When you race a vehicle made for cutting grass at speeds of up to 50 mph, accidents are bound to happen.
Mark Ledford knows all about that. The York man has suffered two broken collar bones in lawn mower racing wrecks over the past three years. Still, he comes back for more.
“You have no roll cage, and if you get tangled up with somebody, you just go flying,” said Ledford, 48, who competes under the banner of Red Barron Racing. “It’s real dangerous. But it’s exciting.”
Ledford is among 50 to 80 lawn mower racing enthusiasts who rev up their engines every other Saturday at Phat Bottom Speedway off Jim McCarter Road between York and Clover.
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At Phat Bottom, dozens of racers roar around a dirt track in a quest for the simple joy of bragging rights. There’s no prize money involved here; it’s all about the love of speed and victory. And, of course, the cheers of the crowd.
Spectators arrive by the hordes in cars and pickup trucks with lawn chairs, coolers and other picnic gear in tow to watch the races in the midst of a bucolic rural setting.
The racing began at the track about five years ago with a small group of enthusiasts, and has swelled to a roaring attraction nestled amid rolling hills and quiet pastures.
“It started as just a group of guys that wanted something to pass the time,” said Angeline Robinson, whose husband and two children both race.
“They took the mowing deck off their lawnmowers and they wanted to race,” Robinson said. “Over the years, it has evolved and become a great big huge thing.”
The racing began in 2009, when the 15-acre property that includes the track and parking area was owned by Kenny and Kelly Hart. The Harts moved last year and sold the track and a home on the property to horse enthusiast Brian Saunders.
Saunders, who owns 12 horses, said that before he closed on the property, he planned to shut the track down and establish a horse arena in its place.
Then he visited some of the races and saw the passion and camaraderie of the racers. “I saw how many people came, and I didn’t want to disappoint the people around here by shutting it down,” he said. “I said, ‘How can I shut it down?’”
But Saunders also wanted liability insurance to protect himself, so he organized the nonprofit York County Lawn Mower Racing Association, which begun to establish rules and set guidelines.
Racers pay a minimum $10 fee per race, which includes $5 for insurance and a $5 entry fee for each class in which they race, he said. Spectators also pay a $5 admission.
The organization has used its proceeds to support local charities and families in need, with donations of more than $1,000 this year, Robinson said.
Saunders said when he bought the property, he was told the racetrack’s operation was legal. He has since learned that the track hasn’t completed the necessary steps through York County to get approval to conduct its races.
Saunders recently began a quest to get the track approved. The York County Council last month approved his request to change the zoning to agricultural from rural urban development; two more voters are required.
During a July meeting on the issue, area residents and racing enthusiasts spoke to the County Council in favor of and against the track. Some of the track’s neighbors have voiced complaints about loud noise from the races.
And the zoning decision is only part of the approval process for the track. If the agricultural zoning is approved, Saunders said, the track still must apply for a special permit, and an engineer would need to approve a site plan for the track.
“It’s going to be very costly and long,” Saunders said about the approval process. However, he said that he expects the races will continue in the meantime.
A place to race
And Saunders said he is a believer in what the track offers.
“These drivers need somewhere to race in York County,” he said. “I want to show that this track does good. We have good drivers, good kids. That’s what we’re here for, the families and the community.”
The lawn mower racing association, which holds races from February through November, has races in seven different classes.
They include youth races for ages 7 to 15, stock mowers that run at 5 to 10 mph and super modified mowers that can run up to 50 mph.
Robinson, who is among a dedicated volunteer corps that operates the speedway and runs the races, said racers enjoy a strong connection.
The sport of lawn mower racing has several national organizations that hold national points races, but Saunders said he has no plans to affiliate the track with a national group. Instead, he wants to maintain a local operation.
“Right now, we just run our own points circuit with our local drivers,” Robinson said. “We try to keep it as local friendly as possible, because we don’t want to take the hometown out of what we’ve established. We’re just a bunch of friends and family. A racing family.”
Chris Blevins, 42, of York, was among the early racers at Phat Bottom, beginning in 2009. He said his father, Danny Blevins, built one of the first lawn mower racers.
“We came out here when there was only like four of us,” Chris Blevens said. “And it just blew up from there.”
Now, Blevins races in a mini late model racer with a mower engine, mower tires and a roll cage. He has invested about $4,500 in the racer.
“It’s a very cheap way of getting into racing, if you think about it,” said Blevins, who raced go karts in high school. “It’s a step up from go kart racing and a step down from car racing.”
Ledford, who owns three racers, said he has invested about $10,000 in them collectively. He also travels to races in Charlotte, Florida and elsewhere.
“It’s exciting, the camaraderie with the other racers,” Ledford said.
Kids are into it, too. Nine-year-old Madison Bannister participated in her first race last month after watching the races.
“I said, ‘Dad, I want to do this,’” Madison said. Her dad, Jon Bannister, built her a mower. “We talked about it and decided we’d do it,” he said.
Many of the adult racers have a background in other types of racing, like Angeline Robinson’s husband, Derrick Robinbon.
“I’d always been into drag racing,” said Robinson, who came to his first lawn mower race with some friends. Now he owns four mower racers, an investment of about $15,000.
The couple’s children, Dylan, 7 and Hayleigh, 11, both enjoy racing. Dylan “has begged me to do it, but he wasn’t old enough until this year,” Robinson said.
Another racer, Andy Clabough, 49, of York, had been a dirt track racer.
“I was talked into coming up here and watching one night,” said Clabough. “And I just got hooked, because I love racing.”
Clabough said he started dirt track racing around the age of 12. Now his two sons, Taylor, 17, and Drew, 13, race lawn mowers.
“This was just a cheap, fun, friendly place to be,” Clabough said. “It’s part of a family thing. We all load up and go racing. It’s just something that you’ve got to love.”