He might be the only guy on his block with four riding mowers and an overgrown lawn. In his defense though, it’s kind of hard to make any real progress when you’re going 40 mph on a machine that doesn’t even have a blade.
In the realm of hobbies, most grown-ups spend their free time doing things like fishing or playing fantasy football. Mike Paccione ’88 races old lawnmowers. Just saying that out loud has him quickly pointing out that he also runs five-mile races, coaches his son’s baseball team and goes to church.
“I do normal things, too,” he says.
During the week, the Toms River, N.J., resident and father of three is an assistant vice president for a global insurance company, a job he has done for more than 20 years. But when the summertime weekends roll around, he trades in his suit and tie for a helmet and jacket and takes his grass-cutting chariot across the country to races sanctioned by the United States Lawn Mower Racing Association (USLMRA). (To answer the question you’re probably asking right now: Yes, that really exists.)
“Explaining to someone that you’re driving to Michigan to ride a lawnmower is always awkward,” Paccione says, laughing. “But it’s a great community. It’s competitive, but it’s friendly.”
The USLMRA is the oldest sanctioned lawnmower-racing association in the United States. Over the years it has produced such household names as Ken “The Turfinator” Smolecki, John “Sir Lawns-A-Lot” Nelson and Charles Powell, a.k.a. “Mr. Mowjangles.” OK, so you’ve probably never heard of any of those guys, but you have to admit the USLMRA is pretty good at coming up with corny nicknames for its sport’s most decorated stars.
Which leads to another obvious question: Is lawnmower racing actually a sport?
“I’d say so, yeah,” Paccione replies. “Sure, it’s one of the weirder ones, but it’s definitely a sport. We’re even farther off of center than NASCAR, and the ‘who cares’ factor is off the charts, but I’m totally cool with it because it’s an awesome way to get the family together.”
Speaking of family, Paccione’s father-in-law was the one who got him into lawnmower racing in the first place. The year was 2008 and his father-in-law challenged him to give it a try and – wouldn’t you know it – Paccione won his first race. And then the next. After that was nationals – and, in true storybook fashion, Paccione blew the grass bags off the competition there, too. From there it was all groupies and VIP parties. OK, so his life didn’t change a bit. But it did draw him even closer to his already tightly knit family. In all, his aforementioned father-in-law has won four national championships. His brother-in-law, four. And now, a mere four years later, Paccione has two of his own.
“How many families can say they race lawnmowers together?” Paccione says with the kind of pride that would make your local Lowe’s employee beam. Today, the Dale Earnhardt–Bob Vila hybrid has a primary sponsor (Sta-Bil) who actually pays him to tour the country racing lawnmowers.
“Let’s be honest though,” he says, “the neighborhood kid who makes $20 a week cutting lawns is still bringing home more than I am, but I’ve got plastic trophies. And, from my children’s perspective, I’m way cooler.”
– Bryce Donovan ’98
Photos by Leslie McKellar