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Big Back-In event a gas, raises cash

by David Cole
| June 21, 2010 9:00 PM

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Marc Kroetch, right, gives a drive-by high five to Stephen Loftis, left, on Kroetch's racing lawnmower "Mow Heat Oh!" during the Big Back-In on Maine Street in Spirit Lake. Kroetch along with several others began the annual Father's Day tradition of the Big Back-In in Spirit Lake ten years ago as a way to fundraise for city projects.

SPIRIT LAKE - A horde of spectators screamed for the extreme pounding and crackling engine noise. The racers fed off the adrenaline rush of burning down Maine Street low to the ground in modified mowers.

At the 10th annual Big Back-In Lawnmower Street Drags on Sunday, competitors raced 200 feet east on Maine from the starting line in front of the White Horse Saloon.

The event is a fundraiser for new recreational projects in Spirit Lake and the surrounding area. About 75 drivers and their lawnmowers were in the event, participating in the parade and races. It's the town's biggest event of the year.

Drag competitors reached speeds of up to 40 miles per hour. On any other day the 15-mph speed limit sign on Maine across from City Hall and the police department serves as an official warning. It didn't count Sunday, it was Father's Day.

The motto Sunday: "Drive it like you stole it."

All along the spectator-lined drag strip smoke from the mowers hung in the air and mixed with the sizzling fatty Italian sausages being grilled outside the White Horse, along with piles of peppers and onions and old-fashioned red hot dogs.

Denise Forbes-Kegel, of Spirit Lake, said they had gone through 50 pounds of the sausage. "It's a macho thing."

The only woman in the races, 18-year-old Kymberly Bowlby of Spirit Lake, clocked 37 mph in the qualifiers on her machine, Darth Mower.

"When I'm on the track I just want to go faster," she said. "I like the adrenaline rush."

The racing lawnmowers in the modified and super modified classes are just that, modified.

The owners change the gearing, install larger carburetors, lose the muffler in exchange for an open exhaust. The governors are tossed. Some racers shave down cylinder heads to raise the compression ratio, giving the mowers more horsepower and a sharp crackle to the exhaust. Many racers have wheelie bars. They're fed just pump gas.

Racer Bruce Swofford, 59, of Coeur d'Alene, asked, "What do you do with a lawnmower that doesn't cut grass anymore?"

Swofford, a father of three, said he has done a lot of different racing in his life, and took up lawnmower racing a few years ago.

"This is a riot, and it's inexpensive," Swofford said.

He said his mower can reach 50 mph on a longer course. The speeds seem much faster to the drivers, who sit so close to the ground, he said.

Some mowers don't race but just ride in the parade.

Dolli Massender, of Spirit Lake, brought her Mash Mobile out for the event. It looks like an old military medic truck from the popular TV series "M*A*S*H."

"I just saw the possibility of having this," she said.

Massender was an EMT in Spirit Lake in the '70s and '80s, she said.

"It's not built for speed, it's built for show," Massender said.

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