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Lawn mowers race for cancer cure

Guys have long been able to count on Father’s Day weekend for some great sporting events, and this year was no exception. The Stanley Cup Finals went to yet another overtime on Saturday, Game Five of the NBA Finals was held Sunday night and the U.S. Open golf tournament entertained viewers all weekend.

But none of those events were as unique as the annual Father’s Day lawn mower races on Grand Island.

Lawn mowers, some of them equipped with snowmobile engines, traveled at over 60 mph down West River Parkway along the Niagara River on Sunday afternoon. If there were any people on Canada’s Navy Island, they likely heard the motors roar. And it was all for a good cause: Organizers said they expected to raise $6,000 for the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life, bringing the lawn mower race’s four-year total to near $20,000.

The drag races followed a car show and 5K walk dedicated to Kevin Doring, who died of cancer in March. In the late 1960s, Doring’s father, Floyd, got into an argument with his Grand Island neighbors about whose lawn mower was faster. They had a race, and it turned into an annual event.

Grand Island Town Councilman Gary Roesch, whose father, Gene, was one of the neighbors who raced Floyd Doring, said the race is the only lawn mower drag race in the nation. Lawn mower races are held across the country on dirt tracks, with many drivers competing at once, but Grand Island’s event is a tournament, with two drivers racing at a time on a 300-foot section of roadway.

“It’s not only a community event for Grand Island, but it’s a region event,” Roesch said. “We’re bringing in lawn mowers and people from Clarence, from Sanborn, from Newstead, from Newfane, Niagara Falls.”

About 40 drivers paid the $10 entry fee to compete in the race. They competed across seven classes, organized by the horsepower of the lawn mower and the amount of modifications allowed. There was a kids class for children ages 8 to 12, a “vintage” class for mowers from 1980 and before, and even a “walk-behind” class for traditional push mowers.

Contestants had to be able to cut the grass with their mowers, but the actual lawn-mowing attachments were removed for the race. Some built their mowers from scratch.

“They’re getting bigger by the year,” said Mike Geblein, of Grand Island, about the mowers. Wearing a “Pit Crew” shirt, Geblein organized racers at the starting line.

Grand Island resident Tom Long, who said he’s won the “supermodified” class “quite a few” times, spent five months building his rig, a long, sleek structure that sits low to the ground and looks more like something from the Soap Box Derby than a lawn mower. He said it can reach 65 mph.

Jim Mazza adorned his riding lawn mower with American and Italian flags, Buffalo Bills gear, rainbow pinwheels and an umbrella to combat light rain. But most important was the Viking helmet to honor the mascot at Grand Island High School, where he taught biology for 37 years.

Mazza wasn’t looking to win – he was in the “stock” category for mowers that weren’t souped up and said he was there more for the “spirit of the day.” He attended the race with his sons-in-law.

“On a good day, with the wind, and the umbrella down, I can do about 3 miles an hour,” he said.