in Tygh Valley, near Wamic.
Marshall was referring to his beloved “Black Widow” lawn mower machine, the one with the twin-cylinder, overhead valve engine.
You can spend anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars suping up your lawn mower, said Marshall, who added he can’t wait to come back to Oakridge in August.
“It’ll be the greatest show they’ve ever seen here.”