Joe Phillips adjusts his helmet, grips the steering wheel of his John Deere riding lawn mower dubbed “Why Not,” revs its 50-horsepower engine, and leans forward in anticipation of the Christmas tree starting light’s signal. Seeing green, he roars down the track in the outlaw drag class at the Fourth of July Firecracker 500 Lawnmower Races, leaving competitors encrusted in his dust on the 200-foot course at the Minidoka County Fairgrounds.
Every summer, the 62-year-old Rupert champion, who won five first-place trophies last year, reminds his fellow lawn mower racers, “My old age and treachery will always overcome your youth and enthusiasm.” The proof is back at his small engine repair shop in Rupert, Why Not Repair, where he stashes his 40-plus trophies from a decade of racing and stores his 10 racing mowers. “I race four and loan the others to friends. You have to make sure they have good names, like the Turfinator, Quasimoto, the Lawn Ranger or Mater.”
“Why Not” was easy to name, a reminder of the philosophy Joe has relied on to guide his major life decisions. When someone asked him why he would open a small engine repair shop decades ago, he answered, “Why Not?” When friends talked him into racing lawn mowers he gave his usual answer.
“The first time I raced 11 years ago, I threw an engine together in three days and won. I had been racing dirt bikes, and friends told me I had to give this a try. It was a hoot, and I gave up bikes and have been racing mowers ever since.”
Joe and two dozen other local racers compete for thrills, bragging rights, trophies and most importantly local charities, including a senior center, Meals on Wheels, a domestic violence shelter and fire departments. No cash prizes are awarded. “We raise about $2,000 to $4,000 per event,” Joe estimates. “The Rupert East End and West End fire departments started the races 12 years ago to raise money for families whose homes had burned.”
This summer, the three-hour races begin at 6 p.m. on June 4, July 1 and August 1 at the fairgrounds. Racers enter different classes based on engine size and must use a lawn mower engine but can change the gearing.
“In the 8-horsepower class, you go about 25 miles an hour,” Joe says. “In the 12-horse class, you hit up to 33 miles an hour, and in the14-horse and up, you go 40 to 45. It may not sound that fast, but when you’re out there, it feels fast. It’s trickier than you think to steer a riding lawn mower at 30 miles an hour, considering it was built to go about 7. It can get twitchy, and you can skid three feet when you least expect it. They can be a handful.”
One of his favorite classes is the outlaw drag class, where he rips along at 45 to 48 miles per hour. Racers cobble together a lawn mower frame, a seat and fender, and either a snowmobile, dirt bike or street bike engine. “I have a small 250-cc Kawasaki dirt-bike engine, but I beat the guys with bigger 750-cc engines. Mine is lighter, about 59 pounds, compared to those more powerful engines that might weigh 300 pounds. My whole machine weighs less than their motor, so I win.”
Joe says it’s unlikely he will bring another trophy to his shop this year, but he doesn’t mind. “I want to take some videos with a camera mounted to my helmet, so people know what it’s like from a racer’s point of view. I’ll be starting out at the back of the pack.”
It’s hard to say whether his competitiveness will compel him to come from behind to cross the finish line first, but he invites people to come watch him defend his five titles from last year. “We make the races affordable, so we charge $5 a person or $15 for a family. If a single parent can’t pay that, we’ll let them go in anyway. We want as many people as possible to enjoy the show. The little guys are our biggest fans.”