The New Texas Rodeo
BY CHRIS MAHON & PHOTOS BY STEVE SATTERWHITE
ou never know where a line in a state auditor’s report will take you. Not long ago it took us to Kirby, 10 miles and a few light-years outside San Antonio. That’s where we caught up with the National Drag Racing Lawn Mower Association during a day of competition that coincided with Kirby’s 50th birthday celebration, an event replete with an endless sea of white tents, monster RVs, barbecued chicken, pork tacos, chili, sausage, and brisket; bikers and vatos, star-spangled viejitas chattering in Spanish, and a crowd of about 1,500. The races officially begin when five-year-old Miranda Mills putt-putts around the track and the national anthem blares from the loudspeaker (after a few misfires with rockabilly tunes). We had never heard of this new version of the old Texas rodeo until the state auditor reported that a fire chief in Converse had been caught allegedly using a trailer purchased with Homeland Security money to haul his mower to drag races. The saga of former Converse fire-chief Jack Dougherty became a ubiquitous sound bite as everyone from the NBC affiliate in San Antonio to “60 Minutes” on CBS began looking into the abuse of grant money doled out by the Department of Homeland Security. Meanwhile, we couldn’t help wondering about a sociological trend uncovered by the flap: lawn mower drag racing. Just what kind of event attracts a septuagenarian former NASCAR driver and a five-year-old who tools around on a stock mower dubbed “Little Miss Attitude”? Apparently, the kind of event that inspires such passion that Dougherty (who subsequently ‘fessed up, was reprimanded, resumed his duties as fire chief, and later retired) now spends up to four hours a day working on his mowers. “I’m retired now,” he bellows in a gravelly voice on his answering machine, “and probably out working a lawn mower somewhere. Leave a message, I might just call you back.” “This is a hobby you definitely dump money into,” says 27-year-old Cody Morgenroth of Copperas Cove. “You get your bragging rights out of it—a trophy and some bragging rights.” The trophies, it turns out, are mostly recycled from race to race. As to how much money can be poured into lawn mower drag racing, ask association president Scott Evans. Like most of the racers competing in Kirby, Evans has long since taken the blades out of his mower and poured more than $5,000 into the machine. The only original equipment on his mower is the engine block and the head. “As you can see,” he told us, “I’ve put on a box tubing frame, which runs all the way back, and rack-and-pinion steering. The hood and the dash, they’re aluminum. I put a snowmobile clutch on and disc brakes.” Born on a whim at the 1993 Bluebonnet Festival in La Vernia, Texas, lawn mower drag racing has evolved from a side attraction into a main event, a fundraising boon for cash-strapped towns. But association founders were soon faced with a deep metaphysical question: What is the essence of a lawn mower? Is it the size, horsepower, blades? They decided that the lawn mowers had to use at least 50 percent of the original frame. Then came a problem. “They got to going so fast that it wasn’t very safe,” says Evans, “so we needed to put more framework under them.” For Morgenroth, racing is a family affair. His grandfather, 83-year-old Marvin Morgenroth, was an association founder. “The main reason I’m here,” he says, “is because my dad always gave me a hard time about not spending enough time with my grandfather. So I said, ‘okay, I’ll take care of that. I’ll go spend the weekend with him and we’ll work on lawn mowers, ‘cuz that’s what he likes to do.’” It’s also what Cody’s girlfriend, 30-year-old firefighter Barbie Boubel, likes to do. In Kirby, Boubel competed against 73-year-old Paul Jett, a former NASCAR driver with the serenity of a Zen master. Boubel, in contrast, spent the final moments before the race cramming stuffed animals into her black zip-up jacket. “I always have to race with at least Dino,” she explains, referring to the stuffed dinosaur she totes along for good luck—and a little extra padding never hurts. As the starting lights drop from red to green, Boubel and Jett race 150 feet to the finish line. Boubel has the early lead. But in lawn mower drag racing—as in life itself—there’s a rule of thumb to always consider: “If the thang starts that easy, then there must be something wrong.” Looking like the first man to reach nirvana going 65 mph on a lawnmower, Jett wins the race. Boubel blames her loss on technical problems. “My lawn mower is always squirrelly,” she tells him. “If it hadn’t have been I would have kicked your butt.” “In other words,” says Jett, finally breaking his quiet composure, “if you’d have beat me, you wouldn’t have lost.” As the sun sets in Kirby, Boubel props herself up on one of the hay bales that line the track and re-hashes the day with Dougherty, her former boss. They are soon joined by the Morgenroths. All agree that the right lane was horrible, that someone leaked oil on the track, and that the pavement near the starting line was way too slick. And yet Dougherty is sure that this is just the beginning of what will turn out to be a good season. “I just think it’s neat as can be—the excitement, the speed, the camaraderie, the sausage and brisket.” Ah, yes, the joys of the homeland. Chris Mahon is an Observer legislative intern.