By Brian Paglia & Valerie Baldowski
Slowly, but resolutely, Henry County Parks and Recreation took the abandoned fields at Windy Hill Park in McDonough and transformed them. First, a paintball facility. Then, a remote control car track.
But what to do with the dormant baseball fields, the ones that sank lower every year, that needed work annually to keep them level, though no one used them?
The solution came from Jewel Strickland and Shane Shellnutt, husband of Henry County Elections and Registration Director Janet Shellnutt and president of Georgia Lawn Mower Racing Association. Avid participants in the sport of lawn mower racing, Strickland and Shellnutt presented a comprehensive plan to build a track.
And now it's there.
Races are normally held at the park the fourth Saturday of the month. Practice sessions start at 6:00 p.m. Racing starts at 7:00 p.m. The latest race was Saturday, June 26. Approximately 275 fans watched 22 lawn mowers in six different classes race, said Henry County Recreation Facility Coordinator Jim Joyce.
"The response has been great," Shellnutt said. "We've had great turn out with crowds."
Crowds have come to see what has begun to emerge on the grassroots level as a national phenomenon. Since being brought to the U.S. from England, lawn mower racing has grown to have multiple national organizations and even its own video game.
Previously, residents could only catch the sport at the Henry County Fair. That's how Strickland discovered it.
"I just happened to be at the Henry County Fair last October," Strickland said. "I just heard a loud racing noise, so I took off up there. Come to find out, some of the guys I used to work with years ago and went to school with were racing. I got involved with them and turned around and bought a lawn mower."
Strickland bought a 1996 Snapper and made the requisite modifications for racing: Lowering the mower for a more stable center of gravity and removing the mower's governor. With a few more adjustments, Strickland's mower now runs in the highest racing class where competitors reach speeds of up to 60 or 70 miles per hour.
"They're super modified," Strickland said.
And it is the sight of lawn mowers reaching highway speeds that draws in the crowds for the monthly events.
"They just can't believe they go that fast," Shellnutt said. "They've heard about them, but they (the lawn mowers) are a lot different in person. They don't look like they go that fast, until you see them."
What Shellnutt, Strickland and others see is an opportunity. For now, fans get into the stands for free or can pay $5 to get access to the pits and see the lawn mowers up close.
But the plan is to add more stands, more lights and more room for the gaudy trailers that professional lawn mower racers use to transport their vehicles on the national circuit.
"They (Strickland and Shellnutt) are thinking about making an attempt to get a national event here," Joyce said. "If that's the case, there could be well over 100 racers. That would be national coverage. Then you look at the restaurants, gas stations, hotels and everything else, and it could be huge."
Staff writer Valerie Baldowski contributed to this story.