The heat creeps toward triple digits at the Kendall County Fairgrounds, in Boerne, but that doesn’t stop Julie Tynmann from pulling on heavy, fire-resistant gloves and racing boots, a black neck brace, and a regulation long-sleeved jersey over her lucky purple racing shirt. She takes a swig of Red Bull before putting on the most important piece of gear, her “big old helmet.” State champions like Tynmann don’t let the sweat and the dust discourage them from suiting up and hitting the track. Getting dirty is the least of her worries. “I’m trying to get mad,” Tynmann tells me on this scorching September afternoon, when I ask how she prepares to race. “Like, ‘Get out the way, here I come.’ But I’m not trying to get so mad that I kill myself.”
It might sound like she’s psyching herself up to slide behind the wheel of an Indy 500 race car and punch it to 220 miles per hour, but Tynmann, a 45-year-old Boerne native, is instead one of a handful of women who full-throttle it to 35 or 40 mph around dirt tracks across the state as part of the Lone Star Mower Racing Association (LSMRA). If that doesn’t sound fast, ask drivers who’ve crashed, endured nasty bruises, or even suffered broken collarbones when their souped-up lawn mowers have flipped over hay-bale barricades.
Sammie Neel, 63, has seen plenty of crashes, bruises, and burns in her thirteen years of competition. She once raced around a track at a monster truck show in the tiny town of Leona, ninety miles southeast of Waco. In that race, she flipped and wound up pinned beneath her mower, which she’d nicknamed Love Mowtion No. 9. (It had stickers with the words “Pucker Up—Here I Come” on the front and “Kiss This” on the back.) “I was like, ‘Is anybody gonna get this mower off of me?’” she says of her monster rally flip. “Then I thought, ‘Heck, it’s not that heavy,’ so I pushed it off myself.”
Neel didn’t set out to be a lawn mower racer. The College Station resident just wanted to take some photos of her husband, Marion (a.k.a. Capt’n Khaos), at his first race, in Boerne, in 2008. When she saw the sparkle in his eyes as the engines revved, she thought, “Oh, crud. I just lost my husband to lawn mower racing.” At one race in 2009, Marion challenged her to put down the camera and give it a whirl on the track. Neel reluctantly accepted the challenge, but she was mortified when her mower sputtered and stalled—not the first impression she’d been aiming for. There was a racer nicknamed Poor John because he always lost, and Neel came in behind him. When she got off her mower, she told Marion to never let Poor John beat her again and to get her something that would run. “Once you get a taste of that competition, it’s game on,” Neel says. The next month, she purchased her first mower, which had a chicken painted on it. “The guy I bought it from,” she says, “was sponsored by Tyson.”
The LSMRA started in 1998, but the sport goes back to at least 1963, when a Lions Club chapter in Indiana hosted an Independence Day mower race. In 1973, an Irishman named Jim Gavin, who was fed up with the high cost of competing in most motor sports, downed a few pints at a pub and decided to form the British Lawn Mower Racing Association. Gavin’s dream is alive and well in that club, as well as on dirt tracks from Boerne to Gun Barrel City and beyond. Instead of ponying up thousands of dollars to join a car league, Neel says, you can get into mower racing for about $1,500 to $2,500. During its 2021 season, the Texas club had 72 paid members, with 46 active racers ranging in age from 6 to 72. Neel estimates that only a half dozen or so of the members are women, but she says the number of female competitors is growing each year.
Cattle rancher and racer Kevin Counsil, of Madisonville, notes that participants come from all walks of life. “It’s a cornucopia of what people do for a living. We don’t have any preachers, though, probably because there’s too much swearing.” Neel describes the transformation that’s evident when the green flag goes up and bulldozer operators and cabinet makers and full-time moms turn into lawn mower speedsters: “We go from mild to wild.”
Racers often give their mowers fierce or cheeky names like Mowcrastinator, Lawnatic, or Black Widow. Crystal Gill, a now-forty-year-old homemaker from Bryan, wrangles her young nephew as she tells me about her small but mighty yellow mower, Lon’ Gone, which has an eight-horsepower engine: “It’s so cute and small, it looks like Tweety Bird.”
