Suburban myths were torn asunder and new ones created last Sunday, amid the mighty rush of lawn mower engines in a Montgomery County subdivision.
Peaceful neighbors locked in combat. Tidy lawns became battlegrounds and ride-on mowers became symbols of speed and prowess. Suburban culture, in short, ran amok.
Seven neighbors riding seven lawn tractors took off from a starting line just next to George Carman's mailbox, for the 5th Annual Moyer Road Lawn-Mower Race. It has become a traditional Easter celebration for the neighborhood, which is south of Damascus.
It is an event that ruptures suburban calm, sparks accusations of cheating and sabotage and, participants say, helps make Moyer Road a great place to live and cut grass.
Carman, sales agent for Gallo Wines in Montgomery County, drives a 5-horsepower International Harvester Cadet 5. He predicted victory for himself before the race, yet seemed worried about Ron Gilbert, who had gone all the way up to Frederick County to buy 92 octane gasoline for extra firepower.
But it was Bill Van Stry, wearing a deflated basketball for a helmet and a Halloween mask for goggles, who held the lead for halfway round the mile course. His Sears Craftsman LTV 11 Varidrive lawn tractor started slipping behind as he headed down Art Englert's front lawn and took the corner by the willow tree.
For a brief time, Gilbert, sporting a black top hat and bright red sweater, took the lead, to the cheers of the 20 or so spectators. But in the end Bob Evans, a science teacher at Thomas S. Wootton Senior High in Rockville -- and no relation to the sausage manufacturer -- pulled ahead with his mighty 12-horsepower International Harvester Cub Cadet and crossed the finish line, hands raised in exhaltation.
Van Stry, who wound up finishing last, said he was felled by the beer at the compulsory pit stop under the basketball hoop next to Englert's two-car garage. He suffered a debilitating headache the second half of the course, he said, because the beer was too cold. "I think it was sabotage," he said.
"I normally mow by hand," added Van Stry, an insurance worker from Frewsburg, N.Y., who was visiting his brother for Easter. "That's another handicap I had."
The "powder-puff" race that followed attracted just three females; Van Stry's 16-year-old daughter Sharon took the honors.
"I'm a great driver, so I won," she summed up. "I have a lot of skill in lawn-mower driving."
Mary Van Stry, who lives on Moyer Road and is Sharon's aunt, came in second, despite an alarming detour across a small drainage ditch and onto the street, causing the evacuation of several young children.
Nancy Englert came in last and, in a good-natured way, accused her neighbor Bob Van Stry of latching her mower in third gear to give his wife an edge.
Lawn tractors aren't used just to cut grass out on Moyer Road, where the plots of land sometimes spread across an acre, and the distance between houses is often too short to drive by car but too long to go by foot.
The racing began, history tell us, back in 1981 when a group of neighbors fell into friendly dispute over who owned the fastest lawn tractor.
Now lawn mower racing is a proud neighborhood distinction, with its own memories and rituals. There is now an Easter egg hunt for the children -- and Bloody Marys for the adults -- before the race. A handicapping system developed, complete with time trials.
One year the children made miniature floats to tow behind the lawn mowers in a small, pre-race parade. Two years ago, a neighborhood police officer came out with a radar gun and clocked the fastest lawn tractor at 7.3 mph. Last year they made a videotape of the race, complete with dramatic theme music and freeze-frame shots at the end. It is shown frequently around the neighborhood.
"It's a real close-knit neighborhood," said Carman, who said events like the lawn-mower races help keep it that way. "You don't see this too much anywhere else."
"It's not suburban living," Mary Van Stry concluded. "It's just weird."