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Of Mowers and Men: In Twelve Mile, Indiana, the Fourth of July means lawnmower racing. But for one father and son it's about much more

Nestled 40 miles from the nearest interstate, one otherwise dormant town in central Indiana bursts to life every July Fourth for America’s oldest lawnmower race. Enter a father, a son and an example of sports at their most powerful.

SALT LAKE CITY — The first racers arrive in Twelve Mile, Indiana, just after dawn. They park among the oak and cottonwood shadows and tinker in silence. For a while, their metal clanking and sputtering compose a soundtrack to a most unusual pastime. By noon, the last drivers have unloaded their machines, sometimes with the paint still wet, or the weld marks still fresh. The silence is gone, replaced by elephant ear sellers peddling their fried dough, children giggling and waving sticks and inventing games, and a crowd of hundreds energizing one of America’s oldest motor sport races.

By 1, the competitors begin circling the dirt track, powdering the crowd with a familiar dust that can only mean July Fourth. In front of the pack you’re likely to find a Troyer. Maybe Randy. Maybe John. Maybe even Randy’s son, Zach. They’re a dynasty here in Central Indiana, and have been for almost 30 years. You’re also likely to see Dennis Bodary; he’s been making the trip down from Michigan since the 1990s. And maybe you’ll get lucky and find ol’ Dean Owens, who first won here in 1976 and as recently as 2012.

Every July Fourth they’re all drawn to Twelve Mile, Indiana, for America’s — and likely the world’s — oldest lawn mower race. The Twelve Mile 500 is neither 12 miles in length nor 500 laps long. It’s named for the town of Twelve Mile and the nearby Indianapolis 500. Organized since 1963 by the Twelve Mile Lions Club, it’s only four years younger than the Daytona 500 and predates construction of the Talladega Superspeedway. The race usually attracts hundreds — and, on occasion, thousands — to Plank Hill Park in a town of about 1,000 that’s 40 miles from the closest interstate. They gather to watch two races: The Briggs race, for slightly modified four-cycle engine lawn mowers; and the modified race, where, as one participant put it, “hillbilly engineering takes over.”

Racers — 33 in all, just like the Indy 500 — drive 60 laps around the quarter-mile track, dodging trees, poles, hay bales and other unintended obstacles. They aren’t supposed to exceed 15 mph, and “black flag” penalties result when they do. The winners are awarded $250, and the surplus earnings fund Lions Club service projects. Racers used to win used cars, but per organizer Mark Lowe, “There were times when the winner couldn’t get it started when he won it.”

It all sounds a little ridiculous. Why, of all things, lawn mowers? Wouldn’t a go-kart suffice? Well, not here. Not in Twelve Mile. On a day where traditions — from patriotic parades to hot dog eating contests to backyard barbecues — dot the American landscape, here’s one that not only persists as a holiday tradition, but in the tradition of unusual, semi-pro and amateur sports. There are demolition derbies in Maine. There’s intercollegiate meat grading. There are roller derby leagues all over the country. And all of them are held together by a thread less and less common in professional sports, where the most pervasive storylines often result from their big-business nature.

During the NBA Finals, for example, much attention was devoted to Kevin Durant’s free agency options in addition to the unfolding competition. In football, stories about concussions can (rightly) dominate conversation. And a report about an inaccurate statue of Cristiano Ronaldo can generate more coverage than almost anything he can do with a soccer ball. But there are rare pockets in America, and across the world, where sports aren’t as monetized or commercialized or sanitized. Where participants compete not for fan recognition or to make a living or to be written about in newspapers, but for the thrill. For tradition. For pride. For fun. It’s during these events that sports are most often distilled to their purest essence, where they become the most potent antidote for everything in life that can go wrong. Because here’s an opportunity, right in front of you, for something to go right.

