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Mower racing takes off

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life Mitchell, 57301

Mitchell South Dakota 120 South Lawler 57301

PUKWANA -- What started as weekend bar entertainment is now a hugely popular area racing event all summer and into the fall at the Puk U Bar in Pukwana.

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The Pukwana Crazy Racers started in 2003 with about a half-dozen people racing lawnmowers -- yes, lawnmowers --on a track outside the Puk U Bar. Now, hundreds flock nearly every weekend from May to October to the bar's racetrack to watch more than 30 racers compete for top places in their respective classes. The fastest mowers race at speeds up to 40 mph.

President of the Pukwana Crazy Racers Association, Bo Hamiel, of Reliance, said the idea for the races originated with four or five guys visiting at the bar one night. Hamiel didn't get involved until a couple years afterward.

"Some of my buddies went over there in 2004," he said. "I went to the race, came home and went back to the races the next weekend."

He was hooked. Hamiel raced for about five years until he broke his neck in an unrelated accident. Even though he retired from racing two years ago, Hamiel remains involved in the association.

Despite extreme temperatures in the 100s this summer and down into the 30s in late fall, racers and fans come by the hundreds to the track. Many bundled up during the last weekend of racing in October.

The racing fever has also spread to Armour, which picked up four of the association's races this summer.

Larry Wilson helps organize the races in Armour and is a part of the BigWil Racing team.

"We heard about the Crazy Racers in Pukwana. Just a couple of buddies were in the garage one night talking about it and decided to try it," he said.

The races in Armour draw hundreds of people, especially during the Fourth of July races. Wilson said the races particularly draw younger participants between the ages of 14 and 17. That age range can compete at both Armour and Pukwana in the junior stock class, which adheres to most of the same rules as the stock class, but with fewer modifications.

"We couldn't do this in Armour if not for the Pukwana Crazy Racers group coming here," Wilson said. "It's their deal, and we appreciate it."

The last Pukwana race of the season on Oct. 15 included 10 guest racers from the American Mower Racing Association, which holds races all summer throughout the United States. There is also a U.S. Lawn Mower Racing Association.

The Pukwana association doesn't take the sport lightly. It formed to improve the racing track and implement a set of specific rules to govern the races and racers.

In the last several years, the association has installed lighting, a speaker system and improved the racing surface. The association also placed fencing around the track to enhance the safety of the crowd.

As for the racetrack, not just anyone can race. According to the official rules of the Pukwana Crazy Racers, drivers must be a member of the association by paying a season fee and must be 18 years old for stock, modified and outlaw classes.

Like any professional vehicle racing sport, the lawnmowers are inspected prior to every race.

Each lawnmower must have its deck removed, include a kill switch and clutch, have a securely fastened fuel tank and battery, and have a floorboard, among other requirements.

At least three inspectors will either approve or deny the entry of a mower based on an initial tech inspection. The racer is given a onerace grace period to change any flaws inspectors spot. Changes must be approved prior to the following race date.

Alcohol is not allowed. Racers "cannot consume any alcohol immediately before or during any race night," according to the rules.

Drivers caught doing so or who appear to be under the influence won't race that night.

Alcohol is also not allowed in the pits until after the final feature of the race. Pit crews, however, are allowed to drink outside the pits.

Racers are required to wear safety equipment including a full-face helmet, chest protector, gloves, longsleeved shirt, over the ankle leather boots, racing style neck brace and eye protection, such as goggles or a face shield.

The helmet must be Department of Transportation or Snell Foundation approved.

If drivers are missing any one of these items, they are required to leave the racetrack and put on the item.

Although these rules are in place to help protect racers, make no mistake -- racing lawnmowers is a dangerous sport.

Racer Ray Bigge, of Armour, from the BigWil team, said he's been in his fair share of rollovers and accidents in the last six years. However, he knows the risk and takes the good with the bad.

"Is it dangerous? Of course," Bigge said, laughing. "But it's dangerous driving to work every day, too."

Bigge spent his first three years on a stock mower racing in Pukwana. For the last three years, he's been racing in the outlaw class, which allows nearly every modification imaginable.

When asked what the difference is between racing stock and outlaw, Bigge laughed and said, "More guts!"

A typical stock mower runs an 8 horsepower engine, he said. Rules allow for a little work to the stock engines, but it usually remains at 8 horsepower.

For outlaw, anything goes. Bigge runs a 23 horsepower engine, which he has ramped up to run at 40-plus horsepower.

He describes his mower as "an ornery go-cart." Typically, Bigge and his fellow outlaws will fly around the 100-foot track going 35 to 40 mph.

Driving on a dirt track takes some getting used to, but Bigge said the biggest issue is turning.

"If you're going hard enough left, you'll find yourself going right," he said.

Brent Springer, of Pukwana, races stock class and said, "You have to be crazy to do this."

In his six or seven years racing, Springer has been in plenty of accidents, he said. Once, his mower flipped and landed on top of him, with the exhaust landing on his backside and leaving a burn mark.

"It took three to four weeks for all the bruises to go away," he said.

He didn't break any bones that day, "but boy did it ever feel like I did."

Springer's mower is composed of several old parts and several different brands. The frame is a Montgomery Ward, the wheel rims are off an old John Deere mower and the engine is a Tecumseh.

"I think I'm the only one running a Tecumseh," he said.

Springer works for a local farmer, so while he's out driving he'll often see old mowers in a pasture or farm yard. He'll find out who owns the mower and try to get parts.

"Nothing on my mower is new," he said.

The Springer Racing team, jokingly referred to as Uncle Cracker Racing in honor of Springer's nickname, includes his father and his brother-in-law, who helped him build the mower.

Springer's father, Leonard, works on the mower throughout the year, visiting with other racers on what could be tweaked, Springer said.

Leonard is retired, so working on the mower and being head of the team keeps him busy, Springer added.

With the season wrapped up for 2011, the Crazy Racers will celebrate with a banquet in November and an annual meeting in January. Hamiel said racers discuss rules and racetrack maintenance.

Racers will spend the rest of the offseason working on their mowers.

Judging by all the accidents, rollovers, crashes and other mishaps that happen on the track, Bigge said racers are going to need most if not all of the winter to fix everything that's broken.

Anna Jauhola/Republic Lawnmower racers compete earlier this summer at Pukwana.

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