While strolling the grounds at the Specialty Equipment Market Association show at the Convention Center on Thursday afternoon, I stumbled onto the perfect antidote for Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin, and those losing sleep over Bobby Hauck’s play calling on first, second, third and fourth down in the red zone.
His name is Bobby Cleveland. He is 56 years old, from rural Georgia. He was hanging out under a tent that was hard to miss, because it had two giant bottles of STA-BIL fuel stabilizer on top.
(Had I known about STA-BIL, the stuff one is supposed to put in his lawn mower during winter so that it starts up easily in spring, my elbow wouldn’t hurt so much from pulling on the starter cord, and I wouldn’t have traded in my gas mower for an electric one, and I would be saving a lot of money on those long extension cords I keep mowing over.)
People were stopping by to have their picture taken with Bobby Cleveland, because he is the nine-time national champion of the USLMRA, which stands for United States Lawn Mower Racing Association. Yes, guys have been racing lawn mowers for nearly 20 years now, and it’s gobs of fun, except it doesn’t pay very much.
It doesn’t pay anything at all, to be honest.
Maybe that explains why Cleveland was posing for photos in the parking lot, instead of inside the convention center where Scott Dixon, the recently crowned IndyCar champion, was signing autographs and all those NASCAR guys were making appearances on their way to the race in Phoenix.
You needed a credential or had to be a manufacturer of thingamajigs for Oldsmobiles to have your picture taken with those guys. Outside, you didn’t need a credential. You did, however, have to watch out for guys handing out business cards with pictures of naked women who could be sent directly to your room.
Out front of the display tent, there were placards of Bobby Cleveland, much larger than those business cards with the naked women.
The first thing listed under “Bio” was that he, Bobby Cleveland, had attended technical school for three years and college for two years. It did not say which technical school or college he attended.
Under “Career Highlights” it said that on Sept. 25, 2010, Bobby Cleveland had climbed aboard a Snapper riding lawn mower designed to putter about at 7 mph and, after he was through tinkering with it and putting in the octane boost, driven it 96.529 mph at the Bonneville Salt Flats.
There are no sprinkler heads to run over at the Salt Flats.
Yes, he could have saved a ton on airfare by setting the lawn mower land speed record in the parking lot of Sanford Stadium at halftime of the Georgia-Florida game. And he would have had a much larger audience.
But the Salt Flats is where Craig Breedlove went 407.45 mph in the flame-belching Spirit of America in 1963, and where Anthony Hopkins darn near killed himself on “The World’s Fastest Indian” in the movies, and so that’s where Bobby Cleveland wanted to set the record.
Plus, I think it was part of the joke, and putting a tongue in one’s cheek is what makes lawn mower racing great.
Cleveland is a certified small-engine repair technician. This is what he did in Locust Grove, Ga., before he started designing lawn mowers for the Snapper company, and racing them weekends against guys calling themselves Mr. Mowjangles, Geronimow, Weedy Gonzalez, Yankee Clipper, Mowdacious, Lawnsome Dove and Mowna Lisa — though Cleveland refers to one of his staunchest rivals simply as his “Ex-Fat Brother-In-Law Mark.”
Cleveland, who owns 18 lawn mowers, one of which is supercharged, and two of which will even cut grass, has gone on to become the STA-BIL Engine Answerman. He gets paid a nice salary, though nowhere near as nice as Scott Dixon and those NASCAR guys.
Guys who drive racing lawn mowers do not have groupies, he told me in the trailer as Bruce Kaufman, the commissioner of the USLMRA — “Mr. Mow-It-All” to fans, “Grasshole No. 1” to the drivers — nodded in affirmation, and mostly with a straight face.
“Groupies? At a lawn mower race?” Cleveland says. “The women you can pick up at a lawn mower race you can just as easily pick up at the Waffle House.”
We laughed until my sides hurt almost a much as my elbow, and then Bobby Cleveland and Mr. Mow-It-All went back outside.
We weren’t out there more than two minutes when a gorgeous blonde with legs from here to Locust Grove, Ga., sidled up. She asked if she could have her picture taken with Cleveland and the Monster Mower he had built 13 years ago, that still holds the unofficial world record for most lawn mowers jumped from ramp to ramp (1).
I have been to a few Waffle Houses. I have yet to see a waitress or anybody pouring maple syrup on a short stack of pancakes that looked like this woman.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski