Lawn mower racers Michael Paccione and family

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Initially amused by the sport, Michael Paccione and his family are now among the top lawn mower racers in the nation.

The first time Michael Paccione saw his father-in-law race a lawn mower on a dirt track in Maryland, he reacted the way most people would: with amused astonishment.

“We were teasing him about it,” Paccione recounts, “because it was so hokey.”

Fast-forward 15 years, and Paccione, of Toms River, New Jersey, has become an avid lawn mower racer who all but waxes poetic about this little-known sport, which his wife and three children have also taken up.

“It’s wild,” Paccione says. “You’re taking a lawn mower that you ride on in your backyard that does 3-4 miles an hour … and you’re making them do things they were never designed to do. You’re grinning ear to ear.”

Paccione’s wife, Tina, and their children, Joseph, 18, Nicholas, 16, and Olivia, 14, comprise the Rocket Man Racing team, which has earned a slew of titles in the last dozen or so years. Those titles include Junior Rookie of the Year for the two boys, Driver of the Year for their father, class championships for both parents and more.

Michael, Tina, Joey, Nicholas and Olivia Paccione

The family owns seven lawn mowers, all painted red and gold, except for one in orange, Nicholas’ favorite. They have set off on countless road trips to race in Georgia, South Carolina, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma and other states, making friends with people all across the country who share their love of the sport, Paccione says.

Lawn mower racing attracts people of all backgrounds, from blue-collar workers to those in corporate America, although they are mostly white males, Paccione says. Racers start as young as 10 in the youth division and range from 17-80 and above in the adult division.

The U.S. Lawn Mower Racing Association, established in 1992, has about 25 local chapters with around 600 total members, and there are an estimated 900-1,000 racers across the country, says association president Kerry Evans. The association holds 15-17 national races per year, but if you add local races everywhere, that total reaches about 200.

Last year’s national season was canceled early due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Pacciones are looking forward to their first race this year, which will be held in March in Florida — on the same course as their last race in 2020.

Evans knows the whole family, including Paccione’s father-in-law, Pat Sullivan, who lives in Florida and was Driver of the Year in 2007. The sport was also taken up by Sullivan’s son, Pete, and Pete’s son, Wyatt, who both live in North Carolina.

The Sullivan-Paccione clan was inducted into the USLMRA’s Hall of Fame in 2017. “I watched the kids grow up and start racing,” Evans says. “They are great people.”

So what does it take to win a race? “If your lawn mower doesn’t blow up, that’s a really good sign,” Paccione quips. “Sometimes, especially when I race my son, my lawn mower might be a little bit faster, but there are plenty of times he beats me because my belt broke off, the chain popped off, the tire went flat.”

In the sport, lawn mowers, their blades removed, are divided into classes based on horsepower, engine size and RPMs. The one imperative is that they feature the original body and engine, however otherwise modified.

Mowers can reach speeds of up to 50 miles per hour. Racers are outfitted with helmets, long pants, gloves, and chest and neck protectors, and they must strictly follow safety rules. “I always tell the kids, ‘No bumping. Don’t be overaggressive,’” Paccione says.

The family has had its share of mishaps, including a broken collarbone, cracked ribs and other visits to the hospital. “Everybody’s gotten dinged and nicked,” Paccione says.

At the height of their involvement, the Pacciones traveled to about eight races per year. This year, they are planning two or three trips.

The real beauty of the sport is spending quality time with loved ones, Paccione says.

“What means the most to me in this whole thing is just the family time,” he says. “It’s the blood family, it’s the relatives’ family and it’s the lawn mower racing family.”


The above appears in the April 2021 issue of the print version of Fra Noi. Our gorgeous, monthly magazine contains a veritable feast of news and views, profiles and features, entertainment and culture. To subscribe, click here.

 

About Elena Ferrarin

Elena Ferrarin is a native of Rome who has worked as a journalist in the United States since 2002. She has been a correspondent for Fra Noi for more than a decade. She previously worked as a reporter for The Daily Herald in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, The Regional News in Palos Heights and as a reporter/assistant editor for Reflejos, a Spanish-English newspaper in Arlington Heights. She has a bachelor’s degree from Brown University and a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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