YOU'VE got to hand it to Bruce Kaufman. As president of the U.S. Lawn Mower Racing Association (USLMRA), he has actually managed to turn yard work into a competitive sport.

"It's fun and it's humorous," Kaufman says. "But when that green flag drops, it's just as serious as NASCAR."

Don't laugh. At least not yet, anyway. Lawn mower racing really is a serious sport. Serious enough to warrant a 23-date national circuit and a weekly highlights show onthe Nashville Network. We clip you not. Since its formation on April Fool's Day 1992, the USLMRA has seen its membership ranks swell like a side bag during a late-July mow. According to Kaufman, there are more than 500 dues-paying members.

Some of those sod warriors will be mowing and blowing their way through Churchville, Md., Sunday for the STA-BIL East Coast Regionals, the first points race of the 2000 season. Kaufman prefers to call it "the first race of the new mowlennium."

There is no prize money in lawn mower racing, only trophies. The races work like this: First, all drivers remove the blades from their mowers. Then, they choose a class in which to compete. The classes include stock, IMOW (International Mower of Weeds), Prepared and FX. Stock mowers, which are basically unaltered one-seat riding mowers, top out at speeds of 8 to 10 mph, while the FX mowers, which are juiced up through gearing changes and camshaft alterations, sometimes reach speeds in excess of 60 mph. Just imagine how fast you could cut the back yard with one of those bad boys.

The racetracks are generally one-eighth to one-tenth of a mile in length. The tracks are laid out like road courses, with two straightaways and several twists and turns. The starts are Le Mans style, with racers sprinting to their machines and commencing to rock and mow. For racers who only want to go fast, there are several drag racing divisions.

Believe it or not, people have been racing lawn mowers for years. In fact, the USLMRA was founded only after executives for STA-BIL (a fuel stabilizer) learned of a 12-hour lawn-mower endurance race in England. The STA-BIL people wondered if a stateside racing circuit might prove to be a valuable promotional venture. So, they enlisted the help of Kaufman, who is a public relations executive in Glenview, Ill.

Kaufman attended the British race. He also learned that there were a number of renegade racers in the United States. Soon, he and STA-BIL had laid out the guidelines for their own stateside association. According to Kaufman, there were three mandates: 1) Never race for money; 2) Always stress safety; 3) Maintain a sense of humor.

The drivers don't mind laughing at themselves. Most adorn their machines with names such as Sodzilla, Weedy Gonzales and the Ace of Blades. But don't let the silly names fool you. These people take their racing and engineering seriously. They're all gear heads, through and through. And for many of them, this is a much welcomed and blessedly affordable way to compete in the often cost-prohibitive world of motor sports.

"I call it poor-man's NASCAR," says Mike Boris, a driver from Clarksville, Md. "You can find a junker of a riding mower and turn it into a competitive racing mower for less than $200."

Boris and his wife, Mary Lou, are regulars on the circuit. He's known for his mechanical wizardry. She's the ace driver.

"Believe me," he says. "When her machine isn't running right, I hear about it."

The Boris duo views the sport as a weekend hobby, a chance to earn trophies and bragging rights. Next year, though, national mowing pride will be at stake. That's when British mowers will invade U.S. shores for the "Transatlantic Millennium Mowdown," Kaufman's version of the backyard Olympics.

"I take full responsibility for naming the event," he says.

Not everyone is a fan of mower madness. The Outdoor Power Equipment Institute (OPEI), an Alexandria-based trade association, has denounced lawn mower racing. The OPEI points out that imitators who don't remove mowerblades might suffer injuries. This hasn't deterred one manufacturer from aligning itself with the sport. Snapper mowers signed on with the USLMRA earlier this year to sponsor the Snapper Safety Program. Under the arrangement, each race televised on TNN will now include a Snapper Safety Minute promoting the safe use of lawn equipment.

No sport today can be truly worthy of the public's attention without a titillating scandal of some sort. And rest assured, the USLMRA has done its part on this front. It was recently discovered that Kaufman, the man who purportedly has gasoline and fescue running through his veins, does not even own a lawn mower.

"Well, I did own a goat once," he says. "But now I don't even have the goat, so a neighborhood kid mows the lawn for me."

Does the man know any shame?

"Think of it this way," he says. "All that time I don't spend cutting my grass allows me to concentrate on America's fastest mowing sport."

FIFTH ANNUAL WXCY/STA-BIL EAST COAST REGIONAL -- Sunday at the Harford County Air Park, 3538 Aldino Rd., Churchville, Md. 410/939-3986 or 410/939-1738. Admission is free. Races will be held from noon to 4 p.m. An air show, car show and charity raffle will also be included in the day's activities. U.S. Lawn Mower Racing Association Web site: www.letsmow.com