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Racers spend Sunday trying to "mow" down competition at Riverhead Elks Lodge

Steve DeFriest, front, competes in a lawnmower race

Steve DeFriest, front, competes in a lawnmower race behind the Elks Lodge on East Main Street in Riverhead on Sunday, Oct. 12, 2014. Photo Credit: James Carbone

Dirt flew in chunks as the smell of gasoline and the rev of unusually aggressive lawn mowers filled the air behind the Elks Lodge in Riverhead Sunday afternoon.

These weren't your grandpa's riding lawn mowers: brightly painted and adorned with race numbers, they're bladeless and fast -- Sunday they whipped around the tiny dirt track behind the Elks Lodge doing 20 mph or more, by some estimates.

Organizers at the lodge on East Main Street have held the races since 2002. The tight-knit group of racing mower enthusiasts know the competition is for fun -- there are no prizes, and people help each other out when a mower breaks down or someone takes a spill. Any money made goes to benefit veterans' groups, said organizer Tom Grodski of Riverhead.

With 10 to 25 lawn mowers taking to the track -- split into heats -- safety is the top priority, Grodski said. Racers have to be at least 16 years old and legally able to drive. With tight turns, wipeouts are part of the game, and Grodski said they've had a few rollovers, though no one has ever been badly hurt.

"We've had to make a lot of rules and add a lot of safety features," he said.

"Tommy always makes sure everyone gets home safely," added Greg Dickerson, a racer who spends some weekends as a crew chief for NASCAR events across the country.

It's a male-dominated event, but one woman made her presence known Sunday, racing in three competitive events and churning her way into second place each time.

Lauren Kollen, a mother of two and high school teacher from Southold who started racing lawn mowers last year, is competitive. But she tries not to get too aggressive.

"I do know I need to go to work on Tuesday, and I'm a mom, so I can't put the throttle to the floor," she said. "I've been up on two wheels before and thought to myself, 'Whoa.' "

Leaning into a tight turn in one of the last laps, Kollen pulled into second place, spewing up dirt as her orange mower jerked past a fellow racer.

"Not too many people would think their teacher races lawn mowers," she said after a race. "It's just fun."

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