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Bill Harley, as a spokesman for the lawn-mower industry, can’t condone what’s going to take place in Crownsville, Md., this weekend. There’ll be people on lawn mowers racing against each other.

“We do not endorse that activity,” says Harley, president and CEO of the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute, an Alexandria, Va.-based trade association whose membership includes all major American manufacturers of powered lawn- and garden-maintenance products.

However, the U.S. Lawn Mower Racing Association, the premier sanctioning body for what it describes as the fastest growing motorsport in the world, will endorse the activity. The USLMRA is coming to the Anne Arundel County Fairgrounds for the first time this weekend. Riding mowers of all shapes and sizes, piloted by drivers of all shapes and sizes from across the country, will be traversing a winding, 450-foot “road course” made of hay bales and snow fencing on the grass. Mowers, all of which have had their blades removed, will be separated into six classes depending on horsepower, and could hit speeds of 60 mph and beyond.

Historians of lawn-mower racing trace the sport’s beginnings back to Britain in the early ’70s, and it arrived on our shores shortly thereafter: A Fourth of July race in Twelve Mile, Ind., in 1972 is hailed as the first American event. Through the work of the USLMRA, inclusion in a story line on an episode of Home Improvement, and exposure on various cable sports stations, mower racing has grown from a gimmicky enterprise into a sort of poor man’s NASCAR.

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That domestic growth has come despite years of consistent and outspoken criticism of the pastime by OPEI officials. The group even protested the formation of the USLMRA a decade ago.

The OPEI bent is obvious from the several position papers and warnings posted on its Web site. A press release issued as part of the organization’s declaration of April as “National Outdoor Power Equipment Safety Month” included this admonition to children: “Do not drive a riding mower like a race car—it’s a mower, not a racer.” For adults considering the mix of grass and gas, the OPEI site advises: “Do not race lawn mowers. There has also been an alarming growth in an unsafe practice that unwise consumers may consider fun—lawn-mower racing. The OPEI points out that riding mowers are hardworking utilitarian machines with sharp cutting blades, and they are excellent timesaving machines that help consumers beautify their surroundings. They were not designed for racing.”

Harley admits that the amount of flak his group has taken from mower-racing aficionados has picked up noticeably in recent years. But the OPEI isn’t about to budge. “Common sense and product-liability concerns are what have led us to take our position,” says Harley. “And those concerns haven’t changed a bit, no matter how much [lawn-mower racing] has grown.”

The Crownsville races will serve as a fundraiser for Rebuilding Together, an Anne Arundel County charity (formerly Christmas in April) that repairs houses for low-income, elderly, and disabled homeowners. Rebuilding Together volunteers Marilyn Henderson and Brooke Perkins suggested bringing in the USLMRA after happening upon a lawn-mower race in Blob’s Park in Jessup, Md., last year, and the board approved.

“We were looking to come up with an event [to raise money],” says JohnYaremchuk, treasurer of Rebuilding Together, “and we said that people always have dances and silent auctions and casino nights—we wanted something unique.”

Adds Henderson with a big laugh: “This is unique.”

Henderson and Perkins, who are married, do a lot of things with a wink. They’re leaders of the Eastport neighborhood of Annapolis, whose 8,000 or so residents voted to secede from the city when the bridge into the community was closed a few years back. “We’re now called the Maritime Republic of Eastport,” says Henderson. “We’ve got our own Zip code, along with a flag and an anthem, a navy, and an air force of one to five planes. We celebrate our independence every Super Bowl Sunday. I even have a title: Minister of Glamour Trash. In Eastport, we say Annapolis has ‘peninsula envy.’ So this [the lawn mower race] is right up our alley.”

Perkins plans to enter a novice-class event in Crownsville this weekend. It’ll be his first ride on a competitive lawn mower—but hardly his racing debut. In the ’50s, he was a serious drag racer, and his claim to fame on the strip came in 1958, when he beat Big Daddy Don Garlits over a quarter mile in Lancaster, Pa. But Perkins’ motorsports career came to a halt in 1966, when he flipped his Cobra at a road race in Watkins Glen and broke his back.

Going to the Jessup lawn-mower race last year convinced Perkins, now 65, to get back in the saddle. He’ll be behind the wheel of a stock riding mower he bought used at a hardware store a few months ago. No changes to the engine or other innards are allowed in his class, so Perkins doesn’t expect he’ll be able to go much faster than 8 mph, even with his foot on the floor.

“If you can race it or bet on it, Americans will,” says Perkins when asked to explain his “comeback.” (Organizers want to show folks that competitive mowing isn’t just for midlife-crisis sufferers. They got Travis Pastrana, the 19-year-old Annapolis native, freestyle-motorcycle star, and cover boy for extreme-sports magazines, to agree to appear at the event with his new racing mower. Pastrana’s notoriety came when he did a back flip with his bike into the Grand Canyon.)

The Boris family of Clarksville will take a far more serious approach to the Fairgrounds soiree than will Henderson and Perkins. Mike and Mary Lou Boris are the only local participants on the USLMRA’s national tour, and Mike Boris says he’ll hit about 55 mph on his 15.5-horsepower mower if the weather allows.

But, the OPEI’s Harley says, fast mowers shouldn’t be glorified. And he insists that even when alone on his lawn, a thirst for speed has never come over him.

“I have a push mower,” he says. —Dave McKenna