The Twelve Mile 500 is one such event. These racers, who can spend a couple thousand dollars constructing racing mowers from spare parts, who come back year after year after year, passing on the sport and the event to their children, to their neighbors, to their friends — these racers aren’t interested in what anyone thinks of them. Or in money. Or in legacies. They’re interested in competition, family and fun. And sometimes, when those elements align properly, and circumstances are just right, Twelve Mile and events like it have the potential to elevate sports to their most powerful form.

Enter Jerome Emery.

He’s been a mainstay at Twelve Mile since 1991. But almost three decades into racing mowers, he’d never won. Last year, he unloaded his Briggs racer — a blue mower painted with red flames and an Autobots logo — “Optimus Prime” around 7 a.m. In the most shaded area he could find, he flipped open his lawn chair and claimed his spot, as he does every year. But while he usually departs for breakfast at Bob Evans or the Twelve Mile Community Center — whichever’s open first — last year he went home.

Jerome Emery drives a parade lap after capturing the 2018 Twelve Mile 500 Briggs race on July 4, 2018, in Twelve Mile, Indiana. In the background in front of the bleachers, a few of his family members cry and hug.
Jerome Emery drives a parade lap after capturing the 2018 Twelve Mile 500 Briggs race on July 4, 2018, in Twelve Mile, Indiana. In the background in front of the bleachers, a few of his family members cry and hug.
Courtesy of Jerome Emery

He returned in time for the race and eventually took the lead and the checkered flag. Behind the visor of his racing helmet, he wept. After nearly 30 years of trying, he’d finally won. His family also cried, and the crowd cheered as though they were family themselves. And while Jerome basked in victory, his tears weren’t wholly joyous. Instead, when he passed pit road on his victory lap and saw his dad’s old Desert Storm sun hat marking his place, one thought crossed his mind, the same thought that’ll hound him once again in 2019:

“I wish he could’ve been here.”

The critical MOW-ments

One afternoon in 1973, per the British Lawn Mower Association’s website, Irishman Jim Gavin and some buddies headed to The Cricketers Arms bar in Wisborough Green, West Sussex, England, for a few pints and a discussion. Gavin adored motor sports, but he despised the incursion of sponsorship. Sponsorship meant money, Gavin reasoned, and money meant people getting left out.

After a few more brews, the group noticed a groundskeeper mowing a nearby cricket pitch and felt the bulb of inspiration. Everyone has a lawn mower sitting in a shed, they figured. Why not race them? They organized the first contest in nearby Murphy’s Field shortly after. About 80 mowers participated. From that first race, the British Lawn Mower Racing Association was founded on four principles: no sponsorship; no commercialism; no cash prizes; and no modifications of any kind. For the next 19 years, the sport spread like crabgrass across the United Kingdom. In the U.S., meanwhile, no official governing body existed.

An action shot from the 2015 "12 Hour," a British endurance lawn mower race at Five Oaks near Billingshurst, West Sussex, England.
An action shot from the 2015 "12 Hour," a British endurance lawn mower race at Five Oaks near Billingshurst, West Sussex, England.
British Lawn Mower Racing Association

The British system skipped across the Atlantic in 1992, spawning The United States Lawn Mower Racing Association. Its formation was heralded in publications from The New York Times to The Los Angeles Times on April 1. But this was no joke — the organization labels it one of mower racing’s most critical “MOWments.”

Nowadays, the U.S. Lawn Mower Racing Association boasts 55 affiliated chapters and clubs in 43 states with 1,600 members. Mower racing exists (or has existed) in some form in all four corners of the U.S., including The Saco Lawn Mower Races in Saco, Maine, and the races hosted by Florida’s Avon Park Mowerplex. American mower racing’s largest governing body (there are several others, including theRebels and Rednecks Mower Racing Association) also announced a Hall of Fame in 2009, with the organizing committee of the Twelve Mile 500 and Jim Gavin comprising two of four inaugural inductees. But that’s all very serious. And this is a sport that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Literature about mower racing is a minefield of puns, from “mow-ments” to “round and round they mow” to “Ready, set, mow!” to “America’s grass root sport.” The witticism continues with nicknames, like Hall-of-Famer Ken “Turfinator” Smolecki, fellow Hall-of-Famer Charles “Mr. Mowjangles” Powell and former organization president Bruce Kaufman, aka “Mr. Mow-it-all” or “The Sodfather.”

