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Mower than meets the eye

Beaverton club hopes regional race is a cut above the rest
by: Jaime Valdez Gary Tucker and David Miller have spent the last few weeks fine 
tuning their souped-up riding lawnmowers for a regional race this weekend.

A former snowmobile racer on the professional circuit, Gary Tucker found his move from Wisconsin to Oregon didn't quite quell his need for speed.

But catching a glimpse of a certain off-kilter sporting event - the racing of souped-up riding lawnmowers - set the Hillsboro resident on a racecourse of a different color.

'I saw it on TV several times,' he says of the well-established but still chuckle-inducing sport. 'I thought, 'I could do that!''

'I used to race snowmobiles, and I knew about formula cars,' he adds. 'This is a lot cheaper.'

His instincts, it turned out, were correct.

Tucker quickly learned the ropes of modifying mowers, which he acquired at bargain prices from previous owners from ads and websites such as craigslist.

Before long, Tucker, 51, had a new obsession on his hands.

And to his surprise, he discovered it was actually fun to race the things - whose speeds range from 20 to more than 50 miles per hour - against other, um, mowerists.

'Even though the speeds are lower, you're still on that ragged edge of the machine's capacity. It's still a rush in that respect,' Tucker said.

Expect a lot of that rush - and not a little air of inspired wackiness - when Tucker, president of the Beaverton-based Northwest Mower Racing Association, and his mower-racing cohorts from around the West converge on Estacada this Fourth of July weekend.

Hosts with the mowst

The U.S. Lawn Mower Racing Association will host the U.S. Pacific Coast Open lawnmower races Saturday and Sunday at the 'Mow Bang Raceway,' 30900 S.E. Eagle Creek Road in Estacada, for two days of sod-slinging action.

Preliminary racing starts at 2:30 p.m. with trophy racing beginning at 7 p.m.

About 50 competitors - from Washington, California, Idaho, Nevada and possibly even Canada - are expected to participate, Tucker says.

Tucker and his friend, Dave Miller of Happy Valley, say they're excited about the prestigious event, a portion of whose proceeds will be donated to Doernbecher Children's Hospital at Oregon Health and Science University.

'This is our first year hosting,' Tucker says, noting the races will anchor a full-on July 4 festival featuring carnival rides, live music and food and beer vendors. 'And we're the featured event.'

A week before the races, Tucker and Miller appear confidently relaxed as they prepare their Craftsman, Murray and MTD mowers at Tucker's suburban home.

'That's a suicide machine there,' Miller says, dismounting after practice riding a red MTD mower whose horsepower he about doubled from its original 12½ rating.

The mowing blades, he explains, are removed from racing mowers, though the rounded blade guards remain intact, an example of the sport's emphasis on safety.

'You always re-do the brakes on 'em,' Miller says, adding that helmets and protective clothing are mandatory in races. 'Safety is a big part of it.'

Mowing your limits

Tucker, who works from home as a fleet sales manager of truck components, admits he's had some close calls on mowers. However, he associates racing more with adrenaline than fear.

'I've nearly tipped over a number of times,' he says. 'That's pretty much the limit. I've never rolled it yet. Two wheels several times, but never rolled.'

In addition to the speed factor, Tucker, a bachelor, says mower racing epitomizes camaraderie and competition as well as fun for the entire family.

'It is pretty competitive,' he says, noting the typical age range of late teens to 'retirement' age. 'There are a lot of mothers, fathers and kids involved.'

A retired Freightliner customer-service representative and married father of two grown children, Miller, 59, doesn't deny what he calls the sport's 'curiosity' factor for the uninitiated.

'Yeah, people look at you like you're crazy,' he says of neighbors and onlookers at practice sessions. 'Sometimes you get the thumbs up, and sometimes they look at you like they don't know what they're seeing.

'A lot of the dads just stand there and smile.'

Tucker, who has eight riding mowers in various states of use and repair - but actually uses a push-mower for his modest yard - says he's happy to find a more middle-age friendly pastime than snowmobiling.

'That's a young man's sport,' he says with a hearty chuckle. 'This is way easier.'

Start your engines

What: The Pacific Coast Open lawnmower races

When: Races begin at 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Where: 'Mow Bang Raceway,' 30900 S.E. Eagle Creek Road, Estacada

Registration: 11 a.m.

Tickets: $5, free for ages 12 and younger; a family discount coupon is available at facebook.com/Estacada4thofJuly

Call: 503-715-1414

Website: www.nwmowerracing.com