Sod warriors hauled their precision lawn mowers from as far as Georgia to compete in the first Manassas Mow Down at the Prince William County Fairgrounds yesterday afternoon.

They didn't come to trim the grass. They came to race.

To participate, mowers remove their cutting blades and adhere to strict safety regulations. Like their automotive cousins, mowers compete on an oval track and races, especially in the Stock Class (in which mowers average 5 to 10 miles per hour), often come down to the checkered flag.

Not all the mowers run at the turtle-like speeds of the riding mowers in many sheds. Souped-up tractors in the Factory Experimental Class can reach speeds of more than 50 mph in the straightaways.

While neither lawn mowing nor mower racing experience is necessary to compete, there are veterans and enthusiasts in the sport. Art Elsner, 64, has been mowing down competitors for more than 15 years. Elsner, the retired owner of a lawn mower service shop in Havre de Grace, Md., brought his hand-built, race-car red mower to Manassas.

The event benefits Joe Gibbs's Youth for Tomorrow program in Bristow, and the ties to Gibbs's Interstate Batteries team were evident in the NASCAR racing colors and sponsor stickers sported by many of the mowers.

But unlike Winston Cup racing, no prize money is involved. Instead, the top three finishers in each of the five races get trophies and bragging rights for the fastest grass grazers.

Started as a joke in 1992, lawn mower racing has become one of the country's fastest growing motor sports, at least according to Bruce Kaufman, president of the U.S. Lawn Mower Racing Association. Kaufman said the relatively low cost of competing draws legions of garage tinkerers from across the country.

The association claims more than 500 members and coordinates races in 12 states between May and October -- prime lawn mowing season -- culminating in the nationals Sept. 4. Six of the races will be televised next fall on the Nashville Network.

"We take lawn mower racing seriously. Very seriously," Elsner said. "We like to say it's the NASCAR of lawn mower racing."

While participants such as Elsner are serious, organizers say the emphasis on lawn mower racing remains safety and family entertainment.

"We were thinking of mandating a sense of humor," joked association President Bruce Kaufman, "but we decided that would be too controlling."

CAPTION: Charles Streett, left, leads the field going into a tight turn, followed by Art Elsner, Mike Boris and Ray Brittain during the Manassas Mow Down at the Prince William County Fairgrounds.

CAPTION: Racer Wally Morrison, above, exults in his second-place finish as he passes the checkered flag. Art Elsner, 64, dons his racing helmet at left. He has been mowing down competitors for more than 15 years. Elsner, a retired owner of a lawn mower service shop, brought his hand-built, race-car red mower to Manassas.