Speaking of Smolecki, his mower was featured in a 1993 episode of “Home Improvement.” Tim Allen competed against Smokecki’s Turfinator on a Dixie Chopper jet-powered mower — at the time, the fastest grass-cutting machine ever assembled. Mower racing also appeared in a 2001 episode of the animated sitcom “King of the Hill” in which Hank wants to enter the Durndell mower races but must overcome his “diminished gluteal syndrome” by driving with saline butt cheek prosthetics.

But the usual portrayal of mower racing as an absurd, why-would-anyone-do-this sport misses something.

Taking root

Jerome first competed in the Twelve Mile 500 in 1991, at age 13. He insisted on a smoke stack that warped in the heat, speared the ground like a vaulter’s pole and, after 12 of 60 laps, bucked him from his mower like a spent bull rider. He finished the race in ‘92, and although he didn’t place, it was an all-time accomplishment — one that had been stewing since long before he was born.

He grew up with four siblings. Among them was Karee, a half sister from his mother’s previous marriage. Toddler Jerome developed an interest in cars, in part from exposure to his dad, Robert, and grandpa Paul, a couple of “gear heads.” But his interest started outside the garage, in a sandbox. He used to spend hours there, his toddler self lost in the world of Tonka trucks. Eventually, he evolved to building his own trucks. Or tractors. Or, yes, mowers. Dad and grandpa were happy to help. They’d pick up a pile of spare parts at a garage sale, and that’d become Jerome’s project. Eventually, they’d rebuild vintage tractors together.

July Fourth anchored Jerome’s relationship with his dad. Because every July Fourth, he knew he could count on dad to be waiting along pit road in his sun hat, sure to offer a gallon jug of water, a chilled towel and advice. Even though dad nearly killed him once. While trying to wrap a cold towel around his son’s neck during a hot race, Jerome didn’t realize what was happening and slammed the throttle. Dad’s grip was so strong that the towel tightened like a noose, and Jerome’s vision turned black. “By the end of the pits,” he joked, “I could see again.” And he was sure to give his dad a hard time about it. All in fun. As usual.

The fun continued, mostly, for the next 20 years. Jerome broke into the top five of the Briggs race in 1996, finishing fourth. He moved up to third in ‘99 and ‘07. His biggest hiccup occurred shortly after. In the late 2000s, he thought he could pass a trio of drivers. He got past two, but the third racer’s steering failed and he veered to the right, trapping Jerome. The road course at Plank Hill Park is loaded with obstacles, from trees to poles to bales of hay meant to discourage head-on crashes. So, as Karee noted, “There’s always an ambulance there.”

Jerome’s bad luck forced him into a telephone pole. His helmet split. His mower splintered. And it’s at moments like that, when a driver crashes or a mower catches fire, that spectators and drivers alike are reminded that even though the blades are removed, and even though the speeds (at least at Twelve Mile) rarely exceed 20 mph, and even though drivers wear racing helmets, this sport can be dangerous. Just ask Todd Miller. In ‘84, he lost a wheel while turning near the very narrow home plate curve. His mower flipped, and with machines approaching, he abandoned it on the track to scale the 10-foot backstop fence.

Jerome’s incident had a happier ending. The children and other racers in attendance picked up shards of his John Deere and asked for his autograph. “Wow,” he thought as he signed with a screwdriver. “I have fans.”

Dad’s most frequent lesson was to keep trying. Fail. Evolve. Try again. He was also an innovator while serving as Jerome’s pit crew. “I really was in awe,” Jerome said, “of how he could come up with different ideas.” And his greatest innovation, Jerome recalls, was perhaps his most impactful.

