Winter Motorsports Spectacular features lawnmower racing

Roger Paulson greeted a group of men wearing snowmobile jackets and Carhartt coveralls last weekend on Big Lake near Cloquet. The men weren't toting rods, bait buckets and ice augers -- they were on the lake to go racing. Paulson ran through a qu...

Roger Paulson greeted a group of men wearing snowmobile jackets and Carhartt coveralls last weekend on Big Lake near Cloquet.

The men weren't toting rods, bait buckets and ice augers -- they were on the lake to go racing.

Paulson ran through a quick list of rules before saying, "Have fun. Be safe. And if there isn't any more questions, gentlemen, warm up your tractors."

While it wasn't quite Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the wind-swept ice and snow of Big Lake would have to do as the host site for the Winter Motorsports Spectacular 2008, a true dose of Northern Minnesota Americana featuring motorcycles, ATVs, snowmobiles and yes, lawnmowers.

Bill Jaskari, co-owner of the Lounge on Big Lake, helped organize the first ice races three years ago as a way to draw more winter traffic. Since then, the event has expanded. This was the first year lawnmowers competed.


Kathy Halvorson, Paulson's neighbor in Cloquet, helped stage the lawnmower drag race, which could be considered, um, grassroots.

"You know you're a redneck when your neighbors come to visit you in their decked-out racing lawnmowers," Halvorson said, "with chrome pipes."

Organizers banked snow to form two side-by-side lanes 200 feet long, with starting lights and a finish line.

About 10 lawnmowers were raced. Some looked as if they came right from the backyard shed, while others, with names such as "Mowdacious," "The Grass Kicker" and "Orange Crush," were adorned in racing and sponsor decals a la NASCAR. The competitors had fun with it. Orange Crush featured a plastic moose head for a hood ornament and an ear-piercing air horn.

"I went and saw these race about 10 years ago down in Grantsburg, Wis., and being a motor head I thought it was something I could do," Paulson said. "For me, it's all about the fun. That's the biggest thing. Guys get competitive, but for the most part everyone is out here to have a good time."

Paulson's Grass Kicker has been clocked as fast as 43 mph, covering 200 feet in 6.6 seconds. More-modified mowers can top 60 mph. The mowers are equipped with "wheelie bars" that keep them from toppling backward when they take off. They use two gears and have metal studs imbedded in the tires to give them traction on ice and snow.

Tim Nelson of Hermantown, owner of Orange Crush, said he has about $800 invested into his mower, but about half of that was for a new engine. The chrome exhaust pipe he took from a vacuum cleaner. He said racers can get into the sport for as little as $300.

"It's fun, and it's inexpensive compared to stock-car racing or something like that," Nelson said. "I got [Orange Crush] from a lawnmower repair shop in Aurora, Minn. The man just gave it to me. It was just a bone laying out back."


Jere Heineman of Hibbing brought Mowdacious, an oval-track-racing mower owned by friend Richard Bohlman of Brainerd, Minn. Heineman said that about $2,000 is invested into Mowdacious, but some people he races against have as much as $8,000 into their mowers. When asked how he competes against that, he said, "I don't."

"I was going to get into go-karts, but this was a lot cheaper," Heineman said. "But money is still the name of the game if you want to go faster, faster, faster."

Bohlman is 6-foot-3 and weighs close to 300 pounds, but Heineman said his buddy "flies" when he takes the wheel of Mowdacious. Powered by a 14.5 horsepower Briggs and Stratton engine, the lawnmower has been clocked at 67 mph and can hold its own against the ATVs. While highly modified, Mowdacious maintains a lawnmower frame, hood, seat and part of the deck.

"We're racing lawnmowers, so in keeping with that theme, you've got to have a deck," Paulson said. "It doesn't have to cut grass, but it should at least have a shell or something there."

Heineman wanted to take Mowdacious for a spin on the nearby three-quarter-mile road course being used by the motorcycles and ATVs, but the track had deep grooves in the corners. Mowdacious stands a mere 4 inches off the ground, so Heineman didn't want to risk it.

"Roger and I watched some oval racing down in Wisconsin and decided it was just too dangerous," Nelson said. "When those guys wipe out, there's just no protection. They're just laying out on the track."

Heineman said he wears body armor to protect himself when he races ovals, just like the motorcycle and ATV riders. Even so, he said, "I've been black and blue from my neck to my knees."

Heineman was watching television with his nephews when he first saw lawnmower racing. Now, more than eight years later, he is still competing.


"At first I thought it looked pretty stupid, but then my nephews started doing it and that was it," Heineman said. "I told my wife if I'm not having fun, I'm going to quit doing it. Well, for eight years now, it's been fun."

JON NOWACKI covers motor sports for the News Tribune. He can be reached weeknights at (218) 723-5305 or by e-mail at

Jon Nowacki joined the News Tribune in August 1998 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Stephen, Minnesota, in the northwest corner of the state, where he was actively involved in school and sports and was a proud member of the Tigers’ 1992 state championship nine-man football team.

After graduating in 1993, Nowacki majored in print journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, serving as editor of the college paper, “The Aquin,” and graduating with honors in December 1997. He worked with the Associated Press during the “tobacco trial” of 1998, leading to the industry’s historic $206 billion settlement, before moving to Duluth.

Nowacki started as a prep reporter for the News Tribune before moving onto the college ranks, with an emphasis on Minnesota Duluth football, including coverage of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Division II championships in 2008 and 2010.

Nowacki continues to focus on college sports while filling in as a backup on preps, especially at tournament time. He covers the Duluth Huskies baseball team and auto racing in the summer. When time allows, he also writes an offbeat and lighthearted food column entitled “The Taco Stand,” a reference to the “Taco Jon” nickname given to him by his older brother when he was a teenager that stuck with him through college. He has a teenage daughter, Emma.

Nowacki can be reached at or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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