Unlike Neel and Tynmann, Gill grew up around dirt tracks. It’s in her blood, she says. At the Labor Day races in Boerne, the final event of the season—a new season starts every October—Gill is with seven family members, who are serving as her pit crew and emotional support. She’s racing even though she’s still recovering from a cracked kneecap. “I used to do demo derbies,” Gill says. “I would be the only female in there, and people would come after me to try and get me out. I’d get hit so hard I’d almost flip.”
Like everyone else I spoke with, Gill loves lawn mower racing not just for the thrill, but for the people she’s met along the way. She’s been competing for seven years and has no plans to stop, even though she’s been thrown off a mower “like a bucking bull.” She says the adrenaline keeps her coming back, as does the fun of hanging out with Neel and Tynmann and the rest of the crew. Between races, they sit in the shade of tents, talk about their families, gobble brisket sandwiches, and hydrate before they hit the track again. At the end of the day, they usually head out to get dinner and margaritas together. Gill says of the culture, “It’s family. You have your blood family, and you have your racing family.”
That observation rings true when track steward Eddy Akin brings out his bullhorn and calls everyone together for a drivers’ meeting before the hot laps start. Those laps give the competitors a feel for the track and are followed by heats: ten-lap races that determine the position where each driver will start in the final, twenty-lap feature races.
Neel, who is treasurer and secretary of the LSMRA, writes the lineup on a board, and everyone gathers around, teasing one another and good-naturedly calling out the rookies. Akin tells them he wants to wait to start the race until the fair’s nearby motorcycle trapeze stunt is over. “We wouldn’t want to dust them out,” Akin says. “It wouldn’t be right.”
He reminds the drivers that they’re not there to cause trouble, as can be the case at the demo derbies Gill once took part in. Mower racers are just out “for bragging rights and a trophy.” And, of course, to have some fun.
A young racer named Anna Rust stands by with her parents and brother as she listens to Akin and Neel run through some sponsorship updates and raffle details, her brown hair in two French braids. Rust, now thirteen, loves go-karts and four-wheelers, so speeding around in a lawn mower doesn’t scare her. I ask her what her friends in seventh grade think of her racing. “They’re like ‘WHAT?!’ ” she says, giggling. “There aren’t many girls doing this, so it’s cool to be one of them.”
After the drivers’ meeting and the hot laps, the races kick off, and dust plumes up and around the crowd of about 350 spectators. Drivers race in different classes mainly based on engine size, ranging from 8 horsepower to 75. Gill’s mower stalls out as she races against Neel, dashing her hopes for a win. After losing to her brother Rayden the first time around, Rust comes back strong to beat him and win her feature race. Tynmann wins both of her feature races. “That has always been my mission—not to be last,” Tynmann says after completing her victory lap while waving a black-and-white checkered flag.
Neel didn’t win the flag this time, but she has beaten her share of men and women since she started racing. When I ask her if the guys get angry, she doesn’t hesitate. “Oh, heck yeah. They pretend not to show it, but they can’t stand it if they’re beaten by a woman.”
Richard Lively, the group’s president, has raced against Neel for years. Like so many of the racers, he switched from cars to mowers because, unlike in other motor sports, no one picks fights at lawn mower events. I ask him what he thinks about Neel and her penchant for winning—even against him. “Don’t underestimate that girl,” Lively says. “She can drive.”
Later on, Gill, Neel, Rust, and Tynmann all attempt to cool down, dust off, and let the adrenaline dissipate. Their helmets sit on their mowers, caked in dirt. They relax, they socialize, and they gear up to do it all again. I see Tynmann talking to Rust, so I walk over and ask Tynmann what kind of advice she just gave to the next generation of female racers. She looks at me with a conspiratorial smile. “I told her, ‘Don’t look back.’ ”
Dina Gachman is a freelance writer in Austin. Her book So Sorry For Your Loss will be published by Union Square & Co. in 2023.
This article appeared in the May 2022 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Ladies, Start Your Engines.” It originally published online on September 22, 2021. Subscribe today.