The Twelve Mile 500 requires that drivers make at least three pit stops, during which time they can refuel. In an effort to make pit stops quicker, dad figured they could modify their machine’s gas entry mechanism. Instead of opening the hood and removing the gas cap, as was standard, he decided to drill a hole in the hood, extend the fuel tank with a radiator hose and connect it to a perforated tire patch that covered the drilling. So when Jerome arrived on pit road, dad could just stick a funnel through the hole in the tire patch, pour the gas and send his son on his way. It was ridiculous, Jerome admitted, but it worked. Their pit times were the envy of the other 32 racers.

“Dad,” Jerome often thought, both then and during similar moments, “you’re a genius.”

The 2016 rendition of the Twelve Mile 500 seemed ... ordinary. Dad was in the pits, wearing his Desert Storm sun hat, as usual. Everything about it was standard. But that summer, Robert’s health began to deteriorate. The man who spent his life working on railroads and farming, fishing and bowling and building in his spare time, couldn’t do everything he once did. He strained to breathe. His heart was failing. Karee said she hugged him extra tight whenever she saw him that summer (he, of course, gave her a hard time about it), and Jerome strained to finish one last tractor rebuild. But dad remained resilient. Made it through Christmas, and by God, he never gave up what he loved. Sure, he couldn’t do it as well, or as much, but as he approached his 82nd birthday in January, everyone in his family believed he’d go “with his boots on,” singing made-up tunes around the house, in a bass boat, with a wrench in hand. Something.

On Feb. 23, 2017, Robert drove 20 minutes to nearby Logansport for an afternoon at Myers Sport Bowl. He bowled one game. He bowled another game. He bowled a third game, and right after the 10th frame, Karee said, he dropped. Not in boots, but bowling shoes.

“There are conflicting reports on whether he picked up the spare in the 10th frame,” Karee explained, joking. It’s taken her a while, she admitted, to laugh. At the time, there was no laughter. Especially for Jerome, who got divorced later in 2017 and whose life went “into a tailspin.” He added: “Everything was just do the bare minimum to get through the day.” Even now, nearly 2 1/2 years later, thinking about him forces Karee to tears and contemplation. “It’s funny with grief,” she said. “It can be two years, two and a half years. But when you start talking about it, it shows up.”

Home turf

Grief pervaded at the 2017 Twelve Mile 500. More than four months removed from his passing, the family — and the race — couldn’t shake his presence. Karee’s memory of the day is fogged. But Jerome’s is clear — he felt the vivid, gaping void. “Imagine the Beatles without John Lennon," he said. He even needed to give himself a pep talk in the parade lap before the race, telling himself that dad wouldn’t be happy with how distracted he was. He finished fourth. Which brings us back to 2018.

Ahead of the race, Jerome played the course over in his head. As for how to succeed, depends who you ask. Zach Troyer, Randy’s son and a three-time winner, has a couple of thoughts, starting with the speed limit. He said you can approach 20 mph — even though the official speed limit is 15 — without penalties. He also incorporates watching the patrol into his race strategy — when he’s not being watched, he speeds up. When he is, he slows down. And sometimes, he can get up behind someone, encouraging them to outrun him, only for them to get flagged. “It’s not very nice,” he joked, “but it’s kinda funny.” Randy said it’s all about equipment. A career tool maker, he attributed his success to constructing the best racing mower on the course. Jerome makes sure his mower has fresh belts and is in good order. He also aims for fast pit stops, hydration and the mental sharpness required to drive 15 miles on a lawnmower.

Karee and Jerome’s mother were running late. They live almost two hours away in Muncie, where Jerome’s mother, in her 70s and stricken with dementia plus a series of strokes, lives in an assisted living facility. That morning Karee had been taking care of their mom, who hasn’t made it to a race in years.

