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Lawn mowing at 60 m.p.h.

The father of the lawn mower, Edward Beard Budding, said in his 1830 patent application that British country gentlemen might find his device "useful" and "amusing."

He was right. But I doubt Mr. Budding had lawn-mower racing in mind.

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On any given Saturday - while legions of suburbanites are cutting geometric swaths in their yards (see Page 15) - several dozen grown men and women mount their riding mowers and race each other at fairgrounds, festivals, speedways, and local fund-raisers.

On a small scale, this silliness has been going on for about 30 years in England and pockets of the United States. But in 1992, STA-BIL, maker of a fuel stabilizer, saw mower racing as a promotional gimmick. Eight years later, it is still growing like mushrooms after a gully washer.

This year, Snapper - a mower manufacturer - climbed aboard as a corporate sponsor. And the US Lawn Mower Racing Association ( now sanctions 21 events with four racing divisions: Stock (8 m.p.h.), IMOW (Therefore I Am) - 25 m.p.h., Prepared (35 mph), and Factory Experimental (60 m.p.h.).

Oh, yes, I forgot the three Grass Eliminator drag racing groups. And there's the Nashville Network (TNN) cable-TV contract.

Only in America? No, The USLMRA membership of 500 spans the US, Canada, England, Australia, and New Zealand.

Are these folks serious? Not often.

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Bruce Kaufman, USLMRA president and self-dubbed Guru of the Grassy Green, says, "a sense of humor is not required to be a participant, but it's strongly suggested."

Here's a grass-roots sport - a term recklessly employed - that taps the love of the goofy, the thrill of the chase, and the desire of lawn owners everywhere to shave a few minutes off a weekly chore.

For the racers, this is purely a hobby. No prize money is offered. "We race for trophies - and bragging rights," says Mr. Kaufman. Any proceeds go to charities.

The 1998 STA-BIL national champion, Bobby Cleveland, rides a Snapper LT1633. He's been blade-running competitively for 23 years. His motto: "Live to mow, mow to live."

This summer, the Locust Grove, Ga., resident heads to England to compete in a 12-hour LeMans-type endurance race in Wisborough Green.

Do any of these folks actually mow their own lawns?

"I don't have time," says Kaufman, "I have a goat."

Somehow, I almost believe him.

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