SACO — Dennis Quinn shrugged his shoulders and smiled as he stood in the pits after the race and described the moment that first place slipped away.

“I was hoping to stay in first, but those (bumpers) along the track suck you right in,” he said. In a split second, his lawn mower was on its side and he was sent to the back of the pack.

That’s right, his lawn mower.

On Friday nights in the summer, Quinn and a small contingent of drivers make their way to a little clay track in the woods of Saco to race lawn mowers that hardly resemble the machines normally seen criss-crossing lawns. The biggest difference is that some of these modified mowers can break the 60-mph speed limit on nearby Interstate 195.

For the past decade, race enthusiasts have turned out in droves at the Saco Pathfinders Snowmobile Club to watch its annual Cup Series, featuring competitive lawn mower and go-kart racing. It’s a summer tradition for local families and for a club normally focused on a winter sport. This summer’s Cup Series will end after two more Friday night races, this week and Sept. 19.

On busy nights, up to 14 drivers compete in each division of lawn mower and go-kart racing. Usually, 300 to 600 spectators watch the 15-lap heat races and 35-lap feature race.

“They go around this track in four or five seconds,” Jim Stubinski, president of Saco Pathfinders, said of the 1/20th-of-a-mile clay track. “These guys are crazy. I couldn’t do it.”

Before there were lawn mowers whipping around the track, the Pathfinders Club hosted horseshoe tournaments to raise money for the nonprofit club. But 10 years ago, as the people who played horseshoes faded away, the club needed to find another event to draw younger crowds.

Lawn mower racing it was.

“Originally it was just a little track that had four or five lawn mowers,” said Bruce Plouffe, the race director. “Some of them were just mowers without a mower deck. We just had a little fun with them. Now they’re a little more technical.”

The Cup Series now includes two divisions of lawn mower racing: stock, where the mowers are altered only slightly, and modified, where drivers are allowed to modify the mower to make it go much faster. Two years ago, the club added three divisions of go-kart racing for drivers as young as 6.

“When you have an engine and wheels to race on any surface, people will race it,” Plouffe said.

CHEAP, AFFORDABLE AND FUN

Charlie “The Mouth” Gassett of Shapleigh is one of the first to arrive to get ready for race night. Decked out in a cowboy hat, he readies his announcer voice for another night of calling the races and drumming up enthusiasm from the crowd.

“We’re the No. 1 track, believe me,” he said.

The Pathfinders clubhouse is tucked into a stand of pine trees off the Heath Road in Saco. The clay track just behind it is lined with tires and surrounded by picnic tables and bleachers. It’s quiet as a few men work in the concession stand and line up shiny gold trophies near Gassett’s announcing booth.

The races don’t start until 7 p.m., but drivers start showing up two hours before that. They park their pickup trucks and trailers around the edge of the pits, then start the familiar routine of unloading their mowers and go-karts. Before the drivers’ meeting and practice laps, they huddle around karts and mowers wearing thick-soled work boots, talking about the work they’ve done and making last-minute adjustments.

Quinn, who lives in Scarborough, started racing just three months ago. A friend got a new mower, so Quinn bought the old one. Now his 14-year-old son Garrett races too.

“It’s cheap, affordable racing and it’s fun,” Quinn said. “I never dreamt I’d be doing it, but it’s a blast.”

The majority of people who race mowers at the Saco track alter older machines themselves. They say it’s a hobby they got hooked on easily, often after watching just one race.

In the sportsman mower, or stock, division, the mower can have a 5 hp to 20 hp single-cylinder engine, and stock air filters, mufflers and carburetors. In the modified division, drivers update their machines with better brakes, wider wheel bases and other changes. They can also internally and externally modify the engines, which allows the mowers to reach speeds of up to 67 mph.

All mowers must have the blades removed and be equipped with a kill switch that stops the engine if the driver falls off.

“It’s redneck racing,” said Darrell Moulton of Naples, who regularly races at the track.

“You have to be a little crazy,” said Moulton’s friend Ryan Hayes, who helps work on their mowers. “I don’t dare go out there.”

Most of the drivers do all the work themselves, with help from family and friends. It’s not unusual for two or three generations to work on the mowers and go-karts together.

“Because of the way the economy is, a lot of people can’t afford to go see a NASCAR race. You can come here and see a good race. It’s a win-win for everyone,” said Bob Barth, whose two sons race go-karts at the Pathfinders and other tracks in southern Maine.

When it comes to racing mowers, Quinn thinks the older models are better. His is outfitted with bicycle handlebars and “We don’t cut grass, we kick ass” written across the back.

“The parts on these are designed to go 5 or 6 mph,” he said. ‘That’s not what we’re going to do tonight.”

In the minutes before the races were set to begin, Norm Dakin of Gorham – dubbed the grandfather of lawn mower racing by others at the track – wasn’t sure if he’d be able to race. The three-time champion driver realized that a rocker arm was broken, but other drivers scrambled to help figure out a way to get it fixed. Dakin ended up driving to the home of a friend who lives nearby to weld the part. He was back at the track in time to race in the feature event.

Jackie Farrar, Dakin’s fiancee, was happy he was able to compete, even if he wouldn’t go on to win.

“They put on one heck of a show,” she said. “It’s nail-biting to watch.”

MECHANICAL SKILLS, FINESSE NEEDED

Chuck Gassett, son of the announcer and a four-time lawn mower racing champion at the Pathfinders, is taking the season off, but he can’t stay away from the races. As drivers took practice laps, he and his wife, Terry, sat at the top of the stands.

“It’s like the old-time racing. Back then you built your own cars. A lot of guys here make their mowers by themselves,” he said.

But it takes far more than mechanical skills to bring success on the track, Chuck Gassett said. “There’s a lot of finesse to it,” he said. “Anyone who does it I give a lot of credit to.”

Terry Gassett said the races are always fun to watch, even if her husband isn’t out there defending a title. “I never knew a lawn mower could do something like this,” she said.

As the sun sets, the crowd cheers wildly for go-karts and mowers roaring onto the track. For a few minutes at a time, the roar and whine of engines echoes through the night, punctuated with the occasional pop of a backfire. By the end of the night, the clay track is shiny and wheels squeal as drivers hang tight to the inside. Many of the mowers take corners on two wheels.

“Now you can see why we tell them to take the blades off,” Charlie Gassett calls over the loudspeaker when a stock mower spins out and flips.

After Fred Yerxa of Sanford took his victory lap in the modified mower division and the final trophies of the night were handed out, racers returned to the pit to load their mowers and go-karts onto trailers. Yerxa, who switched to modified after winning the stock division championship last year, celebrated with friends.

Yerxa got hooked on the sport eight years ago after seeing lawn mower racing at the Acton Fair. “I bought one the next day,” he said.

It took him seven years to get a first-place win, but he has no plans to stop. Yerxa races a lawn mower that cost thousands of dollars, which he knows draws the ire of some other drivers.

“I’m very fast this year,” he said, pointing to the pristine mower in the back of his truck. “That’s how racing is.”

Just as enthusiastic about the race was Quinn, despite his trouble on the track and barely missing his chance for a victory lap.

“I can’t complain. For the competition that was out there, I’ll take second all day long,” he said. “I’ll be back next time without a doubt.”

 

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