Friday, December 28, 2018

COLUMN: Racing Mowers

Well, it's official. Summer's over.

All we have now are a few blissful weeks of crisp autumn air before ice scrapers come out, coats come on, and meteorologists start talking about the dreaded "wintry mix." I suppose the only thing to do now is sit back, reminisce, and take stock of those random moments that made summer special. In 2018, I have a clear favorite.

It must have been mid-July-ish or so. As is lazy Saturday custom, my friend Jason showed up at my door and we set off in search of anything to do or see. Usually this involves whining about having nothing to do before getting sidetracked in conversation and then eventually we'll look up and find ourselves 100 miles away and road-weary. On this Saturday, we set off in a vaguely northwestern direction and eventually landed in the uninteresting back country of Iowa.

You're a fine state, Iowa. You have, after all, "Fields of Opportunities." But on this particular day, we had journeyed well beyond the opportunities and found ourselves in nothing but fields. This was Nowheresville -- and, as it turned out, Nowheresville was having their county fair.

Now when I say "county fair," I'm sure images come to mind. Carnival rides, food vendors, happy families, et cetera. Right? Not in Nowheresville. As we drove past, all I could see were parked cars surrounding drab exhibit halls and sale barns. In Nowheresville, even their fairs are boring.

That is, until Jason yelled, "STOP! STOP! TURN IN!"

This generally means one of two things. Either (1) Jason had spotted something amazing, or (2) there was a bee in the car and I was seconds away from veering off the road and killing us both. Thankfully, this was the former.

Along the back edge of the parking lot, I hadn't noticed the primitive drag strip or the dozen or so trailers unloading their racers. But these weren't cars. These were souped-up, heavily modified LAWN MOWERS -- and we just happened to arrive at pre-race qualifying.

As we walked up, the noise was deafening. Once upon a time, these beasts were simple garden tractors. Now they were customized monstrosities of polished chrome, elaborate pipes, and nary a muffler in sight or sound. 

Why do people do this to these poor mowers? I suppose I understand the desire to be able to mow your lawn in 3.8 seconds, that's perfectly understandable. But I'd reckon none of these beasts had seen grass in quite a long time. It had to have taken HUNDREDS of man-hours to customize these mowers, and for what? This one day of the year when you get 30 seconds of muscle-mowing fairground glory? That's much of a payoff. Only later did I discover that there are racing LEAGUES for these things, and some of these guys are probably taking their Franken-mowers all over the midwest.

The one thing missing, though, were spectators of any kind. Only a small set of bleachers was set up for qualifying, and the only people around were drivers and their families. In fact, the only thing truly being spectated seemed to be the two of us. It didn't take long before we realized that many, many eyes were turned our way. We clearly did not belong.

"What if someone asks us what we're doing here?" Jason whispered under the roar of the engines.

"Simple," I replied. "We put on our best Italian accents and explain we're with Ferrari Motors, Lawn & Garden Division, and we're obviously here scouting for talent."

The stares didn't stop. It became clear that everyone in Nowheresville knew everyone else in Nowheresville -- except the two of us. It was unnerving. I checked to see if my fly was undone or something -- nope, all good there. But it still felt like some Invasion of the Body Snatchers scene where someone was about to point and yell "OUTLANDERS!" and then they'd all turn and point and scream and come at us zombie-style. I was plotting an escape route when Jason nudged me.

"Dude, hand on heart!"

"Whaa?" I started to reply, but then I heard it, too. Never mind the craziest sporting event I'd ever seen. Never mind that there were less than a dozen people in attendance. That didn't stop Nowheresville from bringing out a teenage girl who, behind all the engine noise, had begun a humble a cappella rendition of the Star Spangled Banner.

So there we were, standing in the middle of the parking lot, hands on hearts, given a brief respite from the Stranger-Danger staredown thanks to the stars and stripes. We gave the song the respect that it deserves -- while also silently stepping back towards the car.

"Oh, say can you see" (Step back.)
"By the dawn's early light," (Step back.)

Two seconds after respecting the Home of the Brave, we were in the Car of the Chicken, beat-feeting out of town before the Nowheresvillagers grabbed pitchforks and hopped on Husqvarnas that could likely outrun my Hyundai. I'm all for seeing lawn mowers that go zero to sixty, but I'd rather do it in a town that DOES cotton to strangers.

In the meantime, the only thing I'm fixing to modify are some pumpkins. Hello, fall. Good to make your autumnquaintance.

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