An aerial view of the course for the 2016 "12 Hour," a British endurance lawn mower race at Five Oaks near Billingshurst, West Sussex, England.
An aerial view of the course for the 2016 "12 Hour," a British endurance lawn mower race at Five Oaks near Billingshurst, West Sussex, England.
British Lawn Mower Racing Association

The official race history document says Jerome took the lead after 50 laps, but he remembers it differently. He said he noticed with about 20 laps to go that his number had disappeared from the leaderboard. When announcer Aaron Turner pointed at him as he crossed the starting line, he knew he was in first. The document also says no one got close after that. He remembers John Troyer being right behind him, trying to overtake him until his engine failed with a handful of laps to go. From there, it was a waiting game.

Aside from the emotional flurry, he remembers the heat. His mouth puckered from the dust, which powdered the fudge-thick mud speckled over his clothes. “You had to chew your water,” he’d say later. “Because there was still mud in your mouth.” As the final lap approached, he sniffed the air for hints of burning belts or oil — very bad signs. He smelled only gasoline. Karee and his mom had arrived with under 10 laps to go. His niece, who was stationed in Ireland with the Peace Corps, also chose to spend a chunk of her short leave in the U.S. in Indiana to watch. But as his moment approached, everyone there, everyone he’d spent July Fourth with for almost 30 years, felt like family.

Pause.

Imagine this moment. Here’s a man who for more than a year hasn’t stopped thinking about the person he was closest to — about the conversations missed, the advice and ingenuity lost, the memories made, the future memories missed out on. Here’s a man who knows that the saddest aspect of death is permanence, is never sharing experiences and making memories with a person again. But here, in the unlikely shrine of a lawnmower race, is an opportunity to bring dad back. To know, in his mind, that this moment is as much dad’s as it is his.

Jerome crossed the finish line without any doubt. By then, him and the official document agree: No one was close. Turner recapped Jerome’s journey as he circled the course for a victory lap. No one, it seems, including Turner himself, can remember exactly what he said. The only detail Jerome could provide was Turner telling the crowd he might not be able to complete the commentary as emotions overtook him. Inside his helmet and through tears, Jerome yelled, “Dad, this is for you. After all these years.”

The rest of the afternoon unfolded like a religious experience — one the family hopes to encounter once again this year when Jerome, who qualified for the 2019 Briggs race with the second-fastest time, tries to win it for dad again. Plus, this year Karee is bringing mom. “She doesn’t even know what century we’re in,” Karee said, “but when I tell her the race is coming up, she gets so excited, asking, ‘What am I gonna wear? Should I get my nails done?’” The answer to the second question is yes; Karee plans to paint them red, white and blue. Then she’ll help her into the car and make the drive, mom’s wheelchair in tow. And for at least the day, her health concerns can fade.

Racers compete at the 2015 "12 Hour," a British endurance lawn mower race at Five Oaks near Billingshurst, West Sussex, England.
Racers compete at the 2015 "12 Hour," a British endurance lawn mower race at Five Oaks near Billingshurst, West Sussex, England.
British Lawn Mower Racing Association

Beyond this year, the Twelve Mile 500’s future is murky. Mark Lowe, who’s organized the race the ‘80s, said it’s getting harder and harder with fewer people joining the Lions Club and groups like it. “Go to any service organization,” he said, “and you’re gonna see more gray hair than anything else.” He plans to step down after 2020, and his successor is unclear. “It’s easy for us drivers to go up and have fun,” Randy said. “The Lions Club … those guys have the hard job.”

It would be unthinkable, participants say, to see it vanish. Especially Karee and Jerome, who agree that Robert was there last year. Jerome saw him in the Desert Storm hat and bandana that now map him to his spot on pit road. Karee saw him in his influence on Jerome — all those hours spent tinkering and building. They both felt him enjoying, smiling, knowing his greatest lesson — fail, evolve, try again — finally paid off. And yeah, Jerome wished he could’ve seen it. That was his first thought when the tears started. But joy also flowed in those tears. He could finally tell himself, “Dad would be proud.”

So maybe Robert was there, somewhere, watching Jerome, guiding him, a spiritual pit crew for his boy’s first win. And maybe, as Jerome’s always suspected, the absurd, unusual, unknown Twelve Mile 500 can be about more